Tag Archives: CNN

Resisting The Fabulist Impulse in Television News

breaking news image wikipediaAt the rate we are going, all of us will have to suffer the fate of seeing our names–the forenames our parents so thoughtfully contemplated–appropriated to identify some crummy storm that has found its way to Wichita.

A tendency to see everything as a crisis is a prime symptom of what mental health professionals sometimes diagnose as a “borderline personality.”  Obsessions over supposed disasters consume persons with this tendency, which converts relatively minor concerns into major personal crises.

In television news—especially its forms on the major 24/7 cable outlets—we see the same pattern: too much of an obsession with one concern at the cost of a more varied news agenda. Anyone looking at this journalism these days will notice recurring patterns of repetition, overstatement and willful simplification that make it distinctly different from the nuanced exchanges most Americans have every day.  Sometimes this overcoverage is just silly, as with the compulsive over-coverage of deflated footballs in the NFL, or there is endless piling-on about a minor story such as Brian Williams inflated claims of danger after reporting from Iraq.

For sure, the chance to roll out the“Breaking News” slide pumps a network’s ratings.  CNN President Jeff Zucker seems to have believed that full and continuous days of coverage of the Malaysian Airliner that disappeared over the Southern Ocean a year ago was justified, even though there was precious little hard news to report. It was the same kind of endless hyping that characterized the network’s laughable coverage of what was a relatively minor January snowstorm in New York. This overreach left an anchor driving down Broadway in a “Blizzard Mobile” in search of a stray car—any car—that might be stuck in the three inches of snow that fell. The halcyon days of network news are clearly in our past.

This kind of fabulism is also the operating principle in the seemingly more science-driven precincts of weather reporting.  Inexplicably, The Weather Channel  has taken to naming every snow or rain storm that crosses a populated area as if it were a weather disaster. We no longer need a Hurricane to declare a weather emergency.  At the rate we are going, all of us will have to suffer the fate of hearing our names–the forenames our parents thoughtfully contemplated–appropriated to identify some crummy storm that has found its way to Wichita.

To be sure, the nation’s Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers did much the same thing in the heyday of yellow journalism during the later part of the 19th Century.  Drumming up passion against the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines became a way of life. It’s basically the same hunger for narratives of villains and victims that still serves as the primary formula for most versions of local television news, which feature the very worst that has happened in the last 24 hours.  Within metropolitan areas of 4 or 5 million, that means there’s usually some awful mayhem to breathlessly report.

The price of all this media fabulism is that it forces the nation’s attention to news that most viewers cannot use.  Riveting images of criminality give viewers little to act on, other than a vague sense that their communities are not safe enough.  With uninflated footballs to endlessly mull, who has time for the nation’s systemic challenges–underfunded schools, crumbling highways, aging mass transit, broken city budgets–with admittedly less interesting “B” roll footage, but more important consequences?  Read some of the good newspapers that are left in the United States—the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and others—and its easy to still discover what we are missing with single-focus coverage.  As the Progressive journalist Bill Moyers asked last December, where are the stories on CIA kidnappings and other governmental “black ops,” the widening gap between rich and poor, or impediments to voting that have been approved in many states?  Some of our better media cover these stories some of the time.  But cable television producers generally shy away from events that do not also have dramatic images.

Dramatic images of bedlam and bloodshed encourage individuals to view their world as more threatening than it is. Older Americans are especially prone to attitudes of chronic pessimism created by cable news coverage that makes nearly every story appear to confirm their worst fears: governments that don’t work, violent crime that is out of control, schools failing to serve their students, epidemic levels of pregnancy and alcohol use among teens.  In fact, even against these perceptions the trend lines generally allow for more optimism rather than less. For example, most American cities are far safer now than they’ve been in the last 40 years.  Most states, including my own, have many superb schools.  And drinking and pregnancy rates for teens are falling dramatically.

The recommendation researchers make to those who care for the aged is usually always the same: don’t let television news become a dominant activity in a senior’s life.  But the same recommendation should hold for the rest of us as well.  We all need to resist the tendency to get sucked into the gore that is justified by a news organization’s desire to troll for ratings on the pretext that its the next big story.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

“Breaking news” image courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Close Quarters

Source: Wikimedia.org
An Amtrak Dining Car , Wikimedia.org

Cramped conditions can be interesting ad-hoc laboratories: chances to see how individuals cope with another’s intrusion into their intimate space.

Life has a way of randomly throwing us together with complete strangers in tight spaces.  Trains, elevators, airplanes and crowded stores typically violate the two- to four-foot zone that we preserve for ourselves.

For most of us, being momentarily stuck in a small space with a crowd is a simple nuisance.  But for a student of interaction patterns, cramped conditions can be interesting ad-hoc laboratories: chances to see how individuals cope with another’s intrusion into their intimate space.

We’ll skip planes, where the experience is something to be endured, and where travelers are just thankful to still have the free use of the plane’s pressurize air.  But consider the ubiquitous elevator, and the mix-and-match experience of having a meal in a railroad dining car.

As little closets expected to hold 10 or 12 people, elevators represent the triumph of necessity over comfort. Walking twelve flights is a good workout. But no one wants to arrive at their business destination looking like they just finished the New York Marathon. So in the cramped space of the little vertical room, eyes are averted to the ceiling, the poster advertising the restaurant in the lobby, or to a middle distance that is supposed to relieve others of the need to respond. It actually becomes harder to remain completely disengaged when only one or two are on an elevator. But there are safe tropes for a brief conversation that can help pass the time.  Comments on the weather are safe, as are observations on how slow this particular version of the vertical room is. In a hotel perhaps a timid query about where a co-passenger is from will work. But even that can tread near the borders of the acceptable. Not surprisingly, our comfort in these settings seems to be in direct proportion to the frequency of the experience. Living in the center of Chicago or New York, a person learns how to be a compatible stranger.

A few years ago I was at a convention at a large urban hotel where the management thought it would be a good idea to include a small built-in television screen and speaker just above the elevator’s control panel. Strangers who stepped in had to be ready for more than a vertical ride. They were immediately thrust into the world of CNN, where a good day means covering a national or world crisis with live and often disturbing images of mayhem. On this occasion I recall an endlessly repeated report focusing on community outrage over a police shooting. The story featured a home video of police beating and subduing two African American men.  Gunshots followed and one of the men died.

Endlessly looping the footage of the attacks over audio discussions of excessive force had the effect of throwing many convention-goers out of their celebratory mood and in to the much harder world of a socially polarized nation. As the elevator went up the mood of the passengers inevitably went down.

Here’s the interesting thing. The collection of individuals in the elevator became common witnesses to an ugly incident.  And yet no one wanted to react; no one wanted to reveal themselves to strangers by interpreting what CNN’s report meant. Opinions remained too intimate to risk with this transitional group.  Even so, our daily lives are not unlike this transitional moment. Like the tiny space that shuttles between floors, the pervasiveness of our media constantly deliver us to social situations which are not stable for very long.  Media relentlessly deliver us to vastly different representations of the human drama, some comforting and some disturbing.

Long-distance rail travel is another interesting case.  By custom, a single traveler eating in the dining car of a train will be asked to join others to make a table of four. Amtrak doesn’t accommodate the shy who want to eat alone. No other social routine is so likely to throw a person into the intimacy of a shared meal with total strangers. And yet the experience can be surprisingly refreshing.  If most of us live in a bubble of like-minded friends, the dining car is easily going to pierce it. On a recent trip that included lunch and diner I met a clearly well-heeled woman from Virginia horse country returning home after a speech to a woman’s group.  We sat across from a trucker from Elkhart Indiana who delivers buses all over the U.S. (and had to tell us about his $60,000-a-year salary).  At other meals I met two retired professors from Berkeley on their way to see family in Minnesota, a grizzled Florida retiree returning from a football game in Nebraska, and a perfectly dressed older woman off to see friends in the District of Columbia.

The rules of the table were always clear: references to hometowns, the lateness of the train, and dispersed families are all fair game. Politics, religion and other “third rail” topics are not.  We also had the common experience of having hit a car just after midnight.  It had died and been hastily abandoned on the tracks.  So we compared notes on who had been able to sleep while fire crews pulled the impaled automobile off the front of the engine.

My experience is that Midwesterners sometimes go on for too long about the prospects of their city or college football teams. I usually return the favor by becoming loquacious about the surprising beauty of New Jersey. But there is a bigger lesson here. Spending time in these close quarters is usually reassuring. Eating in Amtrak’s café or dining cars is as close as most of us will get to making contact with a random group of ordinary Americans. If we allow it, even this chance encounter can remind us of our shared and simple decency.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu