Sunday, December 2, 2018


Vital to the systems that keep democracies free, a free and trusted press is essential to keeping us informed and our governments honest. So why would it be that some, feel that the media has lost respectability?

It is something in common between FOXNEWS, CNN, MSNBC and other news outlets.  The heavy imbalance of commentary content, compared to the hard news reporting.  What is the difference?  How did we get here?

News at one point used to be about providing information on the things that are happening in your local community, your country and around the world.   There was analysis.  Enough analysis, to give readers, viewers and listeners background information to help them understand the issues.  In general, you had the chance to make up your own mind once you had a clear picture of what was happening and the facts.

News has always been a business.  From the days of hand pressed news papers, people made a living gathering and giving, information out to local audiences.  These people needed to make a living, or who would do such a time consuming and often thankless job. Once radio and then television became the medium and the listeners and then viewers became national, even international markets the news became a big dollar business.  Three or four times a day depending on where you live, the entertainment programs were paused and you got caught up on the local, national and international news of the day.

The programs, for the most part, were about a half hour long, not going into deep detail. The late night news was more likely to be an hour. Still, if you wanted more it would be in the newspapers, which were not constrained by programming schedules and could expand the number of pages to fit any story.  The majority of effort, until more recently went toward informing the public. There was some manipulation of course, the medium was extremely powerful.  Mainly it was about informing the public and there was fierce competition to get "the scoop" and be the first out with a story.

What changed?

At 5:00 pm, June 1st, 1980 CNN aired its first newscast and ushered in the 24 hour news cycle.  News programming now had to do something it didn't have to before,....hold on to you.  Previously the news was a "thank you,  now move along" kind of affair.  You got the bad news of the day, then moved on to M*A*S*H, or what ever your favorite distraction was.  If you were committed to knowing more, there were a few "news magazine" programs you could tune into.  It was different though.  Now the 5 o'clock
news had to keep you, through 6 and 7.....

We were accustomed to special reports that broke into scheduled programming.  The moon landing, JFK and RFK assassination and events of this magnitude were brought to our living rooms. This was sometimes how a "scoop" was put out, if the story was big enough and the network wanted to claim the "First To Report It" title.  It had to be big, though.  Big enough to warrant knocking off regular programming that was bought and paid for by advertisers. As the number of news channels expanded the constraint of the advertising on scripted programming was gone.  The "scoop" was the reason viewers were there in the first place, so it could be brought to the screen at any second.  Speed was the dominant requirement now.  If I don't get it NOW, the viewers move to the next channel, in case THEY have it.  No one can claim that accuracy didn't take a hit. Death tolls in incidents read like an auction caller, we had 10 while THEY were still at 9.  All of this escalating as it was, it was still for the most part the news, and there was a sense of fair play through out it.  When did that change?

On January 17, 1991 U.S. President George H.W. Bush ordered the U.S. and coalition forces to begin the first gulf war, changing Operation Desert Shield to Operation Desert Storm,to remove Iraqi forces from their occupation of Kuwait.  It was the first televised war.  Live coverage of missile strikes, reporters embedded with forces giving reports daily.  Briefings from "Stormin" Norman Schwarzkopf were a fixture.  The thirst for the reports from "The Gulf" could not be quenched.  And then it was over.

In the void left after Desert Storm viewers were going through a near withdrawal. The number of channels dedicated to news had increased and was increasing, so was the number cameras and reporters.  Now we were being inundated with coverage of incidents.   LIVE! CAR CHASE.  LIVE! ARMED ROBBERY GUN FIGHT.  LIVE! BUILDING ON FIRE, LIVE! PLANE MAKING EMERGENCY LANDING. Of course no one was hoping the plane was going to crash and burn, but if it did, it was hours of programming with an audience firmly locked on the channel. I am sorry to say it, there was a palpable let down from the broadcasters when the plane landed safely.

Who can blame people for feeling like the world is spiralling down the drain, despite the statistical evidence that for the most part things are calmer than the 70s and 80s, when every bad thing that possibly can be, is fed to us live.  Once it is done, its played on a reel, over and over with as many extreme adjectives as possible to keep me watching. Who could forget 1994 when O.J. Simpson drove the White Bronco into our living rooms.  How can we get the news back to being about information and not macabre entertainment?

Media has always had a point of view.  In part 2, we'll talk about the transition from analysis, through commentary to advocacy nearing propaganda.

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