Wires and Lights in a Box

Ken Vest, Absolutely

Guest post by Ken Vest

In the speech to radio and television news directors that ended his career Edward R. Murrow said, “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”

Murrow was chastising broadcast news executives for chasing corporate profits over any meaningful use of what was then a fairly new medium.

Ken Vest

A few years later Newton R. Minow, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, gave a similar speech challenging the broadcast news industry to closely examine its daily diet of, “a procession of game shows, violence . . . sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons.” Sound familiar?

Minow urged broadcasters to honor the, “public interest” they were licensed to serve. That was a long time ago. Newton gave the same speech 25 years later in 1991 and nothing had changed. Of course, he was completely ignored, again. One smart ass producer of Gilligan’s Island thought it clever to name the boat that ran aground the, “S. S. Minow.”

Neal Postman wrote, “Amusing ourselves to death,” in which he argues that TV has destroyed public discourse in our nation. “American television . . . is devoted entirely to supplying its audience with entertainment.” He was speaking of regular programing and television news.

There was a time when the craft of journalism was, at its core, interpretive. News reporters aren’t, or shouldn’t be, objective. They can’t be if they are to do their readers and viewers any good. They must interpret human behavior and events. It should also be understood that news originations will never, ever go easy on their advertisers or ignore reporting stories that are contrary to their interests. Sadly, both of these practices have changed and may someday disappear altogether.
Without interpretation and context how are we to know what it all means, and more importantly, how will we learn the truth?

A hysterically fuming John McCain and a precious Lindsay Graham rolling his eyes don’t belong in news stories about President Obama’s handling of the Ukrainian crisis; unless they are asked what they would do. At a minimum, the reporter is obliged to say they would do nothing different from the President, because they can’t. Without that context news readers and viewers are being misled.

There was a time when professionals who covered the news made editorial judgments about the daily whirl of what happened in our nation and in the world. They decided what they believed, based on their training and experience, their consumers needed to know. What events had transpired that voters should know and care about in order for them to render their own judgments at the ballot box? Are their children getting the best education for the taxes they pay?

I used to do media training and would tell my clients that journalists are not biased, they hate everyone equally. Their true bias, print, broadcast and Internet, is financial. All news organizations fight for viewers, readers, and ratings every day. So they look for controversy and the sensational.

Postman argues, “Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our entertainment. He goes on to observe that we are “given daily fragments of tragedy and barbarism and are urged by the newscasters to join them tomorrow.” Why? Haven’t we had enough?

You can still find fragments of the way journalism should be practiced in print publications large and small. It was a tiny local newspaper in New Jersey that led to the hunt for Chris Christie’s true nature.

Today, editorial decisions are based not on what people need to know, but on what they want to know.

I used to cover Washington for WCMH-TV in Columbus, Ohio. Oddly, the news department at the station didn’t really care for news. The news director, producers and reporters didn’t want to be a bummer every day. I was visiting once and sat in on the daily run down of possible topics for the main newscasts that day. There was a poignant story about a homeless couple that had been murdered. They lived under a bridge. They were stabbed to death. He had more knife wounds leading police to believe he tried to protect her from the assailant. The story didn’t make it on Channel 4’s air. It was too depressing. Besides “homeless people don’t have TV sets.”

Ah, but what about the Internet, you may wonder. Aren’t there new models that will cover hard news and take advantage of new and emerging technologies? Maybe. Newspapers are struggling over how to monetize news. Do they erect pay walls, how do they handle advertising? One idea I’ve read about would create partnerships between newspaper web sites and advertisers. The web site would link to advertisers and for every dollar readers spent on the enterprise the paper would get a piece of the action. I wonder if the relationship would survive a story on how the business has been cheating its customers.

Independent non-profit Internet news sites have turned to sponsorships, taking money from individuals, corporations and organizations. This seems to be a solid approach, as long as the news web site is actually independent and transparent.

One high profile example, ably reported on by this blog, is the Texas Tribune. It has taken large sums of money from sources that are either covered with a very soft touch, or not at all.

There has always been a tension between advertisers and news organizations. Most legacy media news operations came down on the side of editorial integrity and would rebuff demands from advertisers to change or drop news coverage. There are a number of examples that indicate The Texas Tribune doesn’t adhere to this time honored practice.

Even the non-news, news programs are just as lustful for higher and balanced ratings. The Daily Show is the most prominent example. It’s pure entertainment but has something topical every night. And then there are the interviews. When Jon Stewart invites Bill O’Reilly on his program for a chat he’s giving him a platform. At least O’Reilly reciprocates, as if any FOX viewers are going to tune in to Stewart’s program.

It became more obvious to me that Stewart is trying to appeal to younger conservative viewers when he interviewed former Senator Jim DeMint. It was a real love fest. DeMint lamented the toxic atmosphere in Washington, even though he is one of the main causes. He has transformed the Heritage Foundation from a thoughtful conservative policy organization, to a hateful lobbying PAC with the main goal of terrorizing spineless Republicans. He also lied about not being involved in the government shutdown. But he smiled, gave Stewart a couple of aw-shucks, just a regular guy, someone you’d want to have over for a barbecue.

I miss the bygone days of journalism. I miss hearing Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite deliver the news. And someday I’m going to find a way to bind the arms of news anchors to their sides so there won’t be so much pointing and hand gestures.
It’s too late; I might as well accept the inevitable. I used to believe that folks who hunt for and edit their own news are not well informed. Not anymore. Hit the net, bounce around, you’re not getting the straight story anyhow.

You’ll get as much trustworthy information on your own.