News? Don’t talk to me about news. I mean it.

With the death of curmudgeonly Walter Cronkite last week, I notice that a poll has now nominated Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s Daily Show, to be the most trusted name in news. But of course. He’s the only one who doesn’t lie to us: he actually admits that what he’s doing is a put-on.

Unlike Fox News, for instance.

The day Fox changes its name to something more reflective of its content – Fox Propaganda, Unfair and Biased – is the day I might start watching it.

Not that I follow this stuff too closely. On the contrary, I try to avoid the news as much as possible. Same way I avoid sports, and performances by Sarah Brightman.

To me, it’s a no-brainer. Yet, apparently, not being plugged into the news cycle is quite a bold stand to take nowadays, viewed by many as the height of adult irresponsibility. Then again, who says my aim is to be a responsible adult? I might have other plans.

“But how do you know what’s going on,” friends ask me, “if you don’t watch or read the news?” To which I respond, “Why do I need to know what’s going on? If it’s that important, I’m sure someone will tell me. Otherwise, I’m happier not knowing.” To which they respond, usually, by sighing and walking off in exasperation. Because deep down they sense a real truth here, they just can’t go along with it: that the news makes you miserable, fearful, skeptical, unsettled, and ultimately stupid. Why fill your mind with that? Better to be ignorant and a free-thinker if it means being happy too.

Don’t forget, I’ve worked in newsrooms for years, both here and in Britain, and I was never impressed.

By the time what’s laughingly called “TV news” reaches the public attention, it has already been analyzed, filleted, filtered, censored, and neutralized to death by a stiff hierarchy of editors trying to shape it to a particular viewpoint or agenda. In the end, what you’re getting is not news, but someone’s interpretation of events, shaped in a way they’d prefer you to see it. You have to differentiate news from the truth. The two are very different.

For a long time, I’ve had the privilege of contributing to a wonderful public radio news show in the States.

When I joined years ago, it was a scrappy, crazed animal, with every edition a wild ride produced by a bunch of young maniacs in a dingy, claustrophobic bullpen at the University of Southern California.

Reporters and editors back then were opinionated, intellectual, and in some cases obnoxious firebrands who’d fight and hustle and drive everyone crazy in their efforts to get their stories on air. There was a real sense of fun and excitement and purpose to what we were doing, resulting in frequent tantrums and displays of indignation, born of sheer passion – a passion to package vital information in an interesting way and get it off the wires and out into the public arena where it belonged, asap.

Alas, that’s no longer the case. Walk into the show’s new, modern offices today, and that loud obnoxious vibrancy has gone. Sometimes you can barely hear yourself think for the blanket hush that fills the place. Morgues are more exciting.

The people working there – the ones I know anyway; it’s the same show, but the staff has multiplied, I can’t keep track – are still bright and intelligent, though in a different, more subdued way.  More noticeably, the open and free expression of passion has largely evaporated. The dismal climate of fear that rules our times has seen to that. Everyone’s too scared of losing their job to be too innovative, too loud, too outspoken, or to take risks. Result: instead of soaring majestically, setting our sights ever higher, we coast at a low altitude, hiding our light.

Additionally, the recruiting guys made the mistake, in my opinion, of hiring print people for key positions instead of radio people, something I would have discouraged. Inevitably, it’s a long, slow haul to get newspaper journalists to understand the potential of sound. They think  in words only. Lots and lots of words. Facts. Data. Statistics. The old way of presenting information. Which is why newspapers are dying. And radio is so much more than boring old print. Or should be.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. I love this program. Always have. It still manages to be a superior piece of radio, some of the best out there. Perhaps inevitably, with maturity, it’s simply settled in, turning a wild adolescent into the very creature it used to poke fun at: a slick, glossily produced, critics might say overly-edited, and very, very grown-up corporate enterprise. Examples:

  • When you’re given a piece to do in radio now, a computer sends you an email to tell you so. Years ago, people used to do that.  There was actual human contact. Imagine.
  • Also years ago, the topics we covered were beyond exciting (“Hey, d’you want to go train as a cosmonaut in Russia?” – was one of the most interesting questions I’ve ever been asked). Compare this to a recent subject I was given:  items placed in public storage, and what happens to them when they’re auctioned off. Yawn.
  • At the start, my pieces went out on air with the minimum of scrutiny. They were fun, light, irreverent, edgy, filled with raw, dangerous moments. The result was exciting: there were countless complaints from listeners, even a couple of death threats. Now, though, there’s none of that and I miss it.
  • A two-page “script” for a radio feature is analyzed word by word, line by line by an editor, the way scientists scrutinize test-tubes, always with a troubled look on his or her face, busily figuring out if it breaks the rules or causes offense on any level. Words are replaced, interview clips removed, new thoughts inserted.
  • During this autopsy, which can take up to an hour, the cadaver of originality is frequently picked apart wholesale before the script is shunted off to the next stage of the assembly line: the studio, to be recorded.
  • Now, once the piece has been recorded, that should be it, ideally. You’re done. But no. Later on, the report is picked apart a second time by someone higher in the editorial chain and often recorded again. Doubtless a good move from the “monitoring content at all times” standpoint, but artistically stifling, no matter how good the editor might be. And these people are good. Almost too good.

Anyway, you get the idea. I know what I’m talking about. I’ve worked at CNN too, and in British TV, therefore I’m able to bring a hands-on perspective to the topic of news shows. The news shows I refuse to watch.

And when I do watch, I see this same sad situation magnified a thousand times. Everything being filtered, censored, monitored, shaped and molded, then presented in a corporate, orchestrated way to achieve a certain effect, reach a specific demographic, and follow a party line set in stone by a commitee.

Well, that’s not for me.  Because I’m more convinced than ever now, after accidentally switching on a TV news show this past week.

Of course, I use the word “news” loosely, because the stories were outlandish and sensational, presumably to keep viewers outraged and watching. Airtime was being given to:

  • a pitiful movement challenging Barack Obama’s citizenship of America, a fictional dispute concocted by fanatics in an attempt to keep the conversation lowbrow and irrelevant, and to throw his popularity off-track, same way the Fox News-driven tea-bag campaign tried (Dick Cheney’s daughter was given a voice on this, for some reason)
  • Republican politicians trying to shoot down universal healthcare, not because it’s wrong for their constituents – quite the reverse – but because, a) they receive millions of dollars in pay-offs from the healthcare industry, and b) it’s a Democratic proposal and they can score cheap political points by defeating it:
  • police officers arresting a black guy for entering his own home, then feigning outrage when the President called them stupid for doing so;

…and so on and so on.

Seriously, people, I don’t need to know this stuff. It’s not doing me, or you, or the country, any good. So please don’t challenge me on this. You may enjoy being in the loop, but I don’t. I’m far happier just going about my life ignorant and distant and sane, untainted by other folks’ made-up nonsense. Unless it’s Jon Stewart’s made-up nonsense, in which case I’m right there, glued to the screen.

www.cashpeters.com

Read Cash’s book, Naked in Dangerous Places, HERE.

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4 Comments

Filed under Television commentary

4 responses to “News? Don’t talk to me about news. I mean it.

  1. I’d been missing your pieces on Marketplace for a while, so last weekend I went online and listened to a bunch of them. I found them to be entertaining as always, but I also sensed something missing…a kind of bite, if you will, that had been there in the past…certain comments and retorts from you that would make me say, “Oh no, he didn’t,” only to then gleefully realize that you really did!

    Perhaps I keep missing you on Marketplace because I just can’t be bothered to listen to Marketplace anymore. And perhaps you’ve just explained why that is.

    • That’s sweet of you. But who said I was talking about Marketplace?

      Ahem.

      I wanted to be on public radio more often, not less, but it’s almost impossible to get anything through the system any more. They’re such great people too, and I wouldn’t want to knock them. I think it’s just the inevitability of the times, nobody’s fault.

      • That’s generous of you, indeed. I guess I’m just getting old and cranky (or crankier), but I honestly believe there’s been a very palpable decline in much of NPR’s output over the past several years. To my mind, it began when they booted Bob Edwards (BIG mistake) and redesigned Morning Edition to be more “relevant” and “cutting edge.”

        (I really do wish you were on [name redacted] more often.)

      • Well, that’s something I and the listeners agree on. Now we just have to persuade management.

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