Saturday, November 13, 2010

Stop watching

I used to watch news on TV. I grew up in an age where the three broadcast networks dedicated half an hour each night to the top stories supposedly affecting the nation. I say "supposedly" not to suggest that they were wrong, but merely to emphasize the subjectivity of what they did, however authoritative they sounded.

The 24-hour TV news outlets seemed like they'd be a natural destination for me. I grew up listening to a 24-hour news radio station, and while I didn't have it on all the time, I listened to it a lot because it made me feel like an adult interested in Serious Things. My life wasn't all that exciting, either, so even hearing traffic updates quickened my blood a trifle.

I still listen to that same radio station today. On the other hand, 24-hour TV news plays no significant part in my life. It's not merely that I can get news at my convenience from a plethora of sources on the Web. The bigger reason is that the quality of the product that CNN, Fox and MSNBC peddle is low.

The 24-hour TV news outlets are greedy. My local newsradio station is content to hold listeners for a half-hour. Long experience has taught it, and us listeners, that expecting more isn't realistic. There's only so much news that is relevant enough to report.

The 24-hour TV news outlets want your eyeballs for hours on end, not just for a quick news cycle. They push their reporters to deliver fresh content every hour, and they insist on breathless copy that their talking heads deliver with as much solemn excitement as possible. They seize on minor stories and try to elevate them to greater importance than they deserve. They add programming that isn't news at all, programming that purports to explain or to contextualize the news, but which actually further distorts and exaggerates its most sensational aspects.

And the audience falls for these tricks.

If the only harm were that people were force-fed more ads, I wouldn't mind. However, these channels are doing real harm by setting entirely the wrong agenda for us. We don't have a proper sense of what's important any more. Moreover, our bullshit detectors are overwhelmed because the 24-hour news channels and their affiliated outlets (blogs, talk radio shows, etc.) form self-reinforcing echo chambers that amplify even the stupidest and most dangerously wrong stories and leitmotifs to the point where they can't be ignored by even the most responsible news organizations. Thus even those of us who try to avoid the distortions of these channels are subjected to them, because these channels influence the national agenda all out of proportion to their audience size.

The 24-hour news TV channel was a transitional concept whose time has passed. It existed to serve those who wanted to get a news summary at odd times of the day or night. Now, the Web can more effectively fill that niche.

TV is still capable of breaking news quite effectively, and for some stories -- 11 September 2001 comes to mind -- it provides an incomparable experience. Focusing entirely on news, though, runs up against the higher costs of TV (versus radio or print or, especially, the Web) and the need to recoup those costs from a national rather than regional audience. Inevitably, any such attempt will result in something similar to the embarrassingly bad channels we have today.

So I propose that we stop watching the 24-hour TV news channels. Stop feeding beasts that are making us, as a nation, sick. Stop buying into the breathless agenda of fear and anger they're promulgating. Stop letting them dictate the terms of our conversations. Let's put this failed experiment behind us.

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