‘TV News has become distorted’

by Jim Longworth

At the height of the Michael Jackson media circus, networks were so desperate to saturate their airwaves with all things Jacko, that one morning, “Today Show” pretty boy Matt Lauer treated us to an extended tour inside the Neverland mansion. But here’s the rub: The house was empty.

So Matt and his videographer moved from room to room, offering up such newsworthy tidbits as, “And here, on this wall is where Michael’s big screen TV was mounted.” Throughout the Michael marathon, there were rare moments when news programs covered other stories, but most of those dealt with Farah Fawcett. It’s no wonder that Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart was prompted to create a special award for the worst in what he called, “obitertainment.” Ironically, though, it was the passing of another celebrity that helped bring clarity to the phenomena of modern day news media hype. On the night when Walter Cronkite died, CNN ran a series of interviews that the late anchor had done with Larry King. One was from May 1, 2001 in which Larry asked Walter, “Are you disturbed over the tabloidization of the news?” Cronkite: “Absolutely, very much so. We’ve always had sensationalism in the press. A lot of people think this is something new. It’s not new. Look at the files from 1830, 1850, even from the time of the Revolution, they were terrible. Newspapers are far more responsible today than they were in those days, right up through World War I. Broadcasting is reasonably responsible, but the trouble with broadcasting, as I see it, is we get hold of these stories that are really not important to the future of democracy — the death of Princess Di, the OJ Simpson story, John Kennedy’s accident at Martha’s vineyard — and we cling to these stories so long. We wear them out, we wear them to death. And they’re not that important. There’s so little time on the air to report the important news that makes a difference, whether we’re going to live or die in this democracy of ours. Whether we’re going to succeed or fail in our education and our healthcare, all these things. That’s what we should be taking our time with. But we spend all that time going over the same things over and over again, and we rush to these stories. With John Kennedy’s accident, my gosh, within a half hour one of the networks found a pilot who piloted a plane similar to the one Kennedy was in, and we saw that guy on the air for 24 hours, telling how that accident could have happened. He had no more idea how that accident happened than I did.” Yes, it’s enough to make you want to turn the channel. The only problem is that you can’t escape this kind of hyped-up coverage no matter where you turn, and it’s not just during the mourning of a celebrity or in a time of crisis. Today’s news is manufactured in such a way as to guarantee continual content on a daily basis. Take, for instance, Steve Doocy, Fox News channel’s morning anchor who, in criticizing Obama’s plans for used cars and healthcare reform, opined, “A government that can’t run a cash-for-clunkers program, can’t run one seventh of our US economy [healthcare].” The next day at a town-hall meeting covered by Fox, an angry citizen stood up and repeated the anchorman’s talking points verbatim. Then, that next morning, Fox reported on the townhall commentas though it was breaking news. Jon Stewart calls this the “crankcycle,” in which a TV anchor or talk-show host delivers a talkingpoint. The constituent repeats it. Then the host covers theconstituent’s words, proving the original talking points. To be fair, the “crank cycle” varies in degree and political persuasionaccording to which network you’re watching. But Fox News and its stableof right-wing hosts is hands down the worst offender. The half-truthsthey spew have helped to support an illegal war, justify torture andviolations of First Amendment rights, and will probably help defeat theonly chance we’ll ever have to reform healthcare and curb abuses byinsurance companies. In his book The Last Lone Inventor, Evan Schwartz recounted aconversation that Philo Farnsworth (inventor of television) had withhis wife while driving up the California coast one day in 1926.Farnsworth said, ”Television will become the world’s greatest teachingtool. Illiteracy will be wiped out. As news happens, we will watch itlive. No longer will we have to rely on people interpreting anddistorting the news for us….” If Philo Farnsworth had only known howhis technology was going to be abused, he probably would have destroyedall of his notes before the first TV set could be manufactured. That’s because the very thing he invented to prevent distortions hasturned out to be an instrument of distortion. Sadly, there’s no reasonto believe that the quality of electronic journalism will improve anytime soon. Gone is the era when news was accurately reported, deliveredin an unbiased fashion and presented in its proper perspective relativeto the conditions of the world on that day. As Cronkite said, we needto cover what is important. Celebrity deaths are not importantand healthcare reform is. Journalists have an obligation to give lessattention to the former and more to the latter. But they also have anobligation to get it right, and they have no business trying toobstruct public policy by inciting the public with misinformation.Farnsworth was right about one thing: Television is a teaching tool.The problem is, it’s now teaching us not to watch it anymore. JimLongworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m.on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cablechannel 15).