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The Realities of Media and News Programming

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Message Larry Sakin
My friend Zoë asked a great question the other day. Zoë wanted to know why the media covers stories on school shootings ad nauseum, when America is killing innocent children living in Iraq and other countries on a daily basis. This is a very complex question, but the crass, simple answer is: Because stories about school shootings in America sell Hummers, and babies in Iraq don't.

It's not Zoë's fault that she hasn't caught on to this concept. Like me, Zoë is a baby-boomer who grew up during a time when television networks considered their news division to be the crowns of their programming schedule; the days before noble public interest was put far ahead of economic self-interest.

With the quiet deregulation of the television industry during the Reagan '80's, changes were being made to news divisions that were barely noticed by viewers. News stories became as a much a "product" as the swill advertisers on the evening news broadcasts barnstormed across the airwaves. The people delivering the news resembled the network demographics. It seemed on-air news readers on the local and national levels were all attractive, between the ages of 20 and 35, and slightly aloof from the stories they presented. Gone were the Edwin Newman's and Irving R. Levine's- extremely competent but academic looking analysts that came from investigative reporting and war correspondent backgrounds-and in came the pretty dunderheads just able enough to not move their eyes while reading from a Tele-Prompt-R.

The introduction of 24 hours cable news left newsrooms scrambling, as the three major networks losing revenue to the upstart Cable News Network. Formats had to change in order to lure back advertisers who were being offered huge discounts by CNN for multiple play ads that ran through the early morning hours. The "news hole", or content space on broadcasts left for deep analysis of political policy was diminished as viewers switched to cable for updates on entertainment, celebrities and tabloid news offering empty calories over bland but fibrous reportage scratching beneath the surface of legislation and court decisions. Newsroom budgets were slashed and foreign bureaus closed throughout the eighties and nineties in order to make up for the advertising dollars cable siphoned from networks. A story like Watergate, which had an intricate web of players, government and campaign expenditures and several mini-scandals within the main scandal, was no longer viable to cover because of the expenses of man hours and research. And it really didn't matter anyway. People no longer wanted long, highly researched, wonk-ish reports on policy. If viewers weren't tuning into to cable news; they were watching syndicated programming like "A Current Affair", a show that featured salacious gossip about celebrities and speculative conspiracy theories, or shows like PBS's "The McLaughlin Group", a shout fest between politically moderate and conservative pundits on the issues of the day supposedly refereed by the hopelessly conservative minister John McLaughlin. In order to compete, news divisions had to jump on the bandwagon of appealing to the lowest common denominators of the news viewing public.

Most importantly, this dumbing-down of news by media led to big profits. Frankly, advertisers aren't interested in intelligent people who can see through the outlandish product claims that commercials make. They're interested in complacent, emotionally-based people whose fears can be played upon, motivating them to purchase items they don't really need and can't afford. With their markets targeted news division's touted stories that had immediate emotional impact and shunted those that took too long to explain.

Sadly, dead babies in Iraq just don't carry the kind of audiences advertisers want to attract. While most Americans have an awareness of the Iraq War, the sheer distance of the country from North America makes people feel adrift from the events there. When a tragedy happens in an American town, like the recent shooting in Nickel Mines, PA, people feel that rush of emotion because they consciously acknowledge that something similar could happen in their community sometime soon. That's the association advertisers want audiences to make-the news makes you feel helpless, now here's the product you need to salve that wound. This is one of the reasons why conservative Republicans have succeeded with their political messages: "We need to fight the terrorists there, so we don't fight them here" and "If Al Qaeda is calling America, we want to know why". The localization of the terrorism message makes it of immediate concern to the consumer of that message.

A lot of people have called for a new media to come to the forefront. One that will adopt the standards established by Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, where the media is more mindful of its role as a check against tyranny in America. However noble such a call may be, it is much easier said then done. The sheer expense of running a day-to-day news operation of any magnitude would drain the resources of the wealthiest supporters of such a message, and good luck finding a sustaining advertiser base. The audience for such a media would be so small it wouldn't have any appeal to even those corporations that believe in such a concept. After all, advertising is an investment and an expensive one at that. Without a large audience susceptible to the wiles of marketing, advertisers will jump ship quickly.

Without a new media on the horizon, we'll have to accept sniping pundits, celebrity hatchet jobs, and gut-wrenching stories about community disasters in lieu of real news. While "in the public interest" reporting of the past might taste very medicinal to a public entranced by sickly-sweet entertainment programming, we'd all be much better off for taking that medicine.
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Larry Sakin is a former non-profit medical organization executive and music producer. His writing can be found on, Blogcritics, OpEd News, The People's Voice, Craig's List and The Progressive magazine. He also advocates for literacy and (more...)
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