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Not necessarily the news

Good piece from Rob Walker in The New Republic on how bad the evening network news shows really are.

Having recently spent three weeks as one of the 25 million or so Americans who watch the networks' flagship broadcasts (a habit that, like many millions of other Americans, I gave up long ago), I have a news flash for both sides: If the network news divisions think they are producing an evening broadcast so noble that it deserves to be defended from the corporate huns, they're kidding themselves. And if the evening news isn't dramatic enough for those corporate honchos, it's not for lack of trying. It's not just the much-noted increase in "soft" news features that now eats up a large portion of each broadcast; even the hard news now comes with a hard sell in which emotional impact trumps intellectual content with appalling consistency. The evening anchors may still look and talk like paragons of wisdom and integrity right out of our nostalgia-clouded memory of The Good Old Days, but their broadcasts are something else. Or as they might put it, "Shameless hype. Trumped-up melodrama. It pretends. To be a public service. But just how dumb is your evening news?"


One of television's advantages over print is, of course, the power of actual footage. But often this seems to be the tail that wags the dog. One evening Jennings introduced the post-headlines segment by saying, "The Senate Judiciary Committee today agreed to delay the vote on a controversial White House nomination to a federal court." He showed a clip of Senators Orrin Hatch and Patrick Leahy quietly bickering at the hearing. "The question is," Jennings said, "do they or do they not know their microphones are not open?" The back-and-forth between Leahy and Hatch lasted about a minute, and then Jennings repeated his question: "Did they or did they not know their microphones were open?" Here are some other questions: Who was the nominee? For what court? What's the controversy? The clip shed no light on any of this, and neither did Jennings. (It was Thomas Pickering, nominated for the Fifth Circuit, who was at the center of a tussle over his civil rights record.) This segment, too, seemed designed to elicit a kind of content-free outrage: Viewers should be angry at all this pointless bickering between senators--and it must be pointless, given that the broadcast never explained what it was about.

It goes on.

I happened to catch Peter Jennings as a guest on Bill O'Reilly yesterday. For some reason, O'Reilly's argument was that the networks need to present more opinion, more commentary. But Jennings sensibly wondered why anybody should care what he thinks about various stories. And given how little news they actually show, to provide commentary wouldn't leave time for anything else other than commercials. Besides, Glenn Reynolds provides all the punditry this country needs.


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