The same old dance

What is the news? According to Bill Paley, the founder of CBS, you need a balance in broadcasting: one side as entertainment, like Frank Sinatra, and the other as news, like Edward R. Murrow. 

Fred Friendly, the ex-head of CBS News, once said, “Television makes so much [money] at its worst that it can’t afford to do its best.” That’s certainly proving to be the case these past weeks.

If you have a mind to, watch the morning and evening news with a stopwatch. Of the half-hour news in the evening, you will find that the 30 minutes are actually 21 minutes when you remove commercials. 

Then you will find the five main topics for the evening are covered in under six minutes collectively. The rest is feature pieces — feel-good segments at the end, all meant to entertain you, hold your interest, keep viewers happy and buying commercial products (news is controlled by the marketing departments these days). 

When the evening news was broadcast in the early ‘70s, the coverage of the Vietnam conflict occupied 15 minutes a night, unless testimony on Watergate took priority. Nothing used to be glanced over, no fighting American story had to give way for a snowfall, forest fire or cat chasing away a kid being attacked by a stray dog on the family driveway.

These past weeks, we’ve watched entertainment journalism of the hurricanes with “dramatic scenes” of men and women of the broadcast news divisions “bravely” standing in blustery winds, ducking as sea spray crashes ashore, or, more recently, truly pathetic questions of emergency service personnel, “What do you feel like when dealing with shooting victims?” 

On CNN there was even a doctor who was asked, “Don’t you feel sad?” 

Norah O’Donnell of CBS This Morning, purposefully tearing up, talking to a survivor (of course a pretty, blonde girl made-up in her hospital bed), leading the college student to recount the trauma, tears flowing, visibly upset. Gee, I wonder if people who get shot are still upset two days later? 

That’s news? Or is it voyeurism and prurient interest meant to entertain? When there is nothing that is not already totally obvious about a situation, they feel forced to ask stupid questions to ensure entertainment, emotion, what they call “human interest” values. 

Here’s a lesson for the news media: If we are watching, we are interested. We are human. End of a need for more human interest spoon-feeding. Ah, but wait, let’s get to the really good journalism at the Olympics: the winner being asked, “What’s it feel like to win?” or the even better piece of failed journalism, “Are you feeling happy that you won?”

This desperation to convert news to entertainment destroys accuracy. The girl in the hospital bed should be asked, “Who do you blame for this shooting?” The hurricane victim, struggling to stay alive in chest-deep water, should not be asked, “What’s it feel like to be rescued?” but “Why did you need rescuing in the first place? Why didn’t you, why couldn’t you evacuate beforehand? We knew this storm was coming for weeks.” That’s the real story, how that human failed to get out. Was it terror, fear, money or just stupidity? We’ll never know now.

The governor of Puerto Rico, desperate to curry favor with the D.C. administration people, kept saying how wonderful they were. When interviewed, not one journalist asked, “Two weeks in, and 95 percent of the island still has no communication or electricity. What are you doing about that? Who is really to blame?”

Joseph Pulitzer said, “Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately, so they will be guided by its light.” 

As long as we’re desperately trying to entertain, accuracy flies in and out, never stopping. No one will remember, so we’re set to repeat every major catastrophe again and again. Shootings, crime, climate-change hurricanes, floods, snow storms, drought, fires …  that list of events we could learn to avoid will never be tackled as long as we see them as entertainment, prurient interest and not fodder for thinking and resolving. The news should guide, not entertain.

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.