Friday, January 11, 2013

"Nobody Asked Me... Though I Kinda Wish They Had"

You get into difficulty, it seems to me, when you introduce a certain value system into an arena where it doesn’t belong. 

This came to mind most recently when it was reported that CNN – which brands itself, “The place that is trying to be objective in its news reporting rather than insulting your intelligence by calling what they’re broadcasting “news” when it’s really partisan propaganda” – faring miserably in the ratings, the cable news network is installing a new president to try and turn things around. 

This new president was once NBC’s president of entertainment.  (He failed at it, but, as with a remarkably large number of television executives, this does not seem to be an impediment when it comes to finding a new job.  Why?  I have no idea.  Maybe because they already have the wardrobe.  And a reassuring manner.  Even though their far from illustrious track record would seem to undercut their telling you not to worry.)

Hiring an entertainment hotshot to take over a ratings-challenged news operation has garnered the approval of numerous media cognoscenti.  Supporting CNN’s impending makeover, a Temple University professor of journalism explains that the low-rated news network “hasn’t adapted to what the audience wants, which is more fireworks.”

Reading that made my blood, if not boil, then at least seriously heat up.  You could tap that blood and pour it over cold meat loaf and you would never know it was cold.  That’s how hot it was.  Cold meat loaf-disguising hot.

The CNN situation is a classic example of what I was referring to in Sentence One.  Which you can take a moment to scroll up to, and then come back.  I’ll wait.

Are you back?  Good.

Here is a case where you take a value from the entertainment arena – “success” defined primarily by ratings-reflected “audience appeal” – and you apply it an entity whose purported mandate is to report to us what happened, a mandate which – and here comes the word “should”, which I try to use sparingly, but see no way around it in this case – a mandate, which, considering the business it is in, should be judged on its accuracy, credibility, comprehensiveness, and its speed.  And, if there’s accompanying commentary, its insight, illumination and incisiveness, to name just three words beginning with “i.” 

A news organization misappropriating an entertainment-related value may well deliver a boost to its ratings, but, by doing so, it is putting into question – like that reality show about storage unit salvaging that was recently accused of “salting” the storage unit crapola with “real finds” – the essential issue of  


If the only news outlet that tried to play it straight down the middle will henceforth be shooting for “fireworks”, where then do I go to for the news?

Example Two:

This thought is not original with me.  It comes from a former movie critic turned cultural observer named Neil Gabler. 

Years ago now, Gabler wrote an “early warning”  commentary, observing that a substantial block of Republican supporters had taken a fundamental value from the religious arena and had begun applying it to politics. 

By this, Gabler did not mean that voters were insisting on a consistency between religious beliefs and public policy – that’s happening too to some degree, and in some ways, it’s actually admirable.  In the opposite direction lies hypocrisy.

“My religion holds all life to be sacred, but when it comes to capital punishment -  Eh.’”

What Gabler was referring to was American citizens taking the certainty inherent in their religious beliefs – “I believe in God, but you can talk me out of it” would not be a highly respected theological position – and applying that certainty to the political arena, where, although strongly held beliefs are welcome, even more welcome is the ability for legislators adhering to differing positions to work together to solve the country’s problems, by hammering out compromises they can ultimately all live with.

Religious inflexibility?  Understandable.  But transfer that faith-derived intractability to the political arena of necessary “give and take”, and you may as well shut the place down.

Example Three:

Immortal Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi famously proclaimed:  “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

Lombardi was professing an intense single-mindedness, which you probably need in football, or, if you’re an offensive lineman protecting the quarterback against a defensive linemen trying to “sack” the quarterback, you may start thinking, “You know what?  I’m tired.  And he’s not a bad guy.  I think I’ll just let him through.”

Even in football, there are rules.  So the corollary to “Winning is the only thing” – “Whatever it takes to win, you do!” – I mean, you pull a guy down by his facemask and his head comes rolling off, they’re gonna blow the whistle on that.  (Reminder:  Stupid penalties will not help you win.  Penalties they don’t catch, however?  You know what they say:  “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”)

Still, an unswervingly focused “eye on the prize” – I understand the concept, and I can see why a “paid to win” football coach who would adopt it as his mantra.

But you take that “winning is the only thing” value – which is questionable even in its own arena – and you inject it where it does not naturally belong, and students are cheating on their SAT’s to get into good colleges, prosecutors are withholding evidence to prevail in a trial, money managers are inserting fictional elements into their client’s portfolio statements, and resumes become more an art form than a rundown of things you have actually done.

Values belong where they were originally spawned.  Migrate them elsewhere, and you wind up with competing news services pouring on the “fireworks”, and pretending it’s the news.

Nobody asked me… But I kinda wished they had.

One of a series.

Unless you hate it.

In which case, I will never do it again.

Hypocritical?  I don’t think so.

There’s a big difference between “selling out”, and not wanting to piss people off.


JED said...

I think I remember an uproar when an entertainment guy at ABC (was it Roone Arledge, the sports guy?) took over the news and renamed it "World News Tonight" in the late 70's. But what scares me is that I'm not sure how that turned out! Did the other networks do similar things or did ABC give up and go back to regular news? I do know that all evening news news shows are a lot "showier" now than they used to be.

I used to like the fact that you could always turn on Headline News and get a quick (and not in depth) rundown of the latest news in 30 minutes. Then they changed their name to HLN and put Nancy Grace on every 15 minutes and I stopped watching.

I hope CNN can stay the course. I think they are just doing badly what they used to do well.

Also,it frightens me how many people watch the "fair and balanced" channel and believe it.

PG said...

Just watch "Broadcast News"'s practically a documentary....or "Network" for that matter. Used to show them to my students in the 90's and ask them to predict what the News on Tv would be like in the future. Nobody had the imagination to dream up what would evolve (or is it devolve)?