I was having a brew or two last night with a couple of fellow-writers who were passing through my town, and we got to wondering why American TV news programs have become so awful. We agreed that the way TV stations present information has become not only misleading but also pretty much unwatchable. Because we were all print writers we could only guess at the reasons.
I’ve been mulling over the conversation this morning and some snippets of my brief forays into TV came drifting back. I recalled one incident when I was drafted to read a commercial. It was some kind of Caribbean travel ad and the producer figured I could do an authentic “voice over” because I was born in Jamaica. I thought it would be a simple matter – read a few lines in an exaggerated Jamaican accent, smile modestly when they tell me how well I’ve done, and then go back to my newspaper day job.
I was mistaken. I kept having to read the damn thing over and over as the producer urged me to project “more energy, more energy!” By the time he was satisfied, I sounded like a chipmunk on steroids. And I was exhausted.
So, I was intrigued when I came across a blog by Robert Reich (photo below) distributed today by Truthout.
Not long ago I was debating someone on television. I thought the discussion was going well until the commercial break when a producer said into my earpiece “be angrier.”
“Why should I be angrier?” I asked him, irritated that he hadn’t appreciated the thoughtfulness of debate.
“That’s how we get channel surfers to stop and watch the program,” the producer explained. “Eyeballs are attracted to anger.”
You would think TV producers would want to get Reich’s sober and thoughtful evaluation of the news. After all, he is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Clinton. But apparently what this producer wanted was melodrama.
Viewers never saw the producer who demanded more anger from Reich in order to attract channel surfers. All they saw was Reich’s response (which must have made the producer very happy).
“At this point I lost my temper,” he said.
This was no isolated incident. Reich added that he was on CNBC this morning, discussing Indiana Senator Evan Bayh’s surprise decision to quit politics. And while no producer prodded him to be angrier this time, “Larry Kudlow introduced the segment by saying that I’d be ‘duking it out’ with Steve Moore, who writes editorials for the Wall Street Journal. And when it came time for us to discuss the gridlock in Congress, Larry continuously interrupted, saying the reason for the gridlock was Obama’s left-leaning agenda.”
Not unreasonably, Reich considers this kind of buffoonery deplorable. He points out that:
When this is almost all the public sees and hears about public issues, it’s no wonder Americans begin to think everything is an angry shouting match. Americans stop listening to each other. We retreat into small ideological bubbles and talk only with people who agree with us. We forget how much we have in common, and how important it is to get on with the task of making the nation better.
So, Bill and Tom, if you guys are reading this, I think I’ve found out why the presentation of news on TV is so horrible. It’s the fault of the producers, faceless puppeteers schooled in the tradition of Barnum and Bailey. They are rarely, if ever, journalists. Here’s a job description I found on the web:
Television is a very fluid and fast-paced medium that tries to make full use of its talented workers. Television producers often have a broad range of experience, training and expertise… Some may have studied TV or film production as college students, while others may have worked their way up through the ranks of the studio world starting as assistants and using their networking abilities to pull them up through the various levels of responsibility.
So, cue that dramatic music, roll those “fast-paced and fluid” visuals, and send in the clowns. The show must go on. Those channel-surfing eyeballs must be stopped in their tracks.
And if the public is grossly misinformed in the process, well, as P.T. Barnum is supposed to have said, “a sucker is born every minute.” Anyone who thinks they’re going to get reliable information from a 24-hour news channel that lives and dies by its ratings deserves to be misinformed.