Die, American cable tv news, die

Did you know CNN publishes a Fear and Greed Index?  That this is a regular thing?

Hang on.  Let me start again.

Network movie screen capThe 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.

“HLN” is also somewhat bloodthirsty.  It’s the home of Nancy Grace, one of the best avatars for America’s addled lust for vengeance since Cotton Mather.

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?


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:

CNN headline of fear 2014

Here’s an older one, from 2007:

more CNN headlines of fear, this time 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:

CNN: Fear and Green Index

(I wrote “accidentally” above because there isn’t much evidence that CNN is aware of their role in stoking fear (and greed).)

CNN, Fear and Greed chart

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.

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15 Responses to Die, American cable tv news, die

  1. jennycolvin says:

    The only news I read comes to me via various Anonymous Twitter feeds and items people post in Facebook. I’m a 21st Century News Consumer!

  2. Thanks for the kick in the pants. I finally unsubscribed from the CNN news feed (which I mostly scroll past anyway) and found RSS feeds for BBC US&Canada as well as BBC World. I feel more enlightened already.

  3. VanessaVaile says:

    Been avoiding TV news for years, occasionally wonder in passing about checking in…you just answered that for me

  4. gmphap1 says:

    Ever since Neil Postman told me about the penny newspaper, we cut the cord, antenna, etc. So appreciate the reminder here especially in context of literacy, so spot on!

  5. robertmcguire says:

    Alternative ways of getting news to read are well-documented elsewhere. (Basically, putting good sources in your RSS reader.) But it would be good to share some life hacks for getting alternative sources of TV news.

    To that end, here’s some of what I’ve tried. I’d love to hear ideas from others.

    To me, to be a true replacement for CNN, it would have to pass what I think of as the “while-eating-oatmeal-at-the-kitchen-counter” test, assuming you have a TV in the kitchen, as I do. It might be the “while folding laundry” test or “while on the treadmill” test in your house. The ideal replacement is on-demand in the sense of always being on and in the sense of coming on about as quickly as selecting a station. It shouldn’t feel like a chore to get it running, because “I’m not really watching TV. I just want to check the news while I stand at the counter eating a bowl oatmeal.”

    So an alternative source like BBC America, BBC World Report (which is on at 4 a.m. on my cable system) or the PBS NewsHour is less than ideal by itself. It doesn’t meet the “always on” need.

    My workaround for that is to use the setting on my DVR to record the PBSNews Hour and to keep only the last 2 or 3 episodes, the newest always replacing the oldest. Most people don’t pay attention to that setting, because you don’t want to risk erasing an episode of The Good Wife you haven’t watched yet. But erasing a 3-day old news cast you haven’t watched yet makes sense.

    That gives you something on-demand in the sense of always on (or at least a one-hour dose or so. More than enough for a bowl of oatmeal.) It does take a little time to navigate the menus to your recordings. If my DVR worked like my podcast app, which erases played episodes and automatically continues to the next unplayed episode, that would be better.

    Another setting on most DVRs is to record only a fraction of a program. i.e. End after 10 minutes. This could work well if, like me, you don’t mind the first 10 minds of the 6:30 national news from the broadcast networks and then get really annoyed once the Symbicort ads and “human interest” segments kick in. You could set your DVR to record the first 10 minutes of all 3 major networks and every day have a half hour of different takes on the major stories. Time enough to cook an actual dinner.

    If you have a smart TV or Roku, it might be able to hack together something. For example, on YouTube, you can subscribe to specific channels or publishers, and the most recent videos from those subscriptions will show up in a feed on a smart TV or Roku app. I do that for Colbert clips, but I haven’t looked into news programs on YouTube. I’m not aware of any Roku channels running good news programs.

    That still doesn’t pass the convenience test. It takes 3 remote controls and a lot of clicks to get the YouTube app on my Roku playing.

    Lastly, there might be an overlooked cable news channels to explore. In my market, one channel hidden between the best-known channels is One American News Network, which has a dubious provenance, but, as this opinion piece explains, is delivering the goods: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marty-kaplan/my-new-favorite-news-netw_b_6419182.html

    Watching OANN is like what watching CNN was like in the early 80s — a cheap set and cheap graphics with a news reader reciting the top two grafs on a steady drumbeat of news wire stories. I watched it for an hour this morning (on the treadmill), and no single story was more than 5 sentences long or went beyond the what, who, where and when. No analysis, no commentary, no “panels.” For now.

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