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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Child’s play

I caught a news item on television the other week, which illustrated pretty well what is wrong with American national television news. I actually saw two reports on the same item on two different networks, which points up the first problem with television news. Why is it, with so many things going on in the country and the world and with so little time available to cover them, the networks all report the exact same things?

And why is there so much “soft news,” i.e. human interest features, personality profiles and purported consumer information that is already the established province of various magazine shows and morning shows? When you switch between one network evening news broadcast and another, you pretty much get all the same stuff. The only variation is in the presentation styles. For people who can’t keep them straight, here is a style summary for the big three broadcasters:

  • ABC: Peter Jennings’s style is like that of a university professor delivering a class lecture and occasionally quizzing his top graduate students in front of the class. Whereas most anchors try to create the illusion that they are actually learning something in a spontaneous manner when they talk to their correspondents in the field, Jennings makes it perfectly clear that he already knows the answers to the questions he is asking and, in fact, knows more about the topic than the correspondent he is quizzing. His broadcast is accused by some of being the most “liberal” of the networks, and this is certainly true. He also does the best job of actually providing information. If you absolutely feel you are being brainwashed by Jennings, watch a half-hour of Fox News to balance things out.

  • NBC: There is something comfortable about Tom Brokaw, probably because he gives every indication that he doesn’t know a whole lot more about the story he is reporting than you do. If Jennings is a bit of a condescending university professor, then Brokaw is the fellow who corners you at a cocktail party and fills you in on some alarming report he just heard on the car radio driving over. NBC correspondents seem very capable. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell is very informative, although I get motion sickness watching her head bob from side to side. In general, NBC correspondents look and act like the older brothers and sisters of the ABC correspondents.

  • CBS: It doesn’t really matter what Dan Rather’s style is because hardly anyone watches him. If I had to put a personality type on him, it would be the insurance salesman who shows up on your door in a dark suit and tells you that you are really putting your family at risk by not having enough coverage. The really creepy thing about Rather is the way he closes the broadcast. While virtually every other anchor begins shuffling papers or doing something with a computer to suggest that the 30 minutes he or she just spent reading the news to you was merely one of a vast number of things that he or she had to do in the course of his or her busy day, Rather calmly folds his hands and stares into space, kind of like a robot that has been powered down. CBS correspondents look and act like the parents of the ABC correspondents.

    Anyway, the story I saw reported (twice) the other week was about a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that discovered the shocking news that children under the age of 6 spend an average of two hours day either watching TV, using a computer or playing video games. Both NBC and ABC reported this as a matter of huge gravity and appeared to be shocked by the finding. As the parent of a three-year-old, I did indeed find this surprising, but mainly because I assumed the average would be quite a bit higher. The alarm with which the news correspondents reported this made me think that, despite the fact they make a very comfortable living from television, they don’t let their families watch the boob tube at all. I kept waiting for some big kicker at the end of the story, like: the study showed that children who watch a lot of TV don’t do as well in school, or something like that. Instead, both reports ended with the correspondent declaring very ominously that “it is not known” what effect so much early video experience will have on youngsters.

    That’s it? Hey, that’s one of the oldest journalistic devices in the world to jazz up a non-story, i.e. suggesting a truth (that may or may not exist) by turning a statement around using a negative, preferably in the passive voice so the “information” can’t actually be pinned on anybody. The best example I have seen of this in some time was in the Irish documentary about Venezuela, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The film made hints and suggestions that the U.S. government was involved in the 2002 attempted coup against Hugo Chavez but presented absolutely no evidence of any kind to support the position. Then, at the end of the film, white letters appeared on a solemn black screen to declare, “The U.S. government continues to deny involvement in the coup.” I guess it provides some food for thought, but it’s no substitute for actual facts.

    So the big news story that week amounted to this: kids are watching TV. Well, duh. Personally, I’ve become more of an expert on children’s television than I ever expected to be. I can intelligently discuss the personality differences found among the various Teletubbies and can even discern the genders of the various Fimbles. I can almost even tell the difference between the twin otters on Bear in the Big Blue House. This raises a much more critical story that the networks missed completely. Just what is children’s television doing to the brains of parents who end up watching along with their kids? Now, that’s really frightening.

    I actually have a theory about children’s television, which even has something to do with movies. I’ll be happy to share this theory with you next time.

    -S.L., 20 November 2003

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