Saturday, April 8, 2017
Today's Drama and Conflict 24/7 News Cycle
The television news business delivers not the news but drama and conflict. Its name will never change from "the news" to "today's drama and conflict", but if it did, maybe we could correct the imbalanced view we receive of the days' events.
For short, let's refer to today's drama and conflict as TDC, and hope that with the new name comes a clearer understanding of the role money plays behind the set of the who what where when why of the news business and the impact on its viewers.
Watching TDC 24/7 has an unintended but nevertheless very real impact on people's optimism and their sense of agency. Understanding the news on cable and commercial TV requires remembering the out-sized role of ratings in the entertainment program that otherwise looks like a public service.
Since TV news is a business before it is a public service, the public isn't allowed to see that even though the menu for each day changes, the ingredients on TV news are always the same: TDC.
When tragedy or disaster strike, the public-service function of field reporting on TV about events such as weather disasters or outbreaks of disease revives the promise of television news. Thankfully, most days are without such large scale tragedy.
TV news of the TDC variety does not rest on peaceful days and feature two-hour long programs of dog show competitions, (though even reruns of last year's dog show would be better than television talking heads stating, restating and triple stating what we have already heard and understood 15 minutes ago).
We see the parade of TDC when the anchors strain to create fear with statements like, "It could have been much worse" or "No one knows the full extent of the problem." TV ratings would suffer without the constant stream of adrenaline inducing fear mongering.
The upshot is that viewers receive a diet of high anxiety, stress and worry that we believe reflects our world, when in fact it is primarily a reflection of the business model of the electronic screen that we have voluntarily invited into our homes. It's important to understand that our perceptions are traded for the ad dollars our attention commands.
The worst aspect of this dangerous diet of TDC is that it weakens our optimism about what we believe we can do. Crossed wires tell us that by watching something on TV we are doing something. That is a function of our imagination but not of reality.
Perhaps no one intends to dissuade us from taking an active role in community politics or to paralyze us with fear by the parade TDC 24-7 in service of ratings instead of the public good. But, intentional or accidental, passivity is a natural byproduct of the TV news business.
The writer, Rebecca Solnit, in her book Hope in the Dark hints at who we might be without that constant parade of TDC:
"The sleeping giant is one name for the public; when he wakes up, when we wake up, we are no longer the public: we are civil society, the superpower whose nonviolent means are sometimes, for a shining moment, more powerful than violence, more powerful than regimes or armies. We write history with our feet and with our present and our collective voice and vision and yet, and of course, everything in the mainstream media suggest that popular resistance is ridiculous pointless or criminal, unless it is far away, was long ago or ideally both. These are the forces that prefer the giant remain asleep.
Together we are very powerful and we have a seldom told, seldom remembered history of victories and transformations that give us confidence that yes, we can change the world because we have many times before."
The TDC news cycle overlooks our quiet victories in classrooms, families and workaday lives: good news doesn't sell fear or worry and won't build ratings points, but aren't our lives meant for more than helping a business turn a profit?