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 does not contain a message, it is a medium that has profoundly changed our society. It makes it easy to create spaces during nighttime that allow for social interaction that would otherwise be prohibited by darkness.

In as much that the medium of the light bulb changes society, so does the medium of television. The content might at first glance appear to be the same as that of newspapers, but the very fact that it is delivered via the medium of television alters the content significantly. For instance, on TV, the news cannot be reread, but it goes much further than that.

Each medium has its own specific limitations and requirements

Amusing ourselves to death
Neil Postman takes smoke signals as an example 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 smoke signals find it problematic to communicate philosophical ideas, television finds it quite the task to transmit information such as news. Inevitably, the content is altered by the medium, either by omission or alteration.

Why? Well, television starts with huge overheads: an expensive studio, broadcasting system, network of journalists around the world all equipped with expensive recording devices 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 TV to appeal to the largest possible denominator. That means that TV has a bias built in towards entertainment, the best way to please a large cross section of the population. But making news entertaining also means making it more accessible, less complex and as a result less serious, less rational, less relevant and less coherent. Even worse, in order to keep viewers loyal, their personal ideologies and emotions are analyzed, and the debate is centered on raising the emotional temperature to give a sense of peril, urgency, indignation and instill 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 graphic alternated between “Armageddon?” and “Apocalypse now?” and feature a story by Paula Zahn discussing a website that assigns a numerical value to the likelihood that we might be facing Armageddon a any given day.

Fox News interviewed a Priest as part of its “Armageddon” feature. The interviewer posed his question to the priest as followed:

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 the even 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.

Unbiased, factual reporting is near death in America.

In dark times, people often succumb to doomsday stories and need believe in something supernatural in the face of their despair. That is why in war times, churches are packed. But these aren’t 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 its biggest calamities in human history…

And all that because the medium doesn’t attract high viewer numbers when it leads people to think, but instead needs people to feel, hence they tap into their fears, hopes and believes, no matter how false. And news degrades correspondently.

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 their relationship with the whole. Stakeholders, marketers, lawyers etc. will tell you that television in itself cannot be blamed for the poor distribution of news. In as much that McDonalds cannot be blamed for the state of physical health of a nation. But 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 needs 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 has 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 open discussion of important issues in a way that is rational, coherent and serious enough to look at a problem from a 360 degree angle. Every situation and every solution has its price, 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, can be tedious and as a result, is a poor format for television, with its need to entertain.

Television instead relies on emotive sound bites, accompanied by flashy graphics and sensational video footage and story segments short enough to be interrupted by sponsored messages.

This excludes thoughtful news, as thinking doesn’t entertain much, and shifts the focus to feeling, which is a great tool to offer entertainment.

The real cost of business

Again, the problem isn’t television, but the role it has taken in our society as the main vehicle of information and the public discourse that flows from it. When television stations defend their news  programs on the basis that you can’t attack the medium because of its abuse just as much as you can’t attack McDonalds because some people eat themselves to death, that defense seems disingenuous and a false attempt to shut someone up with false logic. What is criticized is not the medium, but the role it has come to play, whether it wanted to or not.

We criticise the effect on society and ask for a responsible acknowledgement of this fact, in order to help society to stay healthy. When the CEO defends the medium, he is essentially burying his head in the sand, 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 McDonalds example again. In a free market system, the cost of the burger is decided by the parts of the sum + profit. Overheads, materials and profit incentive. However, no-one looks at the costs of eating the burger itself. Equal as to smoking cigarettes, there is a health cost associated with eating burgers, that might translate in medical costs. Shouldn’t society calculate this cost in, via Tax, into the purchase price? The more you eat or smoke, the more you contribute to the potential health costs that would result from your behavior. Otherwise, how will we compensate  or even account for this cost?

Should television news not be held responsible for their claims to be news, and be asked to contribute? If you claim you inform the population, should you not be held responsible to inform the nation? Should it not be held responsible for its real effect on society instead of being allowed to hide behind the maxim that it is 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 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 between 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. Because that doesn’t educate, it doesn’t solve anything. All it does is give the viewer the illusion of debate, of being informed, while in reality he is just as unwise about the issues afterward than beforehand, but can perhaps pretend to be  more informed…

And it is this provision of the illusion of consuming news that is the most hurtful to America. Because it kills the need for further inspection. It creates a docile nation in danger of not thinking outside of the box, outside of the information that is 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 overheads, the need to make money, money predominantly coming 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 is why he appeared on Crossfire and advocates for reform in television. So does Ted Turner, the founder of CNN who is highly critical of the channels new direction.

This author is left to wonder…

Controlling the message

Recent deregulation has permitted centralization of media power: only six mega-corporations (Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, News Corp, Bertelsmann and General Electric) own more than 90% of all all news channels (including newspapers, magazines, internet, film, radio, television and cable media).

This raises the question: can the news still work as the voice of the people,  with a news media increasingly driven by the bottom line and pressure by ideologically driven media moguls?


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