Is televised news still news?

The medium is the message

This famous phrase was first introduced in Marshall McLuhan‘s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

Marshall McLuhan
In it, Marshall argues that the medium influences how the message is received.

A basic example is a light bulb: although it contains no message, it's a medium that's profoundly changed our society. It makes it easy to create spaces during nighttime that allow for social interaction that would otherwise be (mostly) prohibited by darkness.

Similar to how the light bulb has changed society, television has also left a profound mark on our world.  At first glance the content might appear to be the same as that of newspapers, but the very fact that it's delivered via video and through television networks alters the content significantly.

Each medium has its own specific limitations and requirements

Amusing Ourselves to Death
A great example of the limitations of a specific medium can be found in Neil Postman's use of smoke signals in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death:
Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence (or other philosophical concepts), and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. It’s form excludes the content.
In the same way that it's problematic to communicate philosophical ideals through the medium of smoke signals, television has a hard time adequately transmitting information such as news. Inevitably, the content is transformed into something other, either by omission or alteration.

Why? Well first, the television industry has huge overheads - an expensive studio, broadcasting system, network of journalists around the world all equipped with expensive recording devices all make the business of television news very expensive. To make things worse, TV is mostly paid for by advertisers, meaning that the TV station needs to attract a large enough viewership to attract these advertisers. This requires that the broadcast appeal to the largest possible denominator, and what's the best way to please a large cross section?  Why entertainment, of course!  The medium of television can't help but have a built-in bias towards entertainment. Unfortunately for viewers who want unbiased and objective reporting, there are a few consequences to making news entertaining.  News fit to entertain and draw a wide audience has to become thematically less complex, making it more accessible. The end result winds up being less serious, less rational, and less relevant than other mediums. And since it needs to keep viewers hooked, most televised news focuses on raising the emotional temperature of events, broadcasting it in a way that instills a sense of peril, urgency, indignation and a need to ‘follow the situation.’

Israel, Lebanon and Armageddon?

In August 2006, the news media covered the conflict between Israel and Lebanon. CNN’s main graphic alternated between “Armageddon?” and “Apocalypse now?” and a story by Paula Zahn discussing the likelihood that we might be facing Armageddon any given day. And CNN wasn't the only purveyor of sensationalism.  Fox News interviewed a priest as part of its “Armageddon” feature. The interviewer posed this question to the priest:
I get so many conversations, on the street too, that this is imminent. When people say this is imminent, what are we talking about, a year? Six months? Nostradamus says August of 2006. But is it 18 years from now? What is it, father?
 A clear example of news choosing the sensational over even the remotely factual.

On Good Morning America, Robin Roberts interviewed a Christian guest who felt it apt, in light of the Lebanon / Israel conflict, to advise
There’s no alternative, you either accept Jesus or you’re going to go through terrible times.
Robin Roberts response was:
That’s why mom always says you’d better get right. You’d better get right in these times we’re living in.
Seeing this, it's hard to believe that unbiased, factual reporting still exists in the U.S.

In dark times, people often succumb to doomsday stories. In the face of their despair, the supernatural brings comfort and hope. That's why churches are packed in times of war. But these aren’t really dark times. In fact, we currently live in the most peaceful period in human history. The only problem is, if you watch the news, you’d think the world is going through one of the biggest calamities in human history. Why? Because the it needs those high viewer numbers, and playing with people's emotions is more likely to get those numbers than simply offering factual analyses of situations.  Hence they use the art of emotional manipulation to tap into the fears, hopes and beliefs of the audience, ignoring the veracity of the information. When this happens, its impossible for the news not to degrades.

Simply ‘being’ versus being responsible

Is any of this particularly bad?

Of course not. Now that we know the limits and bias of the medium, we can regard it as such.

But here is a problem that constantly rears its head in societies: in defending the parts, we forget the relationship with the whole. Stakeholders, marketers, lawyers etc. will tell you that television in itself cannot be blamed for the poor distribution of news. They compare it to McDonalds, which, of course, cannot be blamed for the state of physical health of a nation. They ignore the fact that, if the nation predominantly ate McDonalds meals, it would pretty soon overwhelm the health care system and lead to earlier deaths. In other words, if McDonalds becomes a prominent source of food for the nation, it would need to be viewed through that lens, not just on the merits of being a single food company.

And that’s where we are with television news: it's become the predominant medium to deliver news to the people. The recent rise of blogs has not really changed this (blogs came at the expense of newspapers, not television). And blogs have their own limitations.

We know that to create a healthy and effective democracy, we need to create platforms for the open discussion of important issues.  We need a forum where we can examine the issues rationally, coherently, and from every angle. Every situation and every solution has its consequences, and we need to be aware of the trade-offs in order to make rational decisions that benefit society.

But such a discussion takes time, and as a result, is a poor format for television.

Television relies on emotive sound bites accompanied by flashy graphics and sensational video footage.  The producers of the shows also make sure that the story segments are short enough to be sandwiched between sponsored messages. Unfortunately, thoughtful news doesn't entertain much and instead of risk losing viewers, news stations have to shift the focus to stoking the emotions of the viewers, which is a great for hooking audience, but not so great for transmitting accurate and reflective news.

The real cost of business

Again, the problem isn’t television, but the role it has taken in society.  It's become the main vehicle of information in the United States and as such, has a responsibility to the public. When television stations defend their news programs with the 'McDonalds rationale,' they ignore the real issue: it's not the medium that is the problem, but the role it's come to play.

We criticize the effect on society and ask for a responsible acknowledgement of this fact in order to help society to stay healthy. If a CEO ignores this and instead defends the medium, he is essentially burying his head in the sand. (Which I daresay is never a responsible or rational strategy, despite the fact that from the point of view of the head, no danger can be spotted!) His argument is essentially the same as arguing that fire is a medium in itself, and that its discovery should not be held responsible for the evolution of mankind. We cannot ignore the relationship between the medium, its usage and the eventual effects on society.

To take the McDonald's example again, in a free market system the cost of the burger is decided by the parts of the sum + profit. This equation includes overhead, materials and profit incentive., but ignores the cost of eating the burger itself. Not unlike smoking cigarettes, there's a health cost associated with eating burgers, that might translate in medical costs. Shouldn’t society calculate this cost, via tax or some other method, into the purchase price? The more you eat or smoke, the more you contribute to the potential health costs that result from your behavior. How else could we compensate or even account for this cost?

Shouldn't television news be held responsible for their claims to be news, and be asked to contribute appropriately? If you claim you inform the population, shouldn't you be held responsible to that claim? Shouldn't television networks be held responsible for their real effect on society, instead of being allowed to hide behind the maxim that it's not their product, but the abuse that is at fault?

John Stewart questions the media machine live on crossfire

October 15, 2004. John Stewart appears on Crossfire, a discussion show that supposedly represents both left- and right-wing views on political issues. Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson had no idea how their show would be dismantled, live, on air. John Stewart immediately goes on the attack, seizing his opportunity to make a point about the limits of media, but more so the falsehood of its representation of itself, exposing the show as a vapid, partisan, punditry vehicle that tries to pass itself off as a serious discussion show.



John’s main charge to the hosts of Crossfire was

You have a responsibility to the public discourse and you fail miserably.
The question implied in this statement is "Should the concept of serious news and show business not be easily distinguishable from each other?" The hosts of the show seemed incapable of understanding that their entertainment show shouldn’t masquerade itself as a topical news show. In other words, if you call yourself a debate show, you have the duty to debate and explore the issue rationally from all angles. You cannot instead create an entertainment show that exploits the controversy of the issue to create strong feelings in the viewers that make the show entertaining. That doesn’t illuminate the situation or bring clarity; it certainly doesn’t solve anything. All it does is give the viewer the illusion of debate, of being informed, while in reality they are just as ignorant about the issues afterward as beforehand…

This is the part that's most damaging to the U.S.: giving the people the illusion of knowledge kills the need for further inspection. It creates a docile nation in danger of not thinking outside of the information offered, outside of their emotions or their comfort zone.

That is why John Stewart remarks:
We need the help of the media [...] and they’re hurting us
The reaction of the hosts is quite revealing as well. One tries to defend the format by defining heated partisan exchanges as ‘debate,’ while the other host tries to put John back in his role as a comedian, instructing him to be funny and expressing disappointment at his humorlessness. Ironically, he confirms by these very statements that the show is ‘a stage,’ a theater where each is invited to play his or her assigned role.

The interview had a lasting effect on Crossfire, and CNN President Jonathan Klein cited John Stewart when he announced cancelling the show:
I think he made a good point about the noise level of these types of shows, which does nothing to illuminate the issues of the day

Can television save itself from itself?

Considering the huge overhead, the need to make money, its money coming predominantly from advertisers who demand high viewing numbers, and the statistical reality that high viewing numbers can only be achieved by offering entertainment, can television news ever succeed at being real news?

John Stewart seems to think so. That's why he appeared on Crossfire in the first place.  He was advocating for the reform of television news, not the cancellation of it.  You get a similar response from Ted Turner, the founder of CNN who is highly critical of the channel's new direction.

This author is left to wonder…

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