Monday, March 15, 2010

Does the news tell us what's important or do we tell the news what we want to hear?


I had occasion today to watch about a half hour of CNN. I very rarely watch television and almost never see the cable news networks (except for the clips on The Daily Show, which I watch online). So, frankly, I found it shocking. Not because of bias or hostility -- this was the headline news stuff -- but because of the utter lack of news in the programming of the supposed news channel. There was talk about Tiger Woods and his (ex?) wife, there were discussions of the mother of John Edwards's out-of-wedlock child (and feigned shock at some photos she posed for in GQ magazine), there was a mention of Corey Haim's death, and a lot of stuff about the weather. There was a several-minute story about ecnomic recovery in Alabama that said absolutely nothing and a brief mention in passing of Obama's desire to rethink No Child Left Behind, but there was no mention of the two wars we are in, no mention of the battle for health care reform, and no detailed focus on anything remotely important or meaningful at all.

Now, the folks at CNN who are all driven by advertising dollars would likely say that they show what people want to see, but I find this hard to believe. If this morass of titillating hearsay is what people do claim they want to see, is this because we actually desire to see it or because we don't know the alternative? I know it sounds like I'm condemning the whole American public (I don't mean to), but if this is what America chooses to know about then we have given up all pretense of being a democracy. We cannot self govern if we are ignorant of the world. We cannot make choices if we don't know our options. But frankly, I don't think that this is what the American people want; I think we are smarter and more sophisticated than that. I think, instead, that the American viewer watches the best among lousy options and they are not given the choice to observe quality news programming at all. (Except on PBS -- sometimes -- but that brings up class issues that I will put aside for the moment.) Given the choice, would Americans watch (or maybe even read) real news? I don't know.

I suspect that part of the lousy programming comes from the lack of money spent on investigating the news. Most of the reports were taken straight off of websites; interns find that stuff for free. But if the websites are the source of news and the news just reports what the websites say, then the websites are going to continue to report just this stuff this because it is what the news corporations identify as important. I think we might be trapped?

So, the question I pose to you today is simple: are the news networks really responding to what American viewers want, or is the deck stacked against us and are our real feelings are hidden under the morass of low-quality options that get labeled choice? As for me, I really have no idea.

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