Did you know CNN publishes a Fear and Greed Index? That this is a regular thing?
Hang on. Let me start again.
The first step towards media and information literacy in 2015 is to stop watching American tv news. Seriously. TV news has become the real life version of what the classic 1976 satire Network only fantasized about, a barkingly mad and bad excrescence of mock journalism, some terrifying new media entity beyond self-parody.
While some have become anxious about the poor information one can sometimes find on the web, tv news has raced past the worst Wikipedia glitches and plunged into an abyss of its own making. The story of the rise of the internet as a cultural touchstone has the fall of American tv news as its grim parallel.
A sign of this truth is how easy to find hilarious examples of CNN, MSNBC, or especially Fox “News” emitting embarrassing stories and moments. In fact, let’s just skip Fox for now, since they’re clearly partisan and openly bonkers. Their leaders and staff are no doubt busily preparing to become the war-happy government news channel for that Starship Troopers movie. Let’s set aside MSNBC as well, since they are also partisan, and if more intelligent than Fox (a very low bar indeed) they are relatively marginal.
No, let’s look instead at CNN, the mainstream cable news outfit. The leading news channel for America in our times. CNN, the respectable, putatively neutral one. The current events video feed we find in public spaces. Just think about that reputation for a moment, that CNN is something like our tv news of record, and realize how far we’ve fallen.
We could start with CNN’s Headline News branch. The experience of sitting and watching Headline News for a while is a bit like listening to a meth-addled ADHD sufferer screaming into a kaleidoscope, while ragged copies of People magazine and Sports Illustrated get hurled past our faces. As Wikipedia puts it,
Since 2005… its format has increasingly shifted to long-form tabloid-, opinion-, crime-, and entertainment news-related programming.
Speaking of which, what’s the leading story on Headline News today? Of all possible events on Earth, which one do they deem to be of vital, international importance? What topic will absorb scant journalistic resources and very precious air time?
COMPLETE COVERAGE OF THE DR. CONRAD MURRAY TRIAL
HLN is America’s television destination for coverage of the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, the man accused of causing the death of Michael Jackson. HLN’s deep bench of talent provides a complete view of events in and around the Los Angeles Superior Court, as well as a comprehensive exploration into the lives of the Jackson family and Murray.
No, this is far too easy. Let’s put Headline News to one side for now, and go for the serious part of CNN, its relatively sober and thoughtful central channel.
Do you remember the time when one of their hosts wondered if supernatural forces or a black hole ate a missing jetliner? Or when said host then took to tweeting and retweeting conspiracy theories as further “explanation”?
It’s interesting to see the very well-named Lemon buttress his broodings by talking them through with experts, and cloaking them with religion. Good thing we’re relying on him, instead of social media, eh?
Or did you see another CNN host beclowning herself, when a reporter/host/robot confused Edward Snowden and Edward Scissorhands?
Note the host droid’s utter inability to comprehend what the interviewee (Twitter handle: @Fart; maybe that was a clue) was saying. “Confuses” is in a way the wrong word, since her glossy lamination and confident carapace never crack. Notice, too, how she concludes the surreal exchangenby wondering what “other celebrities” tweeted about Snowden/Scissorhands, because that is clearly important and worthy of viewers’ consideration.
When it comes to the 2016 presidential campaign, CNN continues to play its classic role as stupefying the event into an attenuated horse race. CNN helps shape the election, and in a bad way. The network actually spends resources to compare who has more unsettling hair, Trump or Clinton. It massively downplays Bernie Sanders’ campaign, despite its serious successes to date. “network newscasts had devoted only 8 minutes to the Sanders campaign… as much as they had devoted to Mitt Romney’s brief flirtation with a third presidential bid.”
When it’s not fiddling with elections, CNN and cable news in general may actually be doing more damage in stoking fears of violent crime. CNN loves to play stories of crime and disaster, worshipping passionately at the altar of “if it bleeds, it leads.”
Here’s a screenshot of the CNN homepage I took in 2014:
Here’s an older one, from 2007:
Yet in the actual, real, non-tv-news world, crime has been going down for decades, according to the FBI. Iff we think a significant number of people get their information from tv news, we have to consider the possibility that CNN is helping scare people out of reality. Americans are certainly very scared of crime, depending on which survey you read. Maybe we should see CNN not as a news outlet, but as America’s leading purveyor of true crime and Gothic horror.
Now, to give them a bit of credit, CNN does have some self-awareness, if only accidentally. I realized this when I discovered their Fear and Greed Index. Seriously, this is a thing CNN does, a brazenly honest expression of their corporate selfhood:
(I wrote “accidentally” above because there isn’t much evidence that CNN is aware of their role in stoking fear (and greed).)
The same CNN is now busily hiding that a US airstrike hit an Afghan hospital, even though many other sources have reported this.
To be fair, CNN isn’t alone on this score. I mentioned other cable networks above, but older broadcast outfits aren’t doing much better. In fact, they are all so bad that CNN can sometimes play news media critic (stop laughing) and notice skewed coverage from older tv networks.
According to Andrew Tyndall, who meticulously tracks the ABC, NBC and CBS evening newscasts, the Sanders campaign has received just two minutes of coverage on the shows since Labor Day. Tyndall said “the overwhelming majority of Democratic coverage” has gone to Hillary Clinton — 26 minutes — with another 6 minutes for Joe Biden, who may or may not enter the race.
CNN can call out the others because it has that New York Times-like rep as cable tv’s news channel of record. That’s how bad things have become.
And this needs to stop.
Imagine historians of the future looking back at American history of this period. Think of them wading past steaming heaps of advertainment and weaponized gossip, desperately scrabbling for some scraps of actual news. Envision these historians looking from tv to web, scratching their heads and wondering “what were they thinking, back in the Age of Stupid? Is this how they built their idiocracy?”
They will set aside our current worries about people getting “addicted” to social media, and argue that tv news offered deeper, more influence experiences. These historians will recognize the way CNN and its sorry ilk offered a steady, curated stream of slickly-produced fear, delivering to happy brains plentiful and spastic jolts of audio-visual roller coaster terror. Television news, fastened on brain chemistry and never letting go.
These future historians will also downplay our contemporary concerns about online echo chambers. They will emphasize instead the vast echo chambers built by MSNBC and Fox News – heck, not mere chambers but extensive architectures of opinion reinforcement, vast catacombs and necropoli where other points of view died lingering and tribe-forming deaths.
…and enough. We’ve got to stop cable news. I don’t advocate censorship, ever, so I won’t call for government action.
Instead, I ask you, I beseech, I beg you to please stop supporting American tv news. Just don’t watch the stuff. Go online and make yourself a far better news experience. Turn off the television when Anderson Cooper comes on and tries to mouth complete sentences, or Wolf Blitzer eggs on a war. Use the web instead. For all of its flaws, we can shape the web into a good, even brilliant news platform; we can’t touch CNN. Unless we just withdraw our eyeballs from it, starving that brain parasite of its preferred meals.
Turn off American tv news and move on to news better suited to the 21st century, and to human beings.