Saturday, May 28, 2005

The News IS All Bad

Sorry I’ve gone missing again… Been having some upheavals in my personal life. Readers of my private journal have been gagging on THAT hairball for the past few days…

But even a small nervous breakdown can’t keep me totally away from the news, or what passes for news in 21st century America. I’ve come to suspect that this is a huge part of our problems as a nation: what passes for news. I recently finished reading Bad News, a book written by Tom Fenton, a CBS news foreign correspondent whose career spanned five decades—from the sixties through to the first years of the new millennium. He broke into the news business during what future generations might call the "Golden Age of Television News." Those days when serious, fatherly figures like Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley sat behind the news desks, looked into the cameras and deadpanned the "who, what, when, where and how" of the world into our homes, where we were most likely to be found before, during or after our evening meal. In those days, television news was a public service required of every network, with the enlightened hope that this awesome new medium could be used as a tool to educate the American people about the increasing complexities of the world in which they lived.

Fenton’s book was mostly a whiney diatribe, proclaiming that the demise of his particular specialty—foreign news—has led to all things evil in this country, including 9/11. He insists that if foreign news bureaus hadn’t been depleted or closed down as cost-cutting measures after the end of the Cold War, and if editors back home had not developed the practice of purposely omitting unpleasant or upsetting foreign stories from the broadcast line-up in order to boost or maintain ratings, the American people would not have been so blind-sided by the events of September 11, 2001. At least, we would not have been shaking our heads and crying, "Why do they hate us so much?" We probably would have had at least some inkling about the smoldering anti-American sentiment abroad.

He does have a point. With the advent of cable television, with its all-news formats creating the 24-hour news cycle, the Big Three networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—suddenly found themselves competing for viewers in an arena where, obviously, there were big bucks to be made (after all, CNN seemed to be rolling in dough…) The news departments were designated "profit centers," where they had once been public service. Their mission changed from serving the public to entertaining it; and that, in one fell swoop, spelled the end of any meaningful news reaching the eyes of the American people.

During the nineties, we tuned in, rapt, to day after mind-numbing day of the O.J. Simpson trial, wailed for months over Princess Diana’s fatal car accident, allowed the dissection and ultimate impeachment of President Clinton to dominate our media for six years…. While the Balkans were exploding, Africa was eating itself alive, Osama Bin Laden was cultivating Al Qaeda cells all over the world (and our own nation), North Korea was slithering up the nuclear ladder. While the world around us writhed in the throes of changes that would affect each and every one of us on a daily basis, we created and glued ourselves to soap opera after national soap opera. Real news can be ugly, it can be unpleasant, it can be challenging, it may make you think.

With a whole new field of players to chose from, Americans were increasingly choosing that which did not depress, outrage or challenge them. We chose entertainment over news. And now, that is what "news" is all about. To our huge detriment as a people who, arguably, possess the power to choose those who lead us into this shrinking, volatile, delicate world.

Call this installment number one of a short series on "Bad News" (with a nod to Tom Fenton for borrowing the title of his book…)


  1. "Real news can be ugly, it can be unpleasant, it can be challenging, it may make you think. With a whole new field of players to chose from, Americans were increasingly choosing that which did not depress, outrage or challenge them. We chose entertainment over news."

    Tell me about it, the same applies for honest people.  The normal person cannot stand him or her.

  2. You've hit upon one of my biggest pet peeves: the infotainment that passes for news in our culture.  I just posted an entry yesterday about four Tn. state legislators being indicted for conspiracy, extortion and bribery and wondered why the guy on the crane and the runaway bride indictments were more newsworthy...
    Alas, all of the mainstream news comes from major corporations who are only concerned with the bottom line, and sex and sizzle sells.  Fenton makes an excellent point that the dearth of foreign news did cause us to be blindsided by 9/11.  The situation has not improved any.

  3. Do you think this is real news:

  4.     I'm older than you.  I lived happily through those "That's-the-way-it-was-good-night-David-good-night-Chet" years on CBS and NBC.  ABC was still "that other network" way back then.  I never realized how far we've come from the GOOD "hard" news of yesteryear.  Until I read you.
        It IS entertainment.  News anchors remind us to watch "'Survivor' tonight at nine."  Millions get something approaching news on FOX TV.  Almost all the radio stations are O&O's by right wing groups.    
        There is a ray of hope.  PBS.    An hour-long, in-depth news report anchored by Jim Lehrer at 7 pm PDT  Tuesday evenings' FRONTLINE and NOVA.  A bare-fisted liberal half-hour on Fridays at 8 PDT called NOW (Bill Moyer just does specials now).  The GOP has cut PBS funding.  So PBS is taking money from big business and running 30-second spots,  PBS' dependence on big money money hasn't dulled their razor sharp look at corporate sins.  YET.    
        The Murdock's of the world want  to end PBS's independence   They want broadcasting and cablecasting to be mouthpieces for right-wing spins on the news and Bush 's dream of a U.S. Theocracy.  Stay tuned.  And don't forget to mail in your check to your local PBS station!  Before it's too late!
        Rob.  AKA  An animal who can type

  5. I cannot assess your private journal. ( unless you want to invite me).
    Bad news is one reason I tend to not watch the news anymore. I feel that there has to be good news out there too. Why can't they look for it? People say that the world is this way, bad. I disagree with tha. People see the bad more because that is what they are shown more of.

  6. This is SO good, Lisa.  How many people are aware of any of this?  Very few, I'm sure.  As far as the local "news" is concerned, there IS no world beyond about a one hundred mile radius - as far as the national "news" is concerned, there might as well be no world outside the USA.  And then, yep - it's the guy on the crane, the runaway bride and Michael Jackson.  If you don't watch PBS  (and how much longer will we have that option, in any honest way?), including their broadcasts of BBC News, and read foreign news online,  you're trapped in the DisneyWorld of non-news.  You know nothing about what is happening, or why.  
    I wish there were a way to put a link to this article, or series, on the Welcome page of AOL.  and they are as guilty as everyone else, with the nonnews headlines.
    Would you mind if I link to this on my own journal?

  7. I would love to read your private journal....(hint hint)