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Triumph of the trivial: Why TV news sucks



It's not exactly a secret that TV news can be shallow. You know it, I know it, and after a drink or two, plenty of TV news employees will tell you they know it, too. Naturally, some broadcasts and reporters are better than others, but overall, TV news is constrained by some of the habits it's most known for: an addiction to quickie soundbites that are often less edifying than a bumper sticker; a reliance on superficial yea-or-nay questions and a corresponding black-and-white view of whatever issue is in play; airing lazy, he-said/she-said reports that presumably make them "objective," while failing to provide any historical context or evidence of research or insight into the issues at hand; and the use of provocative stories or catchphrases simply to attract curious viewers.

I stopped writing about TV news a few years ago — it's not like things were getting any better — but recently I've been so appalled by several godawful television news reports, I've had to re-up for duty.

Locally, as in nearly every U.S. city, TV news is most often created by flesh-and-blood equivalents of cardboard cutouts, a media subtype of baffling self-regard. For some time, with some notable exceptions, these cutouts have comprised the bulk of Charlotte's TV reporter supply. They're adequate when covering car crashes or robberies, but give them something unfamiliar — a situation wherein they have to think outside the idiot box and dig for enough info to understand what's happening (something like, say, Occupy Charlotte) — and they're in trouble.

Reports by local TV news about the Occupiers have been insipid (again, with a few exceptions), cliché-riddled and at times simply weird (shining lights and poking mics into tents, uninvited and at night?). It makes you wonder whether these "journalists" even pay attention to the national news. Mostly, they've produced chirpy soundbites punctuated by shredded excerpts of "interviews" that say next to nothing, no matter how good said reporter's makeup and hair look.

Not that national TV news makes much effort to provide clarity, either. For example, when it became clear that the congressional Super Committee was going to fold without reaching a budget agreement, nearly every national TV reporter slipped into the old "he said/she said" method of producing reports that, on the surface, sounded "balanced." But the reports during the committee's talks told the same story over and over: Democrats (as usual) were willing to compromise over a mix of spending cuts and new taxes; Republicans, on the other hand, steadfastly refused to consider any new taxes as part of a deal, period. So what was TV news' take on the committee's failure? Well, since both parties were quoted blaming the other one, the reporters said — ta-da! — both sides were to blame for being unwilling to compromise, even though that conclusion flew in the face of what they'd been reporting all along. But that's OK, see, because they presented "both sides." Never mind that one side's version was a blatant lie.

That's bad enough, but I nominate CBS newscaster Bob Schieffer for the Most Pathetic Fall From Grace award for his petty, nonsensical provocation during an interview with Rep. Ron Paul on Face the Nation. Schieffer pounced on Paul's assertion that the 9/11 attacks were at least partly a reaction to U.S. policy in the Middle East. (Keep in mind that this was also the conclusion of the Defense Department, the 9/11 Commission, the CIA and an array of scholars who've studied those awful events.) Schieffer — formerly a highly regarded journalist, now apparently in his dotage — barked at Paul, point-blank: "What you're saying is that 9/11 was America's fault." My jaw dropped. What kind of imbecility was this? And from Schieffer, no less! Paul explained clearly that yes, there was indeed a connection between U.S. foreign policy and the 9/11 terrorists' rage, particularly our military presence near the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Um, excuse me, but isn't this widely accepted and very obvious? What's the problem?

The problem is that Schieffer is caught up in the D.C. media game, in which only a limited range of opinions is deemed worthy of attention. It just upsets everything so much, don't you know, when you let new ideas into the stuffy parlor of the D.C. mindset. One thing that is strictly taboo is hinting that maybe the U.S. would be better off without the burden of 1,000 military bases around the world. Sad to say, but that type of blundered, ossified thinking is all D.C. has to offer anymore. Regrettably, a similarly stale, straitjacketed view of the world has become a template for TV news' framing of most issues. Some of us thought harder times might inspire TV news to air deeper, more insightful stories. Obviously, we were wrong.

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