The 24-Hour News Cycle: In My Opinion, This Sucks
**Disclaimers** For fans of my series on aging (both of you), I’ll be getting back to it as soon as other things stop pissing me off. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy what I’m doing. I’d also like to say that I’m aware that “media” is a plural noun. In the essay below, though, I refer to it as a singular, monolithic entity—not because I believe that’s an accurate description, but because the people I’m writing about seem to—and thus use singular verbs and pronouns in conjunction with the noun itself.
Today while channel-surfing, my wife Kalene flipped past one of the 24-hour news network—Headline News, I think. And not two seconds passed before we heard the first mention of Warren Jeffs, the polygamist leader whose trial starts soon. As the anchor of the moment promised more on the story after the break, I could hear, somewhere in America, Casey Anthony breathing a sigh of relief. As Jon Stewart once said, all the networks need to change their focus is to stumble across something shiny. Get past the exhaustive coverage of one major scandal and you’ll probably find the next one lined up, ready to worm its way into the national consciousness with the help, even the prodding, of the “news” channels.
Normally, when anyone from the average lay person to the richest celebrity wants to complain about the problems in their lives, the media becomes their go-to scapegoat. I have little patience for that kind of oversimplification. Hey, famous douchebag who cheated on your spouse in public, the people reporting what you did aren’t “haters” or cogs in a media conspiracy to ruin your life. If you don’t want to see your picture on all the news channels and every tabloid from here to Mars, don’t cheat on your spouse, or at least have the good sense to be discreet.
During the George W. Bush administration, the President and pretty much every Republican on Earth complained about the so-called “liberal media” every time someone reported that anything might be wrong with the country or its methods. As a liberal, I’m still waiting to discover this mainstream “liberal media.” The Nation is liberal. Mother Jones is liberal. CNN? No. Their neglecting to proselytize from a far-right stance does not make them liberal by default; it just makes them not Fox News. I always wondered how the right could complain, considering the media utterly failed for at least six years to do any investigative reporting on pretty much every questionable, unconstitutional move the administration made. Back to Jon Stewart, he and his staff once said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “How can the news channels ask whether the President did a good job making his case?” when they should have been asking, “Was he ever telling the truth?” Mainstream outlets almost never called the administration on their excesses until Bush was headed for lame duck status and even Republican politicians started abandoning his ship, even as they kept pushing (as they push today) for the perpetuation of his policies.
Back during the presidential election of 2008, Sarah Palin’s infamous interviews with Katie Couric should have proven to the world, even to John McCain, that Palin was dumb as a stump and willfully ignorant. Instead, McCain helped her blame the media for her inability to answer a basic question like “Which of your running mate’s policies do you agree with?” Mr. Senator and Ms. Ex-Governor, that isn’t “Gotcha Journalism,” whatever that means. It’s an elementary policy question. How can you trust a person with the second-highest office in the land if she doesn’t even know what she claims to represent? The dumbassery was Palin’s fault, not Couric’s or the media’s.
More recently, when Rachel Maddow delivered an editorial arguing that Fox News could no longer legitimately claim to be a news channel, I had friends who dismissed the argument out of hand before they even heard what she had to say. “It’s just another case of the media’s being out of control,” some of them said, failing to explain how the media could be in a conspiracy against itself. Maddow’s reasoning was that Fox News’ on-air offers to sponsor Tea Party rallies put it in the position of news maker, not news reporter, and that it had abandoned any pretense of its own “fair and balanced” tagline. She had a point. You can bet that if CNN tried to sponsor far-left rallies and report on them in prime time, the right would have a fit. And they’d be, well, right to do so. The news should report, not editorialize or opine or pontificate.
Leaving the realm of politics, you can’t go ten minutes without hearing some actor or sports star accuse the media of trying to ruin their careers. Does the media too often focus on the sensational, the sordid, and the bloody? Sure it does, and for that we should call it out. But we’ve also got to reserve some of that blame for ourselves. When our comments and our Internet traffic and our TV ratings prove that we’d rather hear about, say, Ben Rothlisberger’s sexual assault cases than Warrick Dunn’s humanitarian work in his hometown, we can’t just blame the media as if it is somehow disconnected from us.
Some of us even blame the media for things like eating disorders in young women and our youth’s tendency to shoot their classmates when things go badly in their lives. The media may well be part of those problems, but we can’t oversimplify the situation—ignoring issues such as personal responsibility, parental intervention or lack thereof, genetic predisposition, mental and emotional issues, the ridiculous ubiquity of guns—or we’re basically putting a Band-Aid on a car crash victim.
This complicated relationship between us and the news media often results in our frustration, our anger, our tendency toward violence. Judging from the comments I’ve seen on Facebook and Twitter in the wake of the Anthony trial, I know a lot of people who would happily string up the accused, with or without hard evidence. That bothers me. And in cases like this, I think that the news media is not completely responsible but more culpable than usual. If the so-called “liberal media” had actually been liberal from 2000-2006, we might have avoided morally-murky issues like torture, warrantless wire-tapping, the invasion of Iraq, the dismissal of climate change, the mortgage crisis, No Child Left Behind, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. How different might history have been if the media had been afraid to go after a sitting president when Watergate happened?
And if the media had not crucified O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony before their trials even started, forgetting about the whole inconvenient-to-their-narrative “innocent until proven guilty” thing, people might not have been so shocked at the acquittals. Once the media narrative reached its tipping point, the national attitude changed from “Did this person commit this crime?” to “This person committed this crime, so how far should his/her punishment go?”
If you asked me off the record, I’d admit that I, too, believe that Simpson and Anthony were guilty. But believing something and knowing it are two very different things. In the case of the Anthony trial, I think the prosecution’s major mistake was in pushing for the capital charges instead of the lesser ones in the absence of the so-called “smoking gun.” I’d be willing to bet that most of those jurors believed that Casey Anthony killed her daughter. But when a human being’s life is on the line, belief isn’t enough. You have to know; you have to be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. As Tim O’Brien says, once a person’s dead, you can’t make them un-dead.
Of course, no one seemed more shocked and outraged at the verdict than the very talking heads who had long since bypassed due process and had convinced so many of us that Anthony was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps the loudest voice belonged to Nancy Grace, the Yosemite Sam of 24-hour news. She seemed, and remains, apoplectic that the rassen-frassen Tot-mom is walking free. (Incidentally, whenever she repeats that silly name, I want to paraphrase the Rachel McAdams character in Mean Girls. “Nancy, stop trying to make ‘Tot-mom’ happen! It’s not going to happen!”) I also remember flipping channels one day and hearing Jane Valez Mitchell saying, “Right now we’re just speculating, because that’s all we can do.”
“No,” I shouted, “you could just shut up until you actually have something to report!”
And therein lies the major problem with the 24-hour networks. In their zeal to cover every tiny facet of the latest sensational trial, they seem to believe that this wide world lacks enough actual news to fill 24 hours of coverage. American secondary education is utterly failing our children. American higher education drifts further and further toward the corporate model, handcuffing teachers and chaining them to the desires, not the needs, of the students; retention becomes the goal, not a pleasant side-effect of a strong university. The food industry keeps trying to poison us while making as much money as possible. Corporate executives keep stuffing their own coffers while screwing over their workers and the American public. Our penal and justice systems continue to demonstrate our nation’s class and racial inequalities. Poor kids of color go missing or get butchered every day, or they just starve to death or overdose because our society glosses over their problems and supports the system we’ve built that perpetuates those problems. And all over the world, people are killing each other, stealing from each other, invading each other’s countries, dying of horrible diseases and fighting those illnesses without funding or help, struggling to survive third-world conditions and natural disasters while we bitch about slow Internet access, and traffic in each other’s bodies and minds.
Moreover, people everywhere also do great things. Many of us get out and work in underprivileged areas, give to charities, overcome great obstacles, fight racism and classism and sexism and homophobia, research ways to beat disease and famine and inhumanity. Every single day brings an almost limitless array of stories just waiting to be told. You can never convince me that the networks couldn’t fill up 24 hours with material outside the Scandal of the Month.
So one major problem is that the networks focus on the wrong things. A second one is that most of the airtime is taken up with talking heads who offer not news but opinions and speculations. I have no problem with shows featuring people like Anderson Cooper and Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, though I find that the latter two are cartoon characters who shouldn’t be taken seriously as thinkers. Those people deliver editorials and speculations and opinions, and they make no bones about doing so. But that’s what they’re supposed to do. On the other hand, when I watch network nightly news or an allegedly news-based show on CNN, I don’t want to hear a panel of experts opining about every little nuance of a scandal. I want facts and pictures and statistics. Great TV journalists like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite editorialized, but they saved their editorials for segments dedicated to those kinds of ideas. They didn’t tuck in their chins and puff out their cheeks like bullfrogs and deliver an emotionally-charged frame to every story on the air (I’m looking at you, Mike Galanos).
When we ignore facts and journalistic objectivity in favor of inflammatory opinion, basic human rights like “innocent until proven guilty” get lost. And when that happens, when we allow a situation where it can happen, we’re all in trouble.
24-hour news networks need to block out their timeslots, devoting an hour or two to some major news category—American Politics, American Top Stories, International, Finance, Sports, Multicultural Issues, Human Rights at Home and Abroad, and so forth. They need to commit to those blocks, refusing to cut into the scheduled programming unless some major event occurs. And they need a strict definition of “major event,” the kind of thing that once stopped presses and called for extra editions of print newspapers when diverging from the printing schedule cost time and money. Casey Anthony’s lawyer’s leaving the courthouse for lunch or some psychologist’s long-distance speculation about Warren Jeffs doesn’t count.
In these time blocks, networks need to commit to showing us the full range of news in the world—not just the sensational or the repugnant, but the uplifting and the noble. Not just the upper-class white victims of crime and tragedy but the persons of color, the poor, the LGBT, the non-Christian. Not just the shouted opinions of personalities, but the objective reportings of journalists.
When I see a documentary like Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman,” or Robert Kenner’s Food Inc., or Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight or Inside Job, or Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side or Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room or Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo, I know that investigative journalism is still possible. When I watch the nightly news on ABC or CBS or NBC, I sometimes find that glimmer of hope that news anchors can still present the story without comment.
But the 24-hour networks are failing both us and themselves. Just as bad, they are failing their own mandate, which should be a sacred part of the American experience. And when the fourth estate becomes a parody of itself, when Stewart and Colbert become redundant as we point and laugh at the networks, who will remain to deliver the news of journalism’s demise?
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