Imprimis - Hillsdale College

Television News: Information or Infotainment?

Michael Medved
Film Critic
Radio Host

Longtime co-host of the PBS series Sneak Previews and chief film critic for the New York Post, Michael Medved now hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show syndicated in more than 100 cities throughout the United States and serves as a member of the Board of Contributors for USA Today.

An honors graduate of Yale and a Hillsdale College Life Associate, he is the author of eight nonfiction books, including the best-sellers What Really Happened to the Class of '65, The Shadow Presidents, Hospital, and Hollywood vs. America. His latest book, Saving Child-hood: Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence, was written with his wife Diane Medved, who is a clinical psychologist and best-selling author.

At Hillsdale College's February 1999 CCA, film critic and radio host Michael Medved argued that the "line between news and entertainment has been obliterated in our television-obsessed culture" and that this is because of the nature of the medium.

A recent Gallup poll reveals that Hustler publisher Larry Flynt enjoys a higher personal approval rating (42 percent) than House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde (30 percent). I can't think of a better or more disturbing example of the tremendous power of television news.

Newscasters and correspondents seldom if ever identify Flynt as a hard-core pornographer. Instead, he is politely referred to as a "controversial defender" of the First Amendment and freedom of the press. Even when the White House brazenly misidentified Flynt (one of Clinton's staunchest allies) as a publisher of a "news magazine," it provoked merely titters rather than indignation. Is this because Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings consider Flynt a colleague? Even if Flynt owned a gold-plated press pass and a trunk full of Pulitzer Prizes, I doubt that they would want to be professionally associated with him.

They don't call him by his true name ("Pornographer General," as dubbed by Wes Pruden of the Washington Times) because the line between news and entertainment has been obliterated in our television-obsessed culture. Flynt is not just a sick sideshow figure anymore; he is a newsmaker. And he is not the only one to benefit from this unfortunate situation. In 1997, for example, Geraldo Rivera struck a $40 million deal with NBC News; Rivera wanted to shed his image as a sleazy talk show host, and the network wanted a top celebrity for its news division.

It isn't just that the news tilts toward entertainment and entertainers. Entertainment is the news. When the hit television series Seinfeld went off the air in 1998, all the major networks ran lengthy stories. The Hollywood press conference that announces the nominees for the Academy Awards receives coverage comparable to the president's "State of the Union" address. And the box office tallies of the sequels to Jurassic Park and Star Wars become major network news stories.

In this day and age of giant conglomerates, a number of networks are now owned and operated by film studios, but there is no grand media conspiracy. There are plenty of independent news sources that provide competition. So who is responsible for the triumph of "infotainment" over information? It is us, the consumers of the news. We allow television to be our main source of news, and this leads to three critical distortions in our lives.

Self-Pity

Television news encourages self-pity. TV spokesmen talk a lot about the importance of the "news business," but what they really mean is the "bad news business." Except in small doses, good news simply doesn't make for good television. The tube inevitably emphasizes violence, mayhem, death, destruction--it doesn't matter if we are talking about battles, riots, train wrecks, or hurricanes--as long as it is visual, dramatic, and compelling. That is why news producers love wars and natural disasters.

Bad news is not only the lifeblood of the major networks but also local news stations across the nation. A USA Today survey indicates that 73 percent of the lead stories they air are devoted to coverage of some kind of natural disaster or violence.

Bad news literally drives out good news. To understand why this happens, try putting yourself in the position of a television news director. How do you make your show gripping? Do you show a computerized graph on the declining national crime rate or live footage of an elementary school shooting? Do you interview a small business owner who has created 100 new jobs in the plumbing industry or an environmental activist who claims to have proof of a deadly new toxic threat?

Do you run a lead story about a Detroit janitor who moonlights as a cab driver so he can send his five children to a Christian school? Do you tell your cameramen to zoom in when he arrives home late at night, kisses his sons and daughters as they lay sleeping, and asks God's blessing on them? Sure, this is an American story. It happens every night in Detroit, Cleveland, Saint Louis, Los Angeles, and New York. But is it news? Never!

What if the same janitor arrives home and something snaps? He gets a pistol from the closet, shoots his children, and then shoots himself. You don't have to think about whether to run this story. Your decision is automatic: "If it bleeds, it leads."

Shortened Attention Span

Television news encourages a short attention span and a lack of perspective. Forget about nuclear weapons and germ warfare. The most destructive invention of the 20th century is the remote control. Channels magazine notes that the average adult male (who wins the gender and age battle over possession of the remote in most American households) changes stations every 19 minutes. If this keeps up, "channel surfing" will soon be an Olympic sport.

Imagine once again that you are a news director. You know that most guys are incapable of watching a half-hour program. How do you respond? By changing the entire nature of television in a desperate bid to keep viewers riveted. In the 1950s, a typical camera shot lasted 35-50 seconds. In the 1990s, it lasts five seconds. Commercials are even more frenetic, often switching images after only one second. Television sound bites have also been reduced to the point of absurdity. Forget about the interview subject who tells you what he thinks about the state of the economy or the defense budget in 25 words or less--you have to find someone who can do it in three words--and they better be pretty titillating, or they won't make it onto the evening news.

Titillation is the new and ultimate entitlement of television viewers. We want to be excited by what we watch. It doesn't matter if topics are presented in a thoughtful and thorough manner, just as long we aren't bored.

Who among us would tune into a broadcast of the Lincoln-Douglas debates today? We ought to remember what life was like before television. In 1858, 20,000 residents of Freeport, Illinois, heard presidential candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas speak for four hours without microphones, teleprompters, or commercial breaks. In city after city, Lincoln and Douglas grappled with consequential issues, and they attracted huge audiences of ordinary citizens--farmers, laborers, shopkeepers, housewives, and even school children. Today, they would be hard-pressed to get an hour of airtime on PBS and even if they did, their Nielsen ratings would be abysmal.

Superficiality and Subjectivity

Television news encourages superficial and emotional responses. Did you watch the taped broadcast of Monica Lewinsky's deposition during the Clinton impeachment proceedings? What did you notice? Was it the substance of her conversation with Betty Currie on December 17? No, of course not. It was her hair style, her weight, the timbre of her voice.

Our love affair with television has led to an obsession with appearance. Look at the current crop of anchormen and anchorwomen. Do you think they were chosen to read the news because they were at the top of their classes in journalism school? Everything on television, even the "truth," is subordinate to appearance. The medium whispers to us: Who are you going to believe--"trailer trash" like Paula Jones with big hair, heavy make-up, and tacky clothes--or a handsome politician like Bill Clinton who wears impeccable suits, holds hands with his wife in church, and oozes with sincerity when he says, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman"?

Television is all about surface impressions, and this means that intentions, feelings, and desires take precedence over logic, substance, and reality. Worse yet, television news infects viewers with what I call the "do-something disease." It presents alarming stories about every imaginable tragedy--famine, cancer, illiteracy, pollution, you name it--and encourages viewers to feel that they should do something right away. It doesn't matter if they can't solve these problems. What does matter is that they will feel a whole lot better.

Turn Off and Tune In

Self-pity, lack of focus, superficiality, subjectivity--how do we deal with these? Do we try to improve the quality of television news, to make the medium work for us instead of against us? Certainly, that is an important and worthwhile effort. It isn't the ultimate solution, however, because the fundamental problem isn't a lack of quality programming.

We now sit in front of the "boob tube" 28 hours a week. We spend more time watching television than we do pursuing our careers, since we don't retire or take vacations, sick days, or weekends off from our favorite programs. We also spend more time watching television than we do reading to ourselves or to our children.

Best-selling novelist Larry Woiwode is right: Television is the "Cyclops who eats books." When it comes to the news, this one-eyed monster also has an insatiable appetite for newspapers and magazines. But Cyclops is not all-powerful. We can defeat him. Unlike the Greeks, we don't need clever tricks or deception. Armed only with our remote controls, we can turn off his giant, glowing eye. Nearly all Americans say they want to cut down their TV viewing. Where is the best place to begin? By eliminating the time you spend on television news. Most material on the tube doesn't pretend to reflect reality, but news broadcasts do, so they are particularly, potently poisonous.

The hour you spend each night watching local and network news could easily be redirected to reviewing not one but two newspapers in their entirety. Sure, print journalism has its own biases, but because of the way we read and comprehend it, we are more capable of compensating.

Reinvesting your time in this way may not instantly change the world, but it can change your world and the way you respond to reality. And like any wisely planned, reasoned investment it can pay long-term dividends.

IMPRIMIS (im-pri.-mis), taking its name from the Latin term "in the first place," is the publication of Hillsdale College. The opinions expressed in IMPRIMIS may be, but are not necessarily, the views of Hillsdale College and its External Programs division. Copyright 1999. Permission to reprint in whole or part is hereby granted, provided a version of the following credit line is used: "Reprinted by permission from IMPRIMIS, the monthly journal of Hillsdale College." Subscription free upon request.

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18 August 1999