Why TV News Sucks

Paddy Chayefsky was a prophet.  When he wrote the oscar-winning screenplay for the 1976 film Network, he predicted that the news divisions would become subservient to the entertainment divisions of TV networks, because the profit motive is more powerful than the intent to provide a public service free from the need to be selling something to the audience besides the facts. It happened as he predicted it would, within a few years of the film’s release.  At one point in the film, the anchorman-lunatic-prophet character Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) is given a reality check by the corporate bigwig, a Ted Turner type named Arthur Jensen ( Ned Beatty).  Here are parts of his speech:

You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, Reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds and shekels. It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things to-day! And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU WILL ATONE!”

“You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen, and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and A T & T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. “

“We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war and famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”

Chilling, isn’t it?  That’s what the big business people think about your “right to know”.  They think you only have the right to know what they decide to tell you, in order to sell you information and products they might profit from financially.  I think of this speech every time I see a story on the news featuring a tie-in to a show airing on the same network.  When an anchor mentions a product brand or company and says the phrase “in the interest of full disclosure”, it isn’t only to protect the network from legal liability.  It is also to state to you, the potential customer, that they stand in support of their product.  It is SELLING disguised as concern for the welfare of your freedom to obtain information that is free from bias.

I’m married to a TV news writer.  She’s a better writer than I am, but her best years have been spent in loyal servitude to corporate media.  She has Emmys and Golden Mikes and so many other awards we decided to put them all in the guest bathroom which we now introduce as our “award-winning bathroom”, since it’s so full of trophies.  She began writing news in the days of Watergate, when journalism was still a noble profession.  Back then, in order to become a TV network anchor you had to have a track record as a reporter and writer.  Television was radio with pictures, just as radio had been newspapers with sound.  By the time Chayefsky wrote Network it had already become clear in local TV that the skill set for being an anchor would become physical attractiveness and the ability to read copy to camera with clear pronunciation.  That’s all.  No need for an on-camera face to have any real understanding about what it was they read.  Just look nice and do it, and with a tone of sincerity, please.

SIDE NOTE: When Walter Cronkite retired from the air, he was unhappy with the decision to give his old job to Dan Rather.  The disembodied voice of Walter, who had been the most trusted source of information on television, introduced “The CBS News with Katie Couric.”  His voice endorsed Rather’s replacement as if it were the voice of the Lord saying, “This is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”  Now that Walter’s dead, they use Morgan Freeman’s voice.  CNN uses James Earl Jones for the same “endorsement by God” effect.  NBC uses the voice of Michael Douglas to introduce the news with Brian Williams, but it doesn’t work very well.  Even I know that Michael Douglas does not sound like God.

My wife now writes about celebrities in trouble, or whatever she’s told to write about.  It isn’t investigative.  It’s regurgitation.  The news channels copy each other, then argue over which one provided the best coverage of the latest non-news stories.  All the top brass care about are the ratings, how many people watch, so that is the factor determining what stories to cover.  Nobody in charge cares enough about whether or not people learn anything useful or valuable from the news.  That’s why we get gossip, and sound bites, and the world’s stupidest question,” How do you feel?” which must be asked of the victims of an irreversible loss.     Maybe George Orwell was right – that “Ignorance is Strength”.  I know, I know.  I’m meddling with the forces of nature, and I will atone.

What do you think of the state of news on TV?

10 Comments

Filed under Television

10 responses to “Why TV News Sucks

  1. Mmm, I think you are on the nose, Invisible Mikey!

  2. Aw, thanks. My “award-winning wife” says I bury the lead, but I’m funnier than she is.

  3. Jacob C

    the question is, what happens to a corporation when it becomes so big that it becomes its own government? Who governs it then? Who’s there to make sure it is culpable, responsible? Already we have Nike and others who decide sweat shops are OK in other countries, but if that was a human being who had similar breeches of morality, a person would be culpable in any part of the world they came into, and subject to extradition. The minute any government hands over the reigns to corporations is the minute that they, at least unofficially, do not govern any more.

    I probably won’t be checking up on this post, just FYI so if you want you can mail me.

    • Sorry. NO POLITICS *dingdingding* See post #1.

      (Jacob’s correct that the post itself is perilously close to being political, even though it is focused upon works from TV and film. I must slap my own hand.)

  4. Generally, I am not awfully keen on politics on the whole – but, now and again all of us have to pay attention. There are some very good issues raised here, and I am paying attention – I am grateful to you.

  5. I dont usually reply to posts but I will in this case. WoW

  6. Good article. I gave up on TV news many years ago. I gave up on most TV shows many years ago. Do you remember Tom Paxton? Do you remember his song “Daily News?” Here’s the first stanza and chorus:
    Civil rights leaders are a pain in the neck ,
    Can’t hold a candle to Chang Kai Shek .
    How do I know? I read it in the Daily News.
    Ban the bombers are afraid of a fight,
    Peace hurts business and that ain’t right.
    How do I know? I read it in the Daily News.

    [Cho:]
    Daily News, daily blues,
    Pick up a copy any time you choose.
    Seven little pennies in the newsboy’s hand,
    And you ride right along to never, never land.

    • I never heard much Tom Paxton outside of his songs that others covered and made huge hits of, but I’m aware he had a lot of influence on singer-songwriters that came after. Thanks for your offering, Steve!

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