From 14 Hours in the Future: This Just In, Again

The news junkie calls for reform.

As some of you may have noticed, we’ve just finished up a war, for the most part. Operation: Iraqi Freedom, Desert Storm II — whatever you want to call it, the point is that the US and friends invaded Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction and to liberate the citizenry, and maybe some oil. I’m not here to debate the legality or morality of the war; no, I’m here to talk about something much more important.

Seriously.

For those of you who have been following this column since its early days (which I’m positive most of you have), you may know that I am a self-proclaimed news junkie. Well, that’s all changed in recent weeks, and for many valid reasons. The modern media has always been very proud of its ability to bring accurate news from around the globe to the common viewer in an almost instantaneous fashion. This, of course, is a good thing on its surface. However, the modern media also is run by global mega-corporations who need to think about the bottom line.

When the war began, I was sitting around watching cartoons, as all well-adjusted people should be doing at ten o’clock on a Wednesday. During the commercial, I flipped over to CNN to see how things were going following the whole “Twenty-Four Hours to Destruction” was going. Lo and behold, the war had already started and the bombs were falling (I can’t really fault Cartoon Network for not making that announcement; I don’t think it really concerns them). It was like 1991 all over again, except this time the night vision wasn’t quite as grainy, and CNN had an army of experts and analysts all ready to roll.

I will freely admit that I spent those first couple of days engrossed with the news, watching at every chance I could get. It was pretty easy to stay in touch wherever I was, too. The mall had it playing on every available screen, and even the sushi place I went to for lunch had a television with it burbling away in the background.

After those first few days, though, it hit me. As I watched the news come in all day, I really wasn’t watching anything new. Pay close attention, and you’d see the same hillside blow up 25 times, or the same troops surrendering over and over again. A quick count revealed that there was really only about thirty minutes worth of actual news to talk about, and it was just repeated ad nauseum. Oh, sure, they spread it out a bit by having experts and analysts dissect everything that went on during the day to the point that you couldn’t tell what was actually happening anymore versus what was just rampant speculation, but it was still the same half-hour’s worth of news.

I single out CNN, but they were not the only guilty ones. The 24-hour news networks were most guilty of all, but even the Big Three, in that first week when they stayed on all day, were a party to the problem. The whole concept of the 24-hour network is that with all that time, the public would be getting up-to-the-minute information, without the need to edit down stories to fit a half-hour news slot. So, the obvious question was “Is there really just not that much going on?” The answer, of course, was no. A quick check of Internet news sources revealed that there was a hell of a lot going on. Political machinations across the globe, humanitarian problems, and, oh yes, protests. There was some brief mention of the fact that some people were against the war on CNN, but if you blinked, you missed it.

I soon made the discovery that the only time of day that I could actually enjoyed watching the news was usually from about 1 to 2 a.m. During this time, the footage just would roll in live from Iraq, and they would slap it right up on screen; no experts, no analysis. Just reporters giving reports, with no prepackaged segments of footage. Those rare hours captured what I’ve always felt 24-hour news should be all about. Unfortunately, those few rare hours were fleeting. Soon it was back to endless loops of drivel.

I think the spirit of what I’m talking about can be summed up with the pinnacle moment of victory in Baghdad, when the statue in the city center was toppled. Sure, it was a powerful image when you first saw it, but CNN literally replayed that same two minutes of footage all day. There was not a moment of that day that passed when there was not, somewhere on screen, a picture of that statue falling over. If they had the ability to, I’m sure they would have played it during the commercials, too.

So the question is, what went so horribly wrong? I don’t think it can be pinned down to any one thing, but much like society at large, it’s a combination of insidious influences. The post-September 11th media, much like our politicians, is generally afraid to be critical of the president or his policies. Focusing on war protesters could quickly earn you the label of un-American. The, of course, there are political motivations in general. Can anyone out there seriously argue that Fox News Network does not have decided slant to it? And, of course, there are money and ratings. Everyone wants to be the biggest and flashiest, to hell with actual content.

Somewhere in the ranks of the networks, someone decided that the American people don’t want straight news. they want to be spoon-fed pretty graphics and sound bites. There is a movement of anti-intellectualism in the country, and no one wants to be the “brainy” network. The sad part is, we as a nation seem generally content to sit back and accept that.

With the war now over, coverage has returned somewhat to normal. That is to say, it’s still quite bad, but with a slightly larger variety of repeated footage throughout the day. Now we get stories about deadly SARS over and over again, and the self-congratulatory orgy of networks congratulating themselves on their excellent war coverage. But did CNN tell us that Senator Santorum has made blatantly anti-homosexual statements and refuses to apologize? Or that Newt Gingrich works for the Pentagon now as a consultant and claims the State Department is a dismal failure? Or that Bush is planning his campaign for re-election to coincide with the September 11th anniversary? Or that they just discovered the largest squid ever, the so-called Colossal Squid?!

I don’t know how to remedy this problem, as it runs deeper than just the networks. They don’t change because no one asks them to. They are, in general, giving people exactly what they want. So what’s our problem as a nation that the drivel we get is what we want? Nobody knows, and no one is ever going to find out unless we start asking.

Article © 2003 by Joel Haddock