The Difficulty Of Producing News In An Entertainment Venue
Do we want to live in a world in which people easily lose perspective?
Copyright © 2004 Dorian Scott Cole
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Is the news media today becoming a bad influence simply because it is forced to please the audience? The news media today performs a difficult balancing act, struggling to stay upright, while accosted from every side by numerous pressures. Is news possibly just another form of entertainment - a venue to tell people what they want to hear and add profits to the corporate bottom line?
Do news outlets have a trusted role in society, to inform on social issues and events, and on what is new; and to inquire into our world with sufficient depth to protect our interests? For example, was Watergate news because it was politically scandalous, and therefore sensational enough to draw a big newspaper and TV audience, or because exposing politically motivated wrongdoing revealed dangerous trends in US politics about which people needed to know?
Competition is a never-ending influence that significantly affects the bottom line. Fewer viewers, no money, no news media, no news jobs - the influence can't get much more real than that. Cable and satellite venues have made it possible to deliver a large variety of audience pleasing news styles to satisfy the wide-ranging tastes of individual viewers. The effect is to fragment the market into smaller and smaller segments.
Producers and newscasters struggle continuously to attract viewers in a market with growing competition. Some struggle just to stay in business, while others continuously review their formats looking for any edge just to retain the viewers they have.
There have always been scandal sheets and gossip rags devoted to tempting the market for sensationalism and views of the seamy side of life, focusing on the sordid details of what went wrong, rather than bringing to the public attention injustice and victories. There have always been news entertainers who speak from a particular biased point of view, promoting their own agendas through half-truths and innuendo rather than the unbiased reporting of fact.
Even the nation's founding fathers routinely published lies and innuendo about their opponents to sway opinion their way, often hiding their identities behind pseudonyms, while defaming their opponent's character and motives. Sometimes those differences were settled in a dual.
In today's world, while there are many in the public who do gravitate toward dirt and tittle-tattle, and whose opinions are easily swayed or reinforced by rhetoric, many others aren't influenced. What I am hearing with increasing frequency, and what I personally feel, is that as this type of reporting becomes more widespread, it is hurting us all.
The pictures of world events that the news media paints, by pandering to mass appeal, skews the news in radical directions, presenting misperceptions rather than accurate news stories. Many people have high expectations of the news media, and when reporting falls below that standard, they cease viewing.
To their credit, most news services seem to resist covering stories that have little value. As one current example, with conventions having changed in recent years to simply being rallies for their already determined candidate, news coverage of conventions has also diminished.
What is news? An avid news watcher all of my life, other matters have often obstructed me from getting the news for significant periods, but rarely have I lost interest... until recently. So I offer this feedback to any who are interested. It reflects on "what is news?" to me.
Looking back, I see why I arrived at this point. The media circuses surrounding world events has destroyed the credibility I had for some news services to select stories that have merit. The news coverage of the riots of the 1960s left doubts in my mind about how much people were actually rioting, and how much was played for the camera. Years later, I think the balance was real, and only some was for the camera. I live with the disparity.
My doubts began in earnest, I think, with the Mississippi River floods of the early 1990s. It was a big story, affecting thousands of people along the Mississippi and tributaries. One Hundred Year floods are certainly worthy of coverage. Several weeks into the flood, as the waters receded, I called a local television newscaster to discuss a career move I was considering. So preoccupied was he with the flood that three words couldn't be spoken without his being distracted by some flood related scrap of information. Intelligent conversation was impossible.
That small insight told me two things. One, that environment wasn't somewhere that I wanted to be. Two, people can get their perspective completely warped by focusing too long on one thing. It kind of reminds me of the "hot spots" that show up in brain imaging of people who become obsessed. Once the hot spot forms, the habitual behavior is very difficult to break.
The excessive coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial for the murder of his wife was probably the next big event that fostered my disdain for the ability of the media to select news stories. The story deserved continuous coverage of events: national figure, gruesome murder, bizarre behavior, police bias, faulty police work, cutting edge science, probable jury bias, attorneys playing to the jury, and a surprise verdict - all newsworthy.
But the story dominated the news for months and even gained special coverage. This story was bigger than all other news of the time? The media circus probably extended the trial as every player used the press to strengthen his position. The media was the news. This raised questions for me about the effect of the media and the media's ability to select news stories. Subsequent news stories, such as today's Michael Jackson, Koby Bryant, and other sensational trials, have taken the same route.
The coverage of the Iraq war, despite having reporters embedded with the troops, has had a consistent approach to reporting - a drone - of the daily military conflicts that are more or less expected during a war and counter-insurgency. These daily conflicts are not big news any more than the loss of hundreds of lives daily on the nations highways.
The US, and its allies (even if some were influenced to participate), set out on a historic mission with the goals of removing a dangerous tyrant, and liberating and rebuilding a nation, in a part of the world in which the US is seen both as a savior and a demon, respected and hated. This mission, difficulties, and especially the accomplishments, are news.
Instead of hearing the daily accomplishments of people getting electrical power, schools, choices, improved medical care, food, freedom from tyranny, the effect on people's lives, what the media delivers to us is a Vietnam style search for bodies to count.
The billions of dollars that US citizens poured into Iraq, went for what? The soldiers died for what? To kill some people? To get a daily number of attacks? What are my dollars accomplishing in Iraq? The soldiers died for nothing? I want to know. I have high regard for reporter's ability to sniff out wrongs and expose them, even in the face of danger. I believe that this is a very important mission.
Such things as abuse, mismanagement of waging peace, the lack of nuclear weapons, as well as the lack of terrorist connections, are very important reporting on the war. Death of soldiers, civilians, enemy combatants, and continued or growing opposition - all are very important things to report. But are these things the main story? The US, Allied, and Iraqi soldiers died for what? To create body counts for the news media? Who is sniffing out the very important main story?
The result of warped media coverage of the Iraq war invites more and more criticism and discontent worldwide. Who loses is the Iraqi people, those who died for this cause, and those people around the world who undertook an enormous and noble task. I'm not a cynic, but it is difficult to ignore the current cynical saying, "No good deed goes unpunished."
Reporters do what they are trained and indoctrinated to do. The Watergate expose, and investigative reporting, seem to be the trough from which they all imbibe: find what is wrong and expose it. It is a style of reporting. But not every situation warrants the exclusive approach of this style.
The moment in time when I completely lost interest in the news was during the investigation of prisoner torture and abuse in Iraq, by the US. It was an important story. The US, which tries to be a leader in civil rights, has to hold itself to a higher standard, and must examine itself.
I am very upset by the actions of those who did these crimes, and by the failure of political and military leadership to ensure the proper treatment and interrogation of prisoners. This warranted investigation and was investigated without the prompting of the press, to the credit of the military. This was not an area in which the press was especially needed with its unique talents for ferreting out problems and exposing them to the public.
What some of the press did was turn the story into another worldwide daily soap opera, complete with visual spectacles, to draw viewers. The result was more US world criticism, inflaming moderates and radicals all over the world, in a "beat yourself up" style of self criticism, self doubt, and self deprecation, that turns a blind eye to the good that the US does, to focus on lesser problems. "Throwing the baby out with the bath water," is a good analogy. When it comes to expose, in this situation the cure was worse than the disease.
Far from a responsible response to the events, the coverage was irresponsible, sickening, destructive, and counter-productive. Al Jazeera perhaps chose the wrong examples to emulate in the American press - no wonder they emphasize the negative.
At this point, some of the news media appears to have crossed the line from having a serious role in the US and world society, to simply being news entertainment venues for the minority rabble who always prowl the gutter.
My suggestions at this point are:
1. Label stories as entertainment that are intended to draw the audience.
2. Relearn what is news, and regain perspective, to offer fair and balanced coverage.
Some news organizations will have to work hard to regain my trust, and interest... or not. I'll be watching. Wait, no, I'm not watching. Well, maybe I am watching. ; )
The journalist tips that will appear later on this Web site, emphasize finding the story.
Lest we forget
With election rhetoric heating up, and the patience of the American people growing thin, it is difficult to keep things in perspective. The following is my perspective on the war in Iraq.
Campaign rhetoric would have us believe that we were deliberately misled into going into Iraq, and that we shouldn't be there. If you believe that, you might also believe the fairy tale that we can finance medical care by taking money from the rich - Robin Hood style. Popular motif, but an ineffective way to run a nation.
(Other than that, I like a lot of what Kerry claims to stand for... which sounds an awful lot like what Bush claims to stand for. The question is, can either of the two candidates fulfill their promises, or will Bush sell out again to corporate interests, make more risky and unwanted tax cuts while taking an ineffective course to raise employment, and refuse to cooperate with anyone in the world? Or will Kerry discover he has to actually win the war on terrorism and that medical care is difficult to finance, and he has to do more than just show up, which is even in question? Right now, these are big questions in my mind, with neither candidate looking like a winner.)
The war in Iraq began after a long period of scrutiny by the world of trends in the Middle East, Persia, and regional nations, the trends and causes of terrorism in the area, the growing threats to the US, Europe, Russia, Arab nations, third world countries and island nations, and to Iraq's neighboring Islamic countries. Terrorism, violent upheaval, and then repression, feed on discontent, instability, political repression, and economic problems. This didn't start with Al Qaeda. Armed revolution and upheaval has fomented in such conditions since well before the 20th. Century.
Saddam Hussein was a major cause of instability, discontent, and violence in the region. His actions, while not directly supporting terrorism, encouraged others to take bold steps against major powers. The chaos that Saddam could create was unpredictable. He attacked his neighbors. He had designs of being the regional leader. He flaunted world authority, and attacked the US regularly to enhance his image. Violence was a prime ingredient in anything Saddam attempted. His actions were nothing short of terrorism.
Saddam routinely killed his own people, in mass numbers, and maintained an army of torturers to inflict harm capriciously on anyone who entered his path. He planned assassinations of world leaders, expecting to use his own trained goons. For certain, he was developing nuclear bombs in his well-hidden laboratories in the late 1980s, and developed long-range missile delivery systems through 2001. He manufactured biological weapons and used them on his own people, and could have resumed production quickly at any time.
Saddam was incredibly deceptive, hiding things from arms inspectors in a continuous cat and mouse game. Everyone suspected that Saddam currently had nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, or weapons development programs, and his behavior strongly supported that suspicion. If he didn't have them, then he shouldn't have plead guilty by his belligerent behavior, and if he didn't intend to use them, then he shouldn't have shown his willingness and intention to use them by his past behavior and current threats against others.
Saddam's actions continued to fuel ill-will in the region toward the US and the world, since the world required the US and others to continuously contain him through military force and sanctions. The sanctions hurt the Iraqi people, which was an intolerable situation for the world, yet Saddam continued spending money on his military purposes, money that was desperately needed for schools and hospitals. He was determined to be a world threat no matter what.
The devious, ruthless, diabolical, and unpredictable Saddam was a unique menace who might launch destructive world-wide plans through his own well trained human instruments of tyranny and destruction, or who might give nuclear and biological material to regional hate groups to use against any nation or group that Saddam decided to exterminate. This kind of action was consistent with his earlier attacks on his own people and neighbors.
The Iraqi people believed that the US would help them remove Saddam. The US encouraged them, but stopped short of helping them. They tried and failed to remove him from power, and were punished bitterly by Saddam for their actions. They could not topple tyranny without help. The leaders of other Arab nations didn't have sufficient influence with Saddam, and lacked support in their own countries to use any kind of force. Leaders of European and other nations made economic, technological, and military links to Iraq, but they lacked sufficient influence, and lacked the will to use force.
After an expensive war in 1990 to stop Saddam, and after ten years of trying to keep him contained, at high cost to the US and to US relations to other countries, following the 9/11 wake up strike against the US, and following escalating military provocation by Saddam, there were few realistic options left for the US. Saddam might or might not have ties to Al Qaeda , but he posed a significant terrorist threat to the US and the world.
Additionally, out of Iraq were likely to come more disenchanted and hate filled people willing to join other terrorists, and more thugs with the specialized training to mercilessly inflict terrorist actions on innocent people. At minimum, Saddam terrorized the region and was a beacon to those who wanted to strike the US and other countries they hated. Despite containment, he grew stronger by the day. After 9/11, no one in the US was going to sit idly by while Saddam plotted and grew strong enough to strike the US or anyone else.
The US formed a plan to remove Saddam Hussein from power. They would remake Iraq as a sovereign nation, with the leadership of the Iraqi people's choice. The plan had the overwhelming support of the US people and Congress. Overlooked by the cynics, the bad news pundits, the prophets of failure, those who can't see beyond the difficulties of the moment, and a significant part of the news media, is that the plan is working. Saddam and his regime no longer pose a threat to anyone. Iraq has a government, and will soon have a government elected by the people. There are still significant bridges to cross.
The plan was not without serious criticism and careful review. The Pope spoke out against the plan. Many European and other world leaders would not support the plan. For one thing, (my perception is) Iraq's oil and other trade was vital to them - only the US and a few other countries lacked the dependence on Iraqi oil, and the others feared reprisal from other terrorists. Personally, I am still not convinced that Bush did all he could to resolve issues with Saddam (or anyone else), but as Saddam refused time after time to abide by UN mandates, the case against Saddam was conclusive as it stood, and Saddam hung himself.
The popular argument made by US haters that the war was about oil is contrary to the facts. The US voted to restrict Iraqi oil production prior to the war, the US remained largely independent of Iraqi oil, and since the war the US has reserved Iraqi oil sales profits for Iraqi use.
Despite divided world opinion, or reservations, the only effective choice left was replacing Saddam Hussein with an Iraqi elected leader, through the only means left: military power.
We knew that American soldiers might lose their lives, possibly thousands of them through biochemical attacks. We compared that with the loss of life in the 9/11 attack and the potential of Saddam to initiate or support similar terrorist attacks against the US. We expected a difficult fight and expected to be in Iraq for a long time. We knew from the outset that other military powers, such as foreign fighters and terrorists, might be drawn to Iraq and become a hotbed of resistance. "Better there than here," was an often-heard refrain.
We knew from past experiences, such as rebuilding Germany and Japan, and the military protection of Korea, that our military and economic commitment would likely be required for many years. But creating stability in the region was worth it. Nothing could get better, and would only get worse, with Saddam Hussein in power.
The US took action and is justly do many criticisms. The US has not perfectly lived up to its image and high standards; has not perfectly run the war and peace efforts, has revealed serious weaknesses in US and world intelligence gathering, has underestimated the problem of waging peace in this current age and region, has not fully understood Arab and Islamic culture, and had to be rudely awakened to the seriousness of world problems by 9/11. But who else but the US and Allies measured up to the task for such a critical and noble mission. Mainland Europe is averse to such a task. The US and Allies are the only ones doing it. Let the critics, who know so much, fix Sudan.
Now, over a year after the war, with a new Iraqi government in place, we now know that the military did not encounter some of the most feared hazards, we did not have heavy casualties, and our role of standing beside the Iraqis as they take control of their country may be protracted. Terrorists and foreign fighters have concentrated more on their own soil, and less on the US and world (except in Russia). Iraq is again a sovereign nation, and together with Afghanistan, it is making the difficult struggle toward Democracy, with leaders elected by Islamic societies.
Because a stronger power stands by these societies, they are able to make the necessary moves toward forming a strong and cohesive government, and are able to keep the lawless and destructive elements within their society at bay. As stability comes to this region, the underlying causes of terrorism can be addressed and resolved. Slowly, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are gaining the strength to confront terrorists in their own countries, as the US and Allies endure and terrorist leadership is destroyed.
There is an alternative. We can listen to the cynics, and those who would stand aside and let terrorists and people like Saddam Hussein threaten and control the world through their own personal brands of terrorism. We can throw in the towel in Iraq now and let the Iraqi people pick up the pieces. We can even back out of Afghanistan. What will happen?
The same thing that happened before. We can cease being part of the cure and go back to being part of the problem. The US will be branded as a symbol of gluttony, bullying, evil, and having no backbone - powerful wealth with no moral fiber - who won't help anyone. Countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, which lack the power to have effective government, will again become overcome with fanatics who want to rule the world by their own insanity, and these countries will become hosts to any terrorist who wants to set up a training camp. The countries will simply become a base for terrorist training, funding, and missions.
If we pursue this path, it won't be long before the terrorists are again landing on our shores, blowing up our buildings, taking our school children hostage, destroying our land and democracy, and that of every other nation on earth.
The only effective path is to help the world change for the better so that terrorism has no place to recruit from. It is a responsibility we ignore at our own peril.
In return, we can expect to be hated by those who for any reason don't like our actions, be attacked by those like Saddam who want to make a show of their pretentious power, be demonized by our opponents, be attacked wherever US interests in the world are, be doubted and ridiculed by the cynics among us, be given unpopular and sensational news coverage, have a continuing drain on our economy, be spat on by those we help, be opposed by those who take other routes to peace (I wish them success) or are indifferent or unwilling to help... and in the end, we may have new friends in thriving democracies, but especially we will have a much more peaceful world in which to live.
Please listen with discriminating ears this campaign season. Just as terrorist leaders use discontent and hype as recruiting tools, so do politicians and those in the press who play on sensation. It's an election year. The road the US has chosen in the world is full of difficulties, and only those who are strong and responsible will bear it. If we throw in our cards, I am certain that we will lose big.
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