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John Whitehead's Commentary

Television News: Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?

John Whitehead

"We've got the bubble-headed bleach-blonde who comes on at five. She can tell you about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye. It's interesting when people die. Give us dirty laundry." —Don Henley, "Dirty Laundry"

Anyone who relies exclusively on television/cable news hosts and political commentators for actual knowledge of the world today is making a serious mistake. Unfortunately, as Americans have devolved into non-readers with woefully short attention spans, newspapers providing even semi-analytical content have found themselves struggling to stay afloat while television, which delivers little more than news sound bites sandwiched between superficial chitchat and entertainment buzz, has become the prime source of so-called "news."

In this way, real news of national significance is either under-reported or unreported altogether while contrived media spectacles such as the Casey Anthony trial or the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton are allowed to dominate the news headlines for days and weeks on end. As media theorist Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, rightly observed, "The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event... Without a medium to create its form, the news of the day does not exist."

In our media-dominated age, news personalities such as Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews, Sean Hannity, and Rachel Maddow, among others, dispense the news with power and certainty like preachers used to dispense religion and boast vast viewerships that hang on their every word. Yet these talking heads are little more than Wizard of Oz-like front men for the powers-that-be, the mega corporations whose sphere of influence extends from the newsroom to the nexus of political power, Washington, DC.

Clearly, there can be little hope for objective reporting in an environment where propaganda and advertisements are delivered in the guise of entertainment and news. Indeed, given the preponderance of news-as-entertainment programming that is trafficked on every channel, whether it be cable or broadcast news, it is little wonder that viewers are largely losing the ability to differentiate between news commentary and news reporting. And as long as the television sets remain aglow (in an average household, the television set is on over seven hours a day), the blabbering of talking heads and overbearing advertising will continue.

Short of tuning out altogether, there is no way to completely ignore the mass media, but the following truths may help to refocus one's media lens in order to better view the news through the eyes of an informed citizen.

1. TV news is not what happened. Rather, it is what someone thinks is worth reporting. The old art of investigative reporting has largely been lost. In fact, investigative reporting on television news is practically impossible, as the medium requires fast-paced transitions that flicker across the screen before being replaced by a completely unrelated discussion. Nuance is the enemy of television news. Any hard-hitting investigative report is drowned out by flavor of the week sound bites. While viewers are often inclined to take what is reported by television "news" hosts at face value, it is your responsibility to judge and analyze what is reported and uncover that which goes unreported.

For example, while the internet was rife with the news that American soldiers had formed themselves into so-called "kill teams" in order to kill innocent civilians in Afghanistan, it rated barely a mention on TV news. Similarly, little is said by the mainstream news about America's use of unmanned drone aircrafts in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen—countries with which America is not officially at war—despite the fact that the drone strikes have resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians. Meanwhile, although at least 1,400 Americans have been arrested since 2009 for protesting in anti-war activities, the mainstream media has been strangely silent. Yet the media's portrayal of Vietnam and anti-war activists was one reason Americans turned away from that war. The media also continues to overlook outrageous abuses of power within our own country. There are an estimated 40,000 SWAT team raids of American homes each year, many of which go awry, resulting in the senseless loss of life and destruction of private property, and yet we don't hear a peep from the corporate media about this havoc being wrought in our cities and towns.

2. TV news is entertainment. It is important to distinguish between TV news that portrays itself as news but is actually entertainment, such as many of the morning news shows, as opposed to programming that may be informative but casts itself primarily as entertainment, such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. (Ironically, people who watch the latter type of shows tend to be more informed on the issues than those who watch the major media networks such as CNN and Fox News Channel.) There is also a good reason why the programs you watch are called news "shows"—it's a signal that the so-called news is being delivered as a form of entertainment. Often, stories of some significance are sandwiched between banal pieces about celebrities and fictitious news events. "In the case of most news shows," write Neil Postman and Steve Powers in their insightful book, How to Watch TV News (1992), "the package includes attractive anchors, an exciting musical theme, comic relief, stories placed to hold the audience, the creation of the illusion of intimacy, and so on." For example, CNN Money actually ran a segment on what the cost of sending a student to Hogwarts, a fictional school in a book about wizards, would be. Most recently, one of CNN's Headline News female anchors seamlessly transitioned from a sober discussion about the debt ceiling fiasco to Helen Mirren being named the female celebrity body of the year, only to end with what appeared to be a chirpy plug for Apple's iPad.

Particularly disconcerting is the unabashed sexism showcased on most of what passes for television news today. More often than not, the news media employs female anchors that are over-sexualized and dumbed down for mass consumption, condemned to either play sidekick to the seemingly more "knowledgeable" men or discuss completely trivial issues with even less analytical skill than their vacuous male counterparts. Curiously, according to a study from researchers at Indiana University, men are more likely to closely watch sexy anchors but less likely to remember what they said.

3. Never underestimate the power of commercials, especially to news audiences. Television news media exists because of corporate sponsorship, a.k.a. advertising, the power of which should not be underestimated. The glitz and glamour of the present-day news show is intended to keep you glued to the set so that a product can be sold to you. (Even the TV news hosts get in on the action by peddling their own products, everything from their latest books to mugs and bathrobes.) Although the news items spoon-fed to you may have some value, they are primarily a commodity to gather an audience, which will in turn be sold to advertisers. Most people, believing themselves to be in control of their media consumption, are not really bothered by this. But TV is a two-way attack: it not only delivers programming to your home, it also delivers you (the consumer) to a sponsor.

The vast array of shiny objects, whirring gizmos, scantily clad women, and mind-altering prescription drugs being peddled on television may not compel everyone to run out and spend money, but no one is immune from the constant barrage of advertising. Corporations would not spend exorbitant sums of money on advertising (expenditures by American companies in 2001 were over $230 billion) were it not effective. Indeed, studies have shown that people do not even have to pay attention to the content of an advertisement to be affected by it. Food advertising, in particular, has taken quite a toll on the nation's waistline. A study undertaken by researchers at Yale University determined that food advertising affects how much children consume while watching television (the average child in an American household views upwards of 40,000 television commercials every year). The study found that children placed in a room with a bowl of goldfish crackers while watching a five-minute cartoon with food ads ate 45% more snacks than did their counterparts who did not see food ads. In a similar study, researchers found that adults exposed to ads for both unhealthy and healthy foods were willing to eat a wider range of food in larger portions as compared to their peers who saw only healthy food or no food ads.

4. It is vitally important to learn about the economic and political interests of those who own the "corporate" media. There are few independent news sources anymore. The major news outlets are owned by corporate empires. For example, General Electric owns the entire stable of NBC shows, including MSNBC, which it co-owns with Microsoft. CBS is owned by Westinghouse, while Disney owns ABC. CNN is owned by the multi-corporation Time-Warner, while Fox News Channel is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Whether it comes down to acquiring government contracts or avoiding government regulation, corporations have a vested interest in politics. To this end, the two major parties in this country are heavily bankrolled by corporate dollars. For example, Time-Warner contributed about half a million dollars to Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008. General Electric (GE) handed Obama about half a million dollars as well. This is not a partisan issue, either. GE gave McCain about $100,000 in 2008 and Kerry and Bush about $100,000 each in 2004. In the 2010 election cycle, GE offered $1,378,310 to Democratic candidates and $899,460 to Republican candidates.

This begs the question: how can a corporate news network present objective news on any issue if it is financially supporting a political candidate or promoting a message to a specific audience? The answer is simple: it can't. "One doesn't have to be a Marxist," note Postman and Powers, "to assume that people making a million dollars a year will see things differently from people struggling to make ends meet." Remember, the aim of the news media is not to inform viewers but rather to sell them a product. Unfortunately, in the quest to turn a profit, truth suffers. This is why it is so vitally important to get various views on news stories and from sources that present a different view than what is seen on the corporate news networks.

5. Pay special attention to the language of newscasts and what is not being reported. More often than not, pundits and reporters tend to focus more on political games of one-upmanship rather than the real issues affecting the nation. For example, recent news reports have revolved around how the Republicans played hardball with the Democrats over the debt ceiling debate, and how the President used his "bully pulpit" to put pressure on Republicans to compromise. Not being discussed are the multitude of wars America is embroiled in, the continued dismantling of civil liberties in this country, and the widening gap in wealth between the top 1% of Americans and the working and middle classes. The wool is being pulled over our eyes as the country continues to plunge into darkness.

TV by its very nature manipulates viewers. One must never forget that every television minute has been edited. The viewer does not see the actual event but the edited form of the event. For example, presenting a one- to two-minute segment from a two-hour political speech and having a TV talk show host critique it may be disingenuous, but such edited footage is a regular staple on news shows. Consider the fact that the average sound bite during the 1968 presidential election was 43 seconds in length, whereas by 1988 the average sound bite hovered around a mere 9 seconds long. Add to that the fact that the reporters editing the footage have a subjective view—sometimes determined by their corporate bosses—that enters into their commentary, and you have a recipe for misinformation. Moreover, because film footage and other visual imagery are so engaging on TV news shows, viewers are apt to allow language—what the reporter is saying about the images—to go unexamined, despite the fact that the meaning we derive from the image is often determined by the host's commentary.

6. Greatly reduce the amount of TV news you watch. TV news generally consists of "bad" news—wars, torture, murders, scandals and so forth. It cannot possibly do you any harm to excuse yourself each week from much of the mayhem projected at you on the news. Do not form your concept of reality based on television. TV news, it must be remembered, does not reflect normal everyday life. Studies indicate that a heavy viewing of TV news makes people think the world is much more dangerous than it actually is. One "study indicates that watching television, including news shows, makes people somewhat more depressed than they otherwise would be," say Postman and Powers. This may lead to chronic depression and constantly being alarmed. These feelings of depression and alarm ignited during the newscast are juxtaposed with advertisements offering stress relieving and distracting products, such as prescription medications, alcohol, food, and consumer products.

7. One of the reasons many people are addicted to watching TV news is that they feel they must have an opinion on almost everything, which gives the illusion of participation in American life. But an "opinion" is all that we can gain from TV news because it only presents the most rudimentary and fragmented information on anything. Thus, we don't really know much about what is actually going on, and, of course, we are expected to take what the TV news host says on an issue as gospel truth. Yet while it is certainly better to think for yourself, we often don't have enough information from the "news" source to form a true opinion. How can that be accomplished?

First of all, books are a great source of information that are often overlooked. Books allow for levels of breadth and depth of discussion of an issue that television cannot possibly provide. Major newspapers are still a decent source of information despite their falling profits and their selective discussion of certain issues. Local papers are most important because all political involvement begins at the local level. Understanding the issues facing your town and responding to them via letters to the editor is an effective way to start participating in society. It's certainly more effective than sitting on your couch and watching TV.

Finally, there is the internet, which as The Economist recently acknowledged in its special report on the news industry, "has made the news a far more participatory and social experience." The article continues:

Non-journalists are acting as sources for a growing number of news organisations, either by volunteering information directly or by posting comments, pictures or video that can be picked up and republished. Journalists initially saw this as a threat but are coming to appreciate its benefits, though not without much heart-searching. Some organisations have enlisted volunteers to gather or sift data, creating new kinds of "crowdsourced" journalism. Readers can also share stories with their friends, and the most popular stories cause a flood of traffic as recommendations ripple across social networks. Referrals from social networks are now the fastest-growing source of traffic for many news websites. Readers are being woven into the increasingly complex news ecosystem as sources, participants and distributors. "They don't just consume news, they share it, develop it, add to it—it's a very dynamic relationship with news," says Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post, a news website in the vanguard of integrating news with social media.

As well as making Twitter, Facebook and Google part of the news ecosystem, the internet has also made possible entirely new kinds of specialist news organisations. It has allowed WikiLeaks, for example, to accept documents anonymously and publish them to a global audience, while floating in cyberspace above national jurisdictions, operated by a small, nomadic team. Other newcomers include a host of not-for-profit news organisations that rely on philanthropic funding and specialise in particular kinds of journalism. Many of these new outfits collaborate with traditional news organisations, taking advantage of their broad reach and trusted, established brands.

All these new inhabitants of the news ecosystem have brought an unprecedented breadth and diversity of news and opinion to the business... [A]s news becomes more social, participatory, diverse and partisan, it is in many ways returning to the more chaotic, freewheeling and politically charged environment of the era before the emergence of mass media in the 19th century. And although the internet has proved hugely disruptive to journalists, for consumers—who now have a wider choice than ever of news sources and ways of accessing them—it has proved an almost unqualified blessing.


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People  is available at Whitehead can be contacted at

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