News is Entertainment
Photography eventually bypassed the need for expensive and time-consuming woodcuts, etchings and lithographs heralding in a new era for the print media. Pictures are increasingly used by editors as space fillers when they don’t have enough words. Sure some pictures etch themselves on the brain and sum up moments. But they are just moments – snapshots or minutae – they never cover the grand sweep of things, they rarely show the ’big picture’.
Then came radio, all words and no pictures, but the words came in at speaking speed, slower than reading, and you can’t go over a tricky bit again. Thus began the dumbing down of news into sound bites with talk shows and easy vocabulary.
Up next came television – the ultimate picture show – loads of pictures, not many words, as such radio with pictures.
Let’s take a look at the television news format for a moment.
Presenters – Two usually one male, one female split into serious news and sport with maybe two minutes extra for the weather.
Reporters – Much of the footage is a person – as telegenic as possible – presenting a ’report’ while standing in front of somewhere vaguely relevant. 90% of the time there is little or no reason to see these shots but it’d be weird if it was just a blank screen. In the old days they used to have a photo of the reporter and he’d be talking on the phone. Satellites have changed that.
The report – Again for the most part the footage is just eyecandy — politicians shake hands or sign documents in prepared events. Press secretaries read out prepared releases. Lawyers and defendants refuse to comment or read from stilted statements.
This is not news. It is rehearsed and manicured. Often it’s straight puff advertising, or works of pure fiction. Essentially news in the cluttered cable world of the 21st century is entertainment – how can you keep an audience engrossed to the all important ad break on such dry subjects as the budget deficit. You don’t – just line up the normal menu of celebrity gazing and corporate lies, package it up with snappy graphics and music and hey presto! you have a modern news programme that educates little but at least keeps you abreast of Cameron Diaz’s latest beau as the bombs rain down in the Middle East.
It has got to the point where in order to sidestep a bad patch in the economy and flagging opinion polls the quickest method is to hold a quick war, which rolling news channels lap up.
To this end the Pentagon™ – and most armies – have press officers. The US Army has "CentCom" – an Orwellian sounding mouthpiece that feeds the press bland, bite-sized snippets of misleading information. And to provide stunning pictures and a tight leash "embedded" journalists are now encouraged. Embed – literally "to be in bed with". So now we have journalists in bed with the military for ’fair and balanced’ reporting in between the nauseating commercial breaks.
Talking of adverts, let’s not lose sight of the fact that it is advertising and corporate sponsorship that pays for the news. So don’t expect too much coverage on the bad deeds of a good advertiser.
Oh well, who cares about the content, so long as it looks good.