Thursday, June 09, 2005

Putting the Waste Back in Wasteland

American journalism is highly offensive to people with an engineering mentality because it represents an enormous waste of resources. When I see a CNN anchor sitting in front of a room full of expensive electronic equipment manned by highly trained technical folks, I can’t but wonder if Turner et. al. would have ever made such a massive investment if they had known how little of the information gathering capacity they created would ever be used. What we see on the screen depends far more on fear of offending the government or the sponsors and the imperative of sticking to the storyline of the week than on any input from the real world. In the absence of an institution willing to inform its audience, building up the machinery of newsgathering is as pointless as fighting a famine by manufacturing more spoons. The newsmen already know what they need to know. What they lack is the nerve to tell it to us.

Deciding what to show and what not to show is an absolutely basic function of any kind of journalism, but the problem with our system is not that it is selective but that the bases of its selection are uniformly perverse. A certain kind of faux liberal pundit likes to claim that many stories are too complicated or too old hat for the fickle and mindless listeners, but much of the information coursing through the wires behind Aaron Brown is both interesting and timely. If he doesn’t report promptly on stories like the Downing Street memo it’s not because of their irrelevance but precisely because they are all too relevant. Real news would be highly exciting, perhaps even inciting; but it would also get the networks in trouble with the government and its corporate allies.

You often hear that television news reflects the taste and intellectual capacities of the public. Aside from the obvious fact that the tabloid obsessions of the day don’t preexist the nonstop coverage of the nonevents, the displacement of serious news by gossip wasn’t motivated by ordinary commercial considerations. The kind of folks who are eager to listen to blond harpies picking at Michael Jackson’s scabs are a very much less desirable demographic than the well-educated, mostly prosperous people who want to know what’s actually going on in the world. Unfortunately, to reach that audience would require a huge gamble that would put at risk a great many careers and a lot of capital. Which is why it’s probably not going to happen. And since we’re not going to have a free press again for a long time, most of the electronics on the set of the news shows will be as useless as the machine that went ping in the old Monty Python skit.

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