That’s Entertainment: The Tabloidization of Network News

As indicated in my previous post, the dissolution of public trust was

A title card still from the April 4, 1968 edit...

initiated in the years of  President Lyndon Johnson.   After inheriting the presidency with JFK’s death, he won his own term over Republican Barry Goldwater by using the latter’s  extremist language against him.   The Johnson team came up with a campaign ad that would become  legendary, that of a little girl pulling the pedals off a daisy, while in the background a voice was counting down to an atomic explosion (*1).

It was the first of our present day attack ads,  combining the visual power of television with the selective use of an opponent’s words to distort the truth.  If you believe in karma, the Democrats have been suffering pay back in recent years.    I would say the Republicans, led by the whirling Dervish of Spin, Carl Rove, have become much better at slurring opponents than the Dems.  Perhaps the Dems might prove up to the mud slinging task in the days ahead, which might prompt election victories, but at the further cost of public trust, supposing we have any more to lose.

Of course, it is not the ads alone which take kernels of truth and gin  them up into falsifications through exaggeration, facts-out-of-context or just plain lying.   Each party vies to make us voters buy its narrative of history in which each are the good guys and the opposition the bad.   Bombarded daily with misleading ads and party talking points, we need more help sorting things out and calling out the liars than in the old days, but we receive less.

While there is a growing number of fact checkers, which I’ll get to in a later post, our network media is of relatively little help.   As the spinners of falsehoods have become more skilled, our network news teams have become less so, because their primary business is no longer to analyze the news.  Instead, it’s to entertain us.

It is the end result of the tabloidization of American media.   And, to a great extent, we the public asked for it.  We want to be entertained;  it is the contemporary opium of the masses.  Decades ago, the tabloids referred to a handful of magazines that sensationalized news, and made up some more, like the National Enquirer  (*2).   Back then tabloid magazines were fodder for jokes by educated people like myself, who might  furtively glance at the headlines (“A Martian made me pregnant!”)  between unloading our shopping carts, but would not be caught dead with a copy in our possession.

What would Walter Cronkite think?  As I have indicated elsewhere, for decades prior to his retirement in 1981, Cronkite was the embodiment of the impartial journalist (*2).   To protect that image, he refused to do advertisements, which cost him millions.    After he retired, CBS got a new president and, according to Cronkite, that’s when the standards started to slip dramatically, as the new CBS president thought news should be more entertaining.  In awhile, all three networks placed their news department under their entertainment divisions, operating budgets were cut and like all entertainment, the news people were expected to generate ratings.

In retrospect, it seemed almost overnight news teams, especially local ones,  looked more handsome and pretty, were more chatty and chipper, and expert at soberly reporting  some huge accident with lots of bloody footage, and then seconds later able to laugh at the latest Hollywood shenanigans.

It was as if they all saw Entertainment Tonight as their stiffest competition.  But being news people they had to draw the line somewhere short of structuring a program around Mary Hart’s million dollar legs.

That show debuted in 1981, the same year Chronkite retired, a curious coincidence because entertainment values would come to call the shots for most news programs.  The ’80s gave rise to many cable channels,  most noteworthy CNN, which actually contributed to hard news,  receiving kudos in reporting the First Gulf War.  It hasn’t always been the brunt of Jon Stewart jokes.

Fox and MSNBC, the other two of what have been called the big three cable networks,  didn’t come along until the mid-nineties.  Fox began as a lonely beacon of light for the right (their self-portrait not mine), while MSNBC has gravitated to a similar position on the left.   That is not to  draw a false equivalency between the two.   Fox is clearly more unbalanced and more unfair more often.  But I do hand it to them for noting the success of Mary Hart and hiring many pretty women with nice legs shown off in short skirts.

Not that the cable networks offer nothing of news value, but both MSNBC and Fox essentially “speak to the choir”.  They give their respective sides more verbal bullets to fire at the enemy (*3).  And CNN?  Check with Jon Stewart.

In any event,  you do understand, don’t you, that analyzing the news is secondary to making money?    That’s understandable given our system and our inclinations, but unfortunate in terms of our enlightenment.   There is not enough news (not news Americans want to hear) to fill all those cable hours, even when providing filler ad nauseam in political speculation by pundits who largely say what you’d expect them to say, because if you watch for awhile, they’ve already said it.

Sordid sensationalism helps fill in time slots while attracting even more viewers  (do you think they’ll ever find the body of the Holloway girl in the Bahamas?), but to refrain from being pure tabloid, the stations go for political controversy as one of their staples.

Even when it’s made up.  Why else would Donald Trump, America’s neediest attention grabber, actually get covered on numerous occasions for claiming to have investigators digging up the truth of Obama’s birth?  And never pushed to produce a shred of evidence.  Why does any reputable news network  give any time to such a bogus issue?

Because controversy draws viewers, which earns money for the networks and there is no one around these days with the authority of a Walter Cronkite to dismiss it all as rubbish.  This is the end result of the tabloidization of network news.

Cronkite’s authority was so great, that when in 1968 he declared the Vietnam War unwinnable, so a peace must be negotiated, President Johnson reportedly said:   “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.”

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(*1)  The Daisy ad still is still a topic of discussion.   For example, check out a panel discussion at Louisiana State last fall.

(*2)  Of course, the Inquirer earned journalistic stripes for uncovering the John Edwards scandal, but a history of focusing on sleeze helped.

(*3)   I do often watch three cable political discussion programs, one from each of the cable “big three”:  Up with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, and Fox Sunday News with Chris Wallace.  The Hayes and Zakaria shows I watch more often, because their format encourages discussion.  Wallace’s  show, while actually “fair and balanced”, tends to be a battle of talking points, so there is more noise and less light.   Hayes is on both Saturday and Sunday mornings and the other two on Sunday mornings.

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Welcome Aboard

RMS TitanicOh, by the way, we may be sinking.  It certainly seemed that way in the fall of 2008, when the mortgage crisis pushed a number of banks towards collapse, and some did.   Now it is spring of 2012 and we are still afloat and seem to be taking in less water than we are pumping out.  Not ship shape, but afloat, and the economy seems to be slowly picking up steam, though that is only really encouraging to those who have jobs.  Most people I know still live at the level of 2008, but a few who fell in the water back then are still looking to get back on board.  Having a job or not is one of several chasms that separate Americans here and now.

Few look upon our future with equanimity, not when our central government is borrowing $.40 of every dollar spent.  At least that’s what I commonly here.  Our national debt is like an ever growing iceberg that appears dead ahead.   Those who want to cut spending are at logger heads with those who oppose the cuts to the least fortunate among us, while a number of the most respected economists believe by cutting spending right now we will slow down our recovery.  Perhaps throw it in reverse.*   And, of course, Europe’s financial problems lurk in the background.  They too might sink us.   Greece, the birth place of Western Civilization, now may prompt its collapse.  The irony is juicy but the potential is frightening.

What makes matters so much worse is that our public discourse has become so polarized that we have trouble having civil discussions about possible courses of action.  We have the right and left pulling so hard in opposite directions that we can’t change course. Politics has always been a touchy subject, but now it seems taboo unless you have pre-screened for sufficiently like minded folks.

As these poles have grown farther apart, we have lost figures of authority who were widely seen as arbiters between truth and falsehood.  CBS anchor Walter Cronkite comes to mind, named “the most trusted man in America” in a 1972 poll. ”  Now is there anyone in America that most of us trust?*  Whatever you say, someone else pegs you as having an agenda.  Even science has lost much of its stature as arbiter of truth when it comes to anything socially related, with some treating it as only  more opinions among many.

Do you need a Tums yet, or maybe a stiff drink?

Adding to our problematic situation is the explosion of misinformation via the internet and social media. With a click we can forward all sorts of falsehoods far and wide, multiplied wider and wider with each subsequent click.  That combined with politicians whose foremost concern is getting reelected rather than tackling our nation’s problems.  In the process they polute the waters of public discourse by spinning the truth fast enough to make us dizzy.  These days, it is not enough to take every bit of information with a grain of salt.  We need so much salt that most information is unpalatable.

Much of what I have just stated seems common knowledge, but when you get down to specifics, hardly anything is.  That is what particularly disturbs me.   Not only do we as a nation face huge problems, we don’t share a sense of what their causes and solutions are.  And, for the most part, our public media seems to contribute little more than an irksome minute by minute analysis of the chances of a number of candidates a majority of us wouldn’t want as president.

Thank God the pool has apparently dwindled down to a contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  While I favor the former for reasons you will learn if you continue reading this blog, I’m not sure it matters much which of them becomes president when it comes to the problems outlined above, unless he also gets sweeping majorities in both houses.  These problems are too big and the chasms between us are too wide for much progress to take place unless one of the two parties clearly dominates, or some miraculous shift takes place in our common consciousness.  Frankly, I am praying for divine intervention.

But can we do anything to help ourselves?  Where to start?  For me it is to try to sort out as much fact from falsehood as possible regarding important issues.  To look for points of agreement among those not so polarized and rigidified as to proudly choose sinking farther as a matter of principle as opposed to patching the holes as best we can together.

If you’re interested in tagging along, move up to the About page indicated to the upper left, where I describe what I have in mind for this blog.  OR, if want to just read another post right now, check out my second one below:  A Bipartisan Love Story.

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*   1.  It has been speculated that to avoid the iceberg the Titanic was put in reverse to slow down, but in slowing down the turning radius was reduced.

*   2.  Steven Rosenbaum has argued that Jon Stewart is today’s closest version of Cronkite.