2006-08-18 / Columnists

It's My Turn

John Whitehead
John Whitehead Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.

Anyone who relies exclusively on television news reporting for insight into what's happening in the world is making a serious mistake. However, since Americans have, by and large, become non-readers and primarily viewers of television, it has become an inescapable necessity for most that if they desire information on current events, they get it from watching TV news shows.

Yet TV news networks, having fallen prey to the demands of a celebrity-obsessed and entertainment-driven culture, provide viewers with what they want to see rather than what is newsworthy. As a result, there tends to be little deviation between the networks as to what stories are covered. Hence, more time is spent titillating and entertaining viewers than educating them about pressing issues of concern. As I write this, CNN's top stories include a report on a woman who was found dead in her basement after liposuction, a father who allowed his 4-year-old son to take the wheel and actor Heath Ledger being cast as the Joker in the upcoming Batman movie. Even warfare is presented as an entertainment item.

The amount of time spent on particular news stories is also telling and is a reflection of the misplaced priorities and sensibilities of the networks. For example, while the networks have spent days reporting about the scandal involving an inebriated Mel Gibson spouting anti-Semitic remarks, far less time-if any-is spent on harder-hitting issues like crime, welfare, homelessness and government accountability.

While the networks must bear the brunt of the blame for producing little more than entertainment babble, the lack of discernment on the part of television news watchers also plays a part. For example, surveys of viewing patterns indicate that, in an average household, the television set is in use over seven hours a day. Most people, believing themselves to be in control of the process, are scarcely bothered by this statistic. But it is a false sense of control. The fact is that television not only delivers programs to your home; it also delivers you to a sponsor. The whole point of television in America, including television news programs, is to get you to watch so that programmers, performers and others can make a lot of money. That is why so-called news events are commingled with a bevy of inane entertainment items. It is to keep you glued to the set so that a product can be sold to you.

This does not mean that television news is not important. There are things the public must know whether they "like" it or not. This is a necessity in a democratic society. Thus, TV news should give people what they need, not necessarily what they want. However, that rarely happens.

Realistically, there are some things that can be done to help you understand TV news and, thus, minimize its impact on you. Some of these are analyzed by Neil Postman and Steve Powers in their book, How to Watch TV News (1992).

TV news is not what happened. Rather, it is what someone labeled a "journalist" or "correspondent" thinks is worth reporting. Journalists would prefer that you trust them, but you should not. It is your business to judge and analyze what is reported. Although there are some good TV journalists, the old art of investigative reporting has largely been lost. For example, how often have you heard a reporter preface a "news" report with the statement "This comes from official sources"? What this means oftentimes is that the government is speaking directly to you through a reporter. This cannot be trusted since the government hires thousands of spin doctors to spread government propaganda.

TV news is entertainment. TV news is not communication but broadcast. Communication is between equals, and when you are being spoon-fed by advertisers, you are in no way equal. And although the news may have value, it is primarily a commodity to gather an audience, which will be sold to advertisers. That is why the program you are watching is called a news "show." This means that the so-called news is delivered as a form of entertainment. "In the case of most news shows," write Postman and Powers, "the package includes attractive anchors, an exciting musical theme, comic relief (usually from the weather people, especially men), stories placed to hold the audience, the creation of the illusion of intimacy, and so on. The point of this kind of show is that no one is expected to take the news too seriously. For one thing, tomorrow's news will have nothing to do with today's news."

Never underestimate the power of commercials, especially to news audiences. People who watch news tend to be more attentive, educated and have more money to spend. They are, thus, a prime market for advertisers, and, as such, sponsors are willing to spend millions on well-produced commercials. Such commercials are often longer in length than most news stories and cost more to produce than the news stories themselves. Moreover, the content of many commercials, which often contradicts the messages of the news stories, cannot be ignored. Most commercials are aimed at prurient interests in advocating sex, overindulgence, drugs, etc., which has a demoralizing effect on viewers, especially children.

It is vitally important to learn about the economic and political interests of those who own the "corporate" media. There are few independent news sources. Indeed, the major news outlets are owned by corporate empires. For example, General Electric owns the entire stable of NBC shows, including MSNBC, which it co-owns with Microsoft (the "MS" in MSNBC stands for Microsoft). Both GE and Microsoft have poured millions of dollars into the political campaigns of George W. Bush. CBS is owned by Westinghouse while Disney, another large contributor to the President's campaign, owns ABC. CNN is owned by the multi-corporation Time-Warner, while Fox News Channel is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The obvious question: How can a news network present objective news on a candidate that it financially supports? "One doesn't have to be a Marxist," note Postman and Powers, "to assume that people making a million dollars a year will see things differently from people struggling to make ends meet." This is why it is so vitally important to get your news from more than one source. There are independent television news channels and shows that present a different view than what is seen on the corporate news networks. It is important to get differing views on news stories.

Pay special attention to the language of news casts. Because film footage and other visual imagery are so engaging on TV news shows, viewers are apt to allow language-what the reporter is saying about the images-to go unexamined. A TV newscaster's language frames the pictures, and, therefore, the meaning we derive from the picture is often determined by the reporter's commentary. TV by its very nature manipulates viewers. One must never forget that every television minute has been edited. The viewer does not see the actual event but the edited form of the event. Add to that the fact that the reporters editing the film have a subjective view-sometimes determined by their corporate bosses-that enters in. For instance, when we see a political figure such as the President on TV, we are not seeing the person as he necessarily is. We are seeing the image that his handlers have decided we should see.

Reduce by at least one-third the amount of TV news you watch. TV news generally consists of "bad" news-wars, torture, murders, scandals and so forth. It cannot possibly do you any harm to excuse yourself each week from much of the mayhem projected at you on the news. Do not form your concept of reality based on television. TV news, it must be remembered, does not reflect normal everyday life. Indeed, studies indicate that a heavy viewing of TV news makes people think the world is much more dangerous than it actually is. One "study indicates that watching television, including news shows, makes people somewhat more depressed than they otherwise would be," say Postman and Powers. This may lead to chronic depression and constantly being alarmed. Of course, a bevy of commercials pitch drugs at you that allegedly relieve the depression.

One of the reasons many people are addicted to watching TV news is that they feel they must have an opinion on almost everything, which gives the illusion of participation in American life. But an opinion is all that we can gain from TV news because it only presents the most rudimentary and fragmented information on anything. Thus, on most issues we don't really know much about what is actually going on. Sometimes we need to realize that we don't have enough information to form a true opinion. How can that be done? Read good books and newspapers and carefully analyze issues in order to be better informed.

Finally, schools must begin teaching children how to watch TV news. Specific courses should be taught so that our future citizens can hopefully avoid the pitfalls that the television news monolith will continue to lay before future generations. If not, our democracy may not survive.

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