We need to wean ourselves from the disaster of American tv news: three stories

We need to stop watching American tv news. Unless it changes drastically, which is unlikely, that news medium will continue to be horrendous.

Here are three anecdotes in my ongoing campaign against tv “news” (which really should always be in quotes; see below).

CNN headlinesEven when tv news migrates to the web, it is still awful. Consider, for example, the screenshot to the left. It’s a typical CNN.com front page list of stories they think most important for viewers/readers. Note the now-classic, even cliched assemblage of horror, fear, and panic.  Trump, war, murder, economic warning, murder, danger, sports, plague.  Note, too, the extra-sexy little red font around extra-fresh items.

I have a background in Gothic and horror literature.  In that scholarly vein I find CNN’s work fascinating.  It’s like Victorian penny dreadfuls powered by steroids and published at the near-lightspeed tempo of social media.  I can dive into the details and analyze which threats CNN is beating up – certain foreign policy issues but not others; drugs changing from threat back to comedy; current diseases; more shootings; etc.

I pick on CNN because it is the mainstream tv news source for America.  Which is a horrifying thought.  But other channels are playing the same game, just mixing up the threats in different, carefully considered ways.  Which brings me to anecdote #2…

Here’s CBS’s chief coming out in the open with why he and his “news” station adore horror and hideous politics.  It’s worth reading at length:

“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” [CEO Les Moonves] said of the presidential race.

Moonves called the campaign for president a “circus” full of “bomb throwing,” and he hopes it continues…

Moonves quote, from Freepress.net

“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” he said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going,” said Moonves.

Remember when Network (1976) was satire, simply fiction, rather than a user’s guide to tv “news” management?  Just listen to these phrases again: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”.  “Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going”.  How often do the tv “news” leaders pull back the curtain at let us look at the monstrous thing itself?

On to anecdote the third. In previous posts I’ve been urging people to unplug their tvs, at least for news purposes, and head to the web.  I still think that can be a far, far better experience.  Unfortunately, too many people use the web to access the seething excrescences emitted by tv “news” . A recent survey finds plenty of that tv “news” generated content being very popular indeed.

Overall, the top 10 publishers — together owning around 60 news sites — account for 47% of total online traffic to news content last year, with the next-biggest 140 publishers accounting for most of the other half, SimilarWeb found.

Let me bold out the tv news properties so you can see how powerful they are:

The biggest online news publisher for the U.S. audience was MSN, owner of MSN.com, with just over 27 billion combined page views across mobile and desktop, followed by Disney Media Networks, owner of ESPN and ABC News, with 25.9 billion.

Time Warner, owner of CNN and Bleacher Report, had 14.8 billion, followed by Yahoo with 10.3 billion, and Time, Inc. with 10.2 billion.

A bit further down the totem poll were CBS Corp., owner of Cnet.com, with 9.9 billion combined page views; NBC Universal, with 9.5 billion; Matt Drudge, with 8.5 billion; Advance Publications, with 8 billion; and Fox Entertainment Group, owner of Fox News, with 7.9 billion.

So it’s not just a matter of hardware (turning away from tv, picking up laptop or phone) but also a question of content source.  Information and media literacy have always taught this, so it’s not news, but it’s worth emphasizing, especially as the open web thins out.

We need to shun this stuff and let it wither.  As one journalist who writes news, not “news”, observes:

On Twitter: Dan Gillmor ‏@dangillmor "Every minute TV "news" stays on this absurdity is evidence that news belongs in quotes."

My friend Melanie replied:

On Twitter: Melanie Hoag Bliss ‏@MelanieHoag ""News" has become "reality TV" and thus is in my do not watch pile."

Let us do so.  Just think about how tv “news” of 2016 will look from the perspective of future historians.  Imagine what those observes will say about the role Moonves et al played in electing president Trump.

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8 Responses to We need to wean ourselves from the disaster of American tv news: three stories

  1. Actually, it’s one of the brighter spots remaining in journalism, not because people are tuning in at 6, but because pre-roll ads kind of work and people do consume a lot (and an increasing amount) of video on the web. In some ways, it’s a good thing. My students are better informed in the last couple of years than they have been for a decade, mostly, I think, because news comes to them now. But there are a LOT of negatives about algorithmically determined news. The disruption of the news funding model overall is really bearing fruit with this year’s campaign, as the candidate who must not be named has become an actual thing because payment is for clicks, and people click on stuff about him for a whole variety of reasons. Scary times.

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  2. gmphap1 says:

    Neil Postman in 1985 published *Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business*. To Neil, in 1985, “Show Business” was the term for “news”. My own reading of Neil’s work in the late 90s caused me to “cut the cord” and I’ve never missed it!

    What are we to do though? We thankfully have a generation of young people that pull what they want to consume. From a conservative bias to the overjustification effect, how should we lead? How do we train the world to think? Not just critically think, but to think. To completely “fruit basket upset” the push of what what we believe will sell and thus continue to create an illiterately thinking society?

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    • I was thinking of rereading that.

      “How do we train the world to think?” Heh – I’ve already caught flack for recommending we skip tv news, but that’s a fine start.
      Should we pick up the critical thinking banner, and maybe knit in media and information literacy?

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