News as Profit Center; News as Amusement – Not Good News for an Informed Citizenry (insight from Ted Koppel and Neil Postman)
…we will become a trivial people, incapable of coping with complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty, perhaps even reality. We will become, in a phrase, a people amused into stupidity.
Television has become the command center of our culture. The light entertainment is not the problem. The least dangerous things on television are its junk.
On television all subject matter is presented as entertaining. And that is how television brings ruin to any intelligent understanding of public affairs.
How serious can a bombing in Lebanon be if it is shown to us prefaced by a happy United Airlines commercial and summarized by a Calvin Klein jeans commercial? When newscasters say, “Now…this,” they mean to indicate that what you have just heard or seen has no relevance to what you are about to hear.
When a people become, in short, an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then…a nation finds itself at risk and culture-death is a clear possibility…
Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.
Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves To Death (I posted about this earlier here).
Where will people get their information? What is the quality of that information? Is it trustworthy? Is it honestly edited, delivered, “packaged?”
If the news can be driven by a well-known figure writing on her own Facebook page, and that sets the agenda for the news programming, are we getting what we need? (This is what is sometimes happening!)
If a candidate for major office skips traditional interviews with editorial boards, and basically decides not to answer questions, or even debate with an opponent, are we getting what we need to make informed decisions?
I am worried about the decline in the quality/credibility/trustworthiness of our information. And the voices for such worry are increasing.
I don’t often make this kind of blanket pronouncement: we are all busy, and there are so many good books to read. But I would strongly recommend that everyone read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. (You can buy a used copy through Amazon, currently for less than $4.00, including shipping). This 1985 book seems ever more true as time goes by.
And now, Ted Koppel has weighed in. I realize that many current readers do not know just who Ted Koppel “was.” During the Iranian hostage crisis, 1979, he began a late-night wrap-up of the day’s events in that crisis on ABC. The program was called “The Iran Crisis—America Held Hostage: Day xxx”. After the 444 days of the crisis, the program remained on the schedule, re-named Nightline. It always presented just one story (the current Nightline presents three stories).
Though he was not a perfect journalist (the program was accused of bias toward the U. S. Government view – see the paragraph in this Wikipedia article), there was still something a little more pure about his program than we might find in today’s programming. It was an intelligent, non-shouting presentation of one important issue of the day. There really is nothing quite like it on the air any longer.
Well, Mr. Koppel has now weighed in on the modern news scene. It is not a flattering assessment. The article, Ted Koppel: Olbermann, O’Reilly and the death of real news, is in the Washington Post. Here are some key excerpts:
To witness Keith Olbermann – the most opinionated among MSNBC’s left-leaning, Fox-baiting, money-generating hosts – suspended even briefly last week for making financial contributions to Democratic political candidates seemed like a whimsical, arcane holdover from a long-gone era of television journalism, when the networks considered the collection and dissemination of substantive and unbiased news to be a public trust.
Back then, a policy against political contributions would have aimed to avoid even the appearance of partisanship. But today, when Olbermann draws more than 1 million like-minded viewers to his program every night precisely because he is avowedly, unabashedly and monotonously partisan, it is not clear what misdemeanor his donations constituted. Consistency?
We live now in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly – individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable.
The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. It is, though, the natural outcome of a growing sense of national entitlement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-quoted observation that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts.
Why the loss of a more honest journalism?
To Postman, it was news as entertainment. It was inevitable with the arrival of the technology. Television would, ultimately give preference to the most “amusing” (“entertaining”) presentation. (Think new theme songs written to introduce the current crisis/war. Why does a war need its own theme song? For entertainment value).
To Koppel, it is news as profit maker. It is the inevitable consequence of news as “profit center.” Here is more from the Koppel article:
To the degree that broadcast news was a more virtuous operation 40 years ago, it was a function of both fear and innocence. Network executives were afraid that a failure to work in the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” as set forth in the Radio Act of 1927, might cause the Federal Communications Commission to suspend or even revoke their licenses. The three major broadcast networks pointed to their news divisions (which operated at a loss or barely broke even) as evidence that they were fulfilling the FCC’s mandate. News was, in a manner of speaking, the loss leader that permitted NBC, CBS and ABC to justify the enormous profits made by their entertainment divisions.
On the innocence side of the ledger, meanwhile, it never occurred to the network brass that news programming could be profitable.
Until, that is, CBS News unveiled its “60 Minutes” news magazine in 1968. When, after three years or so, “60 Minutes” turned a profit (something no television news program had previously achieved), a light went on, and the news divisions of all three networks came to be seen as profit centers, with all the expectations that entailed.
I am not optimistic that this will be reversed. (Postman said that it would never be). But it is sad… And I think it hurts us all.