CNN’s birthday: And a dark day it was, too

Kathryn brings my attention to a piece headlined, “The Day 24-Hour TV News Was Born.” To which I can only reply, and a dark day it was, too:

At first, it seemed an odd experiment, the sort of thing that a quirky gazillionaire could afford to blow his money on just to see what had happened. Who, after all, wanted TV news 24 hours a day? Well, Ted had the last laugh on that. And this piece concentrates rightly on CNN’s dominance of such huge, breaking news events as the Challenger explosion and the Gulf War in 1991.

But when you say “24-hour TV news” to me, I think of the harm that CNN and its imitators have done — and did pretty much alone before folks started getting their news via Twitter and the like.

Once upon a time, boys and girls, news organizations — even TV news organizations, which were always sort of on the fringes of journalism — had what was called a “news cycle.” What this meant was that a given medium would report to you, the reader or viewer, at given times each day. The rest of the day was spent reporting. And while it was all pretty rushed, there was time in the day before deadline to do at least some modicum of making sure you knew what the hell you were talking about.

Not any more. Now, something happens, and the 24-hour cable outfits start “covering” it, and what you see is a bizarre mix of raw legwork tarted up as reporting, and commentary based on pathetically insufficient information. The commentary comes in, not to put things in perspective for you, the viewer, not to foster an informed conversation in the society, but to fill dead air while we wait for the latest half-baked “fact” to come in.

How does one provide commentary under such circumstances? There are a number of techniques that work. One is to further blur the line between news and entertainment. Another — and this is the one that concerns me the most — is to embrace the most mindless kind of reflexive partisanship. You have a “liberal” and a “conservative” on and let them shout prefab opinions at each other — opinions that are in no way dependent upon the facts of the unfolding story; the talkers bought them off the shelf and brought them along to the studio. This is called being fair and well-rounded.

Gradually, all political discourse in America has taken on this kind of mindless, prefab, artificial conflict approach — talking not to reach some sort of conclusion, or synthesis, or consensus, but each participant playing a rigidly predefined role depending on which pigeonhole he allows himself to be identified with.

This approach became refined and concentrated in the blogosphere, which joined the 24-hour TV “news” crowd and the interest groups and the parties themselves in constantly spinning the wheel, oversimplifying everything as left or right, black or white, up or down, and so forth.

Daily journalism was never overly burdened with sober reflection. But now, what little thought went into the news has been subordinated to these pre-fab conflict dialectics.

And we are worse off.

19 thoughts on “CNN’s birthday: And a dark day it was, too

  1. Mark Stewart

    Except when 9/11, or Katrina, or the 2008 financial meltdown or any other “newsworthy” event occurs. At least, like in some movies, these organizations haven’t started manufacturing the news yet – at least I think not?

  2. Phillip

    Well, the scribes all thought Gutenberg ruined everything, too!

    I sympathize (and sorta, kinda agree) with your view but once TV and cable was invented there was no way to put that genie back in the bottle, just as there was no way to do so with the internet age, Twitter, etc.

    The problems to which you allude can not so much be blamed on the new technology and style of news dissemination, as much as the fault lies with the concurrent degradation of education in the country, specifically in the areas of civics, history, literacy. Better-educated citizens are more able to process all the information flying at them at lightning speed, to put things into context.

    In that regard, Obama’s commencement speech at my old place of work, University of Michigan, a few weeks ago, was dead-on: urging us to get our information (and indeed, opinions) from a variety of sources, including those to which we might not naturally gravitate.

    For those of you who missed it,
    you can read it here:

  3. bud

    I don’t know Brad, I think maybe you’re approaching this with a bit of a nostalgic bias. Seems to me that in the olden days the accuracy of reporting was pretty weak as compared to today. That’s because today you have so much competition and so many varied opinions it’s simply impossible to mislead the public. Frankly the State newspaper has never been a particularly trustworthy source of information. It has always had this sort of bias that flavors the news. I remember in the late 60s how incredibly difficult it was to learn the truth about the Vietnam war from local sources because everyone seemed to fall in behind the administration. Eventually the truth did come out but it was agonizingly slow.

    That’s not to say that today is perfect. Obviously the MSM was able to spin what we now know are pure lies about the Iraqi WMD but at least then with a bit of digging on the computer we could obtain all relevant information quickly. You may have to go to foreign sources but eventually you can dig the truth out.

    And Mark’s point is well taken. Basic factual information about a terrorist attack or a hurricane is important to know quickly even if all the information is not yet available. Newpapers simply are not capable of providing that in a timely basis.

    The spinmeisters have always been around and they always will be. So lets move forward and not get to caught up the nostalgia of a bygone age that probably never really existed.

  4. Michael P.

    Yeah things aren’t like the good old days of stone and chisel or smashed berries smeared on cave walls.

  5. Brad

    I’m not “caught up in” anything. I’m just reacting to what Kathryn sent me.

    And Phillip, you’re wrong about people being able to process all that stuff and do it well. They end up falling back on cheats to cope, and one of the main cheats is reacting to everything from a simplistic, narrow ideological framework, neat pigeonholes into which they can drop everything — such as Bud’s embrace of anything on the Iraq War that reinforces what he wants to hear (the antiwar line, wherever he can find it) and his rejection of “pure lies.” Absolutism. And Bud’s a smart guy.

    The thing is, as I emphasize with my “Virtual Front Page” exercise each day, that there are maybe five or six or seven things that a well-informed person needs to know about. And on a given day there’s only so much new info available about it. Everything else you hear on 24/7 TV channels is filler, which does not add to your understanding.

    Another problem with this kind of “news” is that standards are lowered. Gossip becomes “respectable.” I don’t respect it, but increasingly, people who watch television do. They have been taught, by cheap programming ranging from talking heads on “news” channels to reality shows, that anything is fair game as long as it fills time. And it gets cheesier and more lowbrow by the minute, as deviance, in Mohnihan’s phrase, is defined downward.

    Also, what gets reported on and talked about is stuff that fits conveniently in the left-right shouting match model of perception. Things that don’t fit that format get ignored. There’s no nuance, because somehow, despite having 24 hours, there’s no time for it.

  6. bud

    There’s no nuance, because somehow, despite having 24 hours, there’s no time for it.

    The cable shows, FOX, MSNBC and CNN are pretty slanted toward their point of view. But there is a good bit of nuance, you just have to watch ALL of the channels. You won’t get that from any one source. MSNBC, for example, gives a wide variety of views on a particular subject almost always with a liberal bias. If you want the other side turn to FOX. Sometimes if you switch channels you’ll think the two are discussing two entirely different topics even when they’re discussing the same thing. That’s what I gleaned from the healthcare debate. Besides, what’s wrong with a good shouting match.

  7. bud

    One more quick thought that just popped into my head. Sometimes nuance is a bad thing. What you really want is the truth. The truth may never be black and white but there instances where something is pretty ebony and ivory.

    An example is in order. Remember Green Diamond. That’s an issue where the pros of allowing the government to spend money to build levees to underwrite the project were very, very, very, very few. Yet the cons were numerous. Not much room for nuance in that particular issue. Yet the media seemed preoccuped with presenting the nuance. A genuinally fair reporting of the facts, rather than obsessing with nuance, may have killed that disaster much sooner.

  8. Brad

    So what you’re saying is that you have to watch all of it, 24 hours a day — several monitors going at once — to get a full picture.

    Which is kind of the OPPOSITE of what news media ought to be doing for you in a modern economy. I go to Best Buy to get a TV because I don’t know how to build my own. In fact, as pointed out in that fascinating piece I called y’all’s attention to recently pointed out, NO individual person can make a TV — it takes hundreds if not thousands of people with different specialties to build one. We buy food at the supermarket because our economy is based on most of us doing stuff other than running a self-sufficient farm full-time. The point of representative democracy in politics is that most of us can’t suspend our productive lives to study the issues and engage in debate on them (of course, the deliberative process is severely damaged by mindless partisanship, but set that aside as a rant for another day).

    The POINT behind journalism is to provide the service of making some sense out of the fire-hose flow of information. To sort, package, explain. To take the time that other folks don’t have to find out stuff, and add to the overall knowledge is a huge part of it. But so is cutting through all the boring crap to get to the important parts and passing them on to people who are living their lives. And let me tell you, if you’re watching TV 24 hours a day, you ain’t living your life.

    In a few minutes, I’m going to run over and see what Steve Benjamin has to say at his press conference, and I’ll tell you if anything interesting comes out of it. I won’t tell you every word, because that would bore me more than it does you, and it would take half the night. I’ll give you the highlights, and I’ll be sparing with that, because I know you’re likely to get a fuller report from journalists who are paid to work all day on this story (which I am not). For that matter, most of what I comment on here on the blog is NOT (and cannot be) based on original reporting, because I depend upon the reporting of others who are still paid to report all day.

    Specialization. That’s what’s brought us up from being hunter-gatherers to sitting on our butts watching HDTV. The ascent of man, and all that…

  9. Phillip

    But Brad, there’s no way that you or any journalist isn’t by definition then making some choice about what to include and what to leave out. No matter how hard one tries to be objective, there is still the subjectivity of the journalist.

    The true gift of the 24/7 news cycle is C-Span.

  10. Brad

    That’s right. And then it’s up to you to decide whether you trust me. Just as you have to decide whether to trust your grocer, your doctor, and everybody else providing you with goods and services in a complex economy.

    Your alternative is to watch C-SPAN 24 hours a day, and guess what? You’re still going to miss most of the news that way.

    At SOME point you’re going to delegate; you’re going to trust someone to fill you in on stuff you don’t have time to track or investigate. Otherwise you will not have a well-rounded grasp of what’s going on.

    Trust is key…

    Oh, don’t get me started. I used to have this long homily that I’d deliver at the drop of a hat about how EVERY problem in the world was due to a lack of trust, and that if anything was EVER going to get better, more of us were going to have to start stepping out of our comfort zones and trusting other people more. It was a sort of unified field theory of social commentary. I don’t think I’ve given that spiel in about 10 years, maybe longer. I wonder if I can still remember the main points?…

  11. Michael P.

    “And it gets cheesier and more lowbrow by the minute”… sounds like someone has been watching WIS newscasts.

  12. matthew b

    The irony, to me, is that Brad decries the 24 hour news cycle, but he has joined the non-MSM group by starting his own blog. And not just your standard just-graduated-with-a-poli-sci-blog, but one that is read with regularity by a lot of folks.

    And he also takes money from political candidates to advertise, a la mr. sic.

    Of course, this site abounds with credentials, and is much less sensational, but still…

    Just sayin…

  13. Brad

    Thanks for noticing… I think.

    Hey, this thing started as an experiment on the side, and then they shot my newspaper out from under me, and here I am, riding a blog…

    And you know what? All those years of being a manager in a large organization — I’d been an editor since 1980 — having other folks do this and do that, and now here I am a lone gunman as Martin Blank put it in “Grosse Pointe Blank,” and it doesn’t feel unnatural at all. It’s like I was born to go guerrilla.

  14. Brad

    … And you know what’s weird about that? That it’s me and not Burl who ended up like this. HE was the one who went his own way in high school, and published his own underground newspaper in which he called our principal the “Ghost Who Walks.” By comparison, I was the man in the grey flannel suit. Sort of.

  15. matthew b

    i say go guerrilla then…

    You might make a deeper depression and out-scoop a lot of people. “Important” people still trust you.

    Hey! more people probably read this thing than you realize! And there are a lot of folks who are swirling rumors, while you still command at least a scintilla of “truth.”

  16. Burl Burlingame

    I’m an editor’s whim away from winding up on the street as well. We’re in the middle of a hostile takeover and two-thirds of the print journalists in this town are going to be fired next week.

  17. Kathryn Fenner

    Oh, Burl, fingers crossed!

    and, yes, I have noted that Brad is more akin to my radical beliefs in those areas where life has touched him–like health care….

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