It was recently reported that a Canadian news program has been exported to the United States for cable television. There is nothing particularly notable about this event except for the fact that the female anchors are naked.
While this is absurd, and yet another in a long line of degrading television programs, it is perfectly consistent with what television news has become.
Television news is to news what military music is to music. It has almost nothing to do with news and a lot to do with entertainment. A news segment on TV draws the viewer in with images that are captivating, titillating, or grotesque. Whether or not there is any real news to report is secondary: the program is scheduled and news will be found.
It is interesting that on many nights a story is reported in large part because it has visual images that might appeal to an audience. Rumors about Hollywood stars get coverage in order that their well-known visage may appear on screen. Potential baseball trades are covered because they offer a chance to see replays of stars at bat. The news director’s calculation is that impressions trump substance.
A news program moves seamlessly from the war in Afghanistan to the divorce settlement between Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. Anything for the delectation of the viewer.
The problem, of course, is distinguishing between the very serious and the not-so-serious. Moreover, because news is compressed into a half-hour with slots for weather, sports, and cultural affairs, only headlines are offered. There isn’t time for variegated formulations. You can’t say this is merely superficial news; television news by its very nature is superficial.
But it is not only superficial. If that were the case, news might be mindless but relatively harmless. However, television news also misleads. It creates half truths and, in some instances, lies. Because the Palestine authorities, for example, led by Yasser Arafat, determine when and where news will be covered, whereas Israel has open press coverage, what one inevitably sees are conceptions of events shaped by access. Those events that cannot be seen never enter the realm of “newsworthy.”
It is also instructive that the “expert” given thirty seconds to pontificate on a subject is selected because he speaks in quick and clever sound bites. In addition, rarely are these experts identified accurately. Edward Said—to cite one case—is introduced as a Columbia professor of literature. News anchors usually don’t know that he is an activist working feverishly for the Palestinian position in the Middle East. Truth in advertising is a motto for commercials, but has little application to the introduction of expert opinion.
Several years ago, Neil Postman wrote a book with the provocative title of Amusing Ourselves to Death. It is a book about television programming that makes, in my judgment, profound points. But even Professor Postman does not fully appreciate what the news has become.
One might assume, for example, that there would be a national outcry over news presented by naked women. Clearly this is a gimmick designed to attract an audience and, as clearly, it diminishes an already diminished view of news programs.
Yet there is scarcely a whimper from the public. In my opinion that is because the average news viewer is inured to the entertainment dimensions of the news. He watches so-called actual events and fictional events with the same level of interest. Real and unreal unfolding one after another until the distinguishing characteristics are confused.
Soap opera actors are invariably stopped on the street by viewers who say, “Why are you treating your wife so badly?” Conversely, Rosie O’Donnell had Alec Baldwin on her talk show and proceeded to ask him about the Jimmy Doolittle character he plays in the film Pearl Harbor. “Was this guy Jimmy Dolittle,” she inquires, “a real person?” For Ms. O’Donnell, any answer would do. Unfortunately, for many Americans, any answer would do as well.
So now we have naked news. Surely those who watch this program will not be listeners. Maybe it is not such a bad thing. With the pretense of seriousness removed, we will all know what I suspect: television news is a joke without a punch line.