Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Gerbil Wheels and News Junkies

by Libby Hellmann

They’ve finally done it. The news media have broadcast themselves into irrelevancy. It’s been trending that way for years, but now, with the coverage of the Democratic convention, it’s over the top. I’m a long-time news junkie, but even I’ve had to turn off the tube.

On one hand, you’d think continuous coverage of the proceedings by CNN, MSNBC and Fox News would be a good thing. After all, the networks have abandoned full coverage, save for a spotty hour here and there. If the 24-7 outlets were really giving us full coverage, it would be a tremendous public service, not to mention a rich historical archive. But they’re not. Except for major speeches, what's on the air is a sea of pundits, all armed with talking points from their respective political arms.

Some of them don’t even bother to deny it. After Hillary addressed the convention last night, several “analysts” mentioned the emails they’d already received (Blackberries and I-phones are de rigeur now) reacting to her speech. And while I was flipping between CNN and Fox, I heard conservative pundits on each say exactly the same thing. In the same words. This is not news. It’s propaganda.

But that’s only one of the problems. There has to be something going on, if only to fill all those hours, so what’s evolved is a false sense of urgency. For example, we’re treated to a breathless breaking news proclamation that the plane carrying a VIP has landed safely… or an “inside scoop” that Madonna’s new tour marries pictures of McCain to Adolph Hitler. The desperate need to create conflict elevates triviality, gossip and speculation to truth: Are Hillary PUMAs going to revolt? How frosty are relations between the two camps? Are the Clintons “over”?

Again, this is not news. It’s not even debate. It’s manufactured content. Ersatz news. Comedian Jon Stewart, whom some consider the most trustworthy source of news these days (an irony in and of itself) took the media to task the other day, calling the 24 cable news outlets “gerbil wheels” of spin. And this wasn’t the first time. Four years ago, he pleaded a similar case with Crossfire hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala. Sadly, most of the audience thought it was a comedy routine.

One of Stewart’s points was that by abdicating their responsibility for objective reporting, the cable outlets help advance the strategies and plans of politicians and corporations, who, in many cases, own the broadcast news outlet. I can’t disagree. Too often what passes for political discourse is raw partisanship, especially on MSNBC and Fox. And, in the off chance that a talking head disagrees with the political orientation of Chris Matthews or Bill O’Reilly,or their bosses, they’re literally shouted down or simply cut off.

A long time ago I worked at an underground newspaper. We were a collective, very Marxist, as convinced of our own superiority as Fox News and MSNBC are of theirs. One of my comrades claimed that even back then, the media were the pawns of the ruling class. They only reported news that the establishment could handle. You couldn’t trust them for accurate information, he said. Particularly news that undercut the ruling class's goals and strategies. The only thing you could count on, he said, was the weather report.

I didn’t want accept that, and I went on to work for the media. Inspired by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, I thought I was performing a public service. And when Watergate broke a few years later, I was convinced that serious journalism would --and did -- safeguard our democracy. But I now believe resentment over Watergate triggered Bill Clinton’s impeachment twenty years later. In the meantime Rupert Murdoch bought Fox News, MSNBC became the left-wing alternative, and CNN is up for grabs.

The weather channel says it’s not going to rain for another week. What do you think?


Dana King said...

Dead on. I find MSNBC less distasteful than Fox because I'm pretty liberal, but I can't watch Keith Olbermann any more. It's reached the point where I can't learn anything useful for forming my own opinion, because whatever cable channel I watch is only going to tell me the news that supports their perspective. This can only harden and perpetuate the current rabid partisanship and demonization that have led to the current situation. That serves no one.

Libby Hellmann said...

Agreed, Dana. I can't watch Olberman any more either -- he lost me with his vindictive attacks on Hillary during the primaries. Now he's trying the same faux rage with McCain and it's just more babble. In fact, I started watching Fox News BECAUSE of Olberman. But Sean Hannity is just as bad. He simply makes up stuff from thin air! It's pretty unbelievable.

Fiona said...

I find the best US political coverage/analysis on the BBC website.

Network news makes me gag and the 24/7 outlets are full of filler-no substance.

CSPAN (live) or YOUTUBE (later) are my choices for speech coverage because the speeches aren't drowned out by talking heads telling me "what it all really means" and giving me "context" that is BS.

If I just want to listen and not watch, I stick with NPR, but turn it off when the commentary starts.

Jon Stewart is a hoot.

Bill Cameron said...

I agree, though I would add that if MSNBC is the left-wing alternative, the left is deeply fucked.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Amen. They would rather hear themselves talk than listen to any of the speakers on the podium taking about issues. I have no idea what the Democratic platform is due to these narcissists. I agree with, if not like, Olbermann and his posse normally, but this is overkill and I am not going to be a victim. PBS, NPR, BBC or nothing

PK the Bookeemonster said...

For straight unadulterated viewing of both conventions (and I do both) probably C-SPAN is the best; it points the camera without comment.
For news in general, I read the Wall Street Journal where I can at least get something of what is going on in the world rather than all the tabloid-y and celebrity-filled stuff on CNN and other outlets.

Sara Paretsky said...

weirdly enough, in an era when people say print is dead, almost all real news still originates with print reporters. which makes it hideously scary that newsrooms continue to shed reporters. and contrary to myth, newspapers are making money--just not at the rate that tv is. and even scarier is how much credence people give to the absolute lies that limbaugh, hannity et al make up. after the 2004 election, roger ailes bragged on air about distorting coverage in congressional districts with close races to make them go republican. it is so exhausting i can't even hit the shift key for caps

steve z. said...

I get all my news from the Onion.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

You can't even trust the weather forecast here in St. Louis. They never get it right.

I kind of gave up TV news quite some time ago. At least print journalism I can scan and read what I want.

I can honestly say that I have not watched a 24 hour news station in over 6 months. Well, with the exception of passing by one in the airport terminal now and then.

Violette Severin said...

I couldn't agree with you more. I watch events like this on C-SPAN so that my opinions are not shaped by the news media. My opinions are always sought out at the watercooler because they are more insightful. When there is national security/foreign relations matters in the news, I turn on BBC America. They tell the truth. I have noticed over the past 10 years that the U.S. media will report as "breaking news" info that was on the BBC 2 days earlier.

Libby Hellmann said...

Just to bring it back to Chicago, did everyone see the "hug fest" at the Illinois delegation meeting in Denver? Da Mayor hugged Jessie Jackson, Jr... and Michael Madigan hugged Rod Blagojevich. Yes, you heard it right.
Check it out here:

TS said...

What you are witnessing, people, is nothing more than an overt attempt to eliminate the ability of our citizens to reason for themselves by providing the "insight" and the answers in subtle enough fashion that we actually think we are making up our own minds.

Consider the stupidity of Fox calling the Obama Fist bump terrorist! Yet people bought it.

Consider the stupidity of Obama as Muslim when he has been a respected member of the Christian faith for decades.

You like news from a respected journalist? Why watch Olberman or Hannity. One is a sportscaster, the other a manipulative fool. One network is far right, the other far left. CNN tries to ride the middle but fails often. It ain't as exciting, but stick with PBS, NPR, BBC, CSpan, and yes, for truth, even Jon Stewart.

Fact is,with the growth and evolution of spin, those people in the hump part of the bell shaped curve have lost its ability to think and reason. All the sadder for our country and our future.

As a graduate student many years ago, a wise professor once said,"you will see evil systems and free systems merge over time into a process of mind control, both using words of fear to control attitudes and opinions" Was he wrong? The hump of the Bell carries a lot more votes.

Sean Chercover said...

"Journalism is a pretty strong word for what we do around here these days."

Wish I knew who said it.

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