This essay was written in 1999
I slowly climb out of my car, my back a bit stiff from the long drive, and walk steadily into the house and hug my wife. After dinner is eaten, we both settle down onto the couch to watch a little TV before bed. A quick flick through the on-screen guide, and we settle on a sit-com we both find palatable. I’d only just set the remote control down onto the coffee table when a deep, grave voice announces: “Find out what local area business may be taking YOU for a ride you may not survive--tune in at 11 for details!”. I look up involuntarily and catch a few speedy shots of what looks like the inside of a garage somewhere. At this point I am struck, as I often am these days, by the huge difference between what passes for news on TV and the exemplary fare offered by our local NPR news station. Indeed, while the majority of Detroiters happily absorb what is fancifully called "news" by the ratings-hungry and reckless commercial TV networks, a few weeks of listening to NPR radio news programming would quickly reveal to them, by comparison, just how self-serving and sensationalist NBC, ABC, CBS and FOX newscasts really are.
The producers of Network TV news believe that their tireless efforts put a face on the news, bringing the sights and imagery of the people and places featured in the stories they tell into the viewer’s home. They rightfully believe that the audience is attracted to the beautiful men and women who sit behind the desks and present the information, and they are likewise drawn in by the expressive and opinionated voices used to impart the news.
However, these networks need to retain viewers on behalf of their corporate sponsors in order to make money; hence, they seek to engage the audience with sensational news and with information they think will shock or scandalize them. Meanwhile, they claim to simply be delivering the news and to be providing a valuable public service. NPR’s news service, in contrast, has no one to answer to but the audience itself. They rely on listener contributions for the majority of their operating expenses and are obligated to serve the public good--not the corporate greed. As a result, it should be no surprise that TV news is manipulative and sensationalist in comparison to NPR news. Examine the all-too-frequent demand that the viewer "Tune in at 11 for news that may save your life." Simply put, if network news departments were in possession of news needed to save a persons life, and they refused to surrender the details until 11pm, they would, technically, be guilty of criminal negligence. From this simple bit of legal logic, therefore, it is obvious that the TV news department has engaged in sensationalism. They have taken news which may be interesting, but couldn’t realistically be termed life-threatening, and they have exaggerated its importance to the viewer in order to entice them to “tune in at 11" and watch some commercials with a smattering of news in-between them. Other than as satire, an NPR commentator would never be heard saying such tripe. Furthermore, TV news services are frequently guilty of blowing situations out of proportion. Last year, for instance, there was a list of doctors, grossly delinquent in repaying their student loans, whose names were posted on a government web site. TV News quickly labeled it the "dead-beat-doctors" list, and scoured the yellow pages looking for local doctors appearing on that list. Consequently, there were no less than four news-trucks assigned to staking out one middle-aged dentist's office in Warren because he owed $200,000. This might be a lot of money, but did it require that the neighboring businesses be subjected to what amounts to journalistic terrorism as the TV crews attempted to bully their way into their premises and “interview” people who might possibly know the indebted dentist? Did the subject matter justify a half-hour exposé on the evening news? WDET, Detroit’s local NPR station, contributed a thirty second story about the list of doctors to that evening’s national news show. This was a more realistic representation of the subject’s newsworthiness. When all was said and done, WDET never mentioned any doctors by name, nor were their reporters part of the rabid pack of wolves that physically chased the dentist to his car and subsequently pursued him in their vans as he drove home.
Even had the hapless doctor granted those jackals an interview, it would surely have been heavily edited so as to present the doctor as a veritable Satan’s lapdog of a man. It would not be characteristic of them to even entertain the notion of showing that dentist’s side of the story in a fair light. Indeed, TV news is usually one sided and, more often than not, reduces a complicated story, like the high-gas prices of earlier this year, to a collection of one-sided or self-serving sound bytes. FOX2 news, supposedly an impartial journalistic organization, actually attempted to garner viewer support by endorsing--and pursuing, for Gods sake!--a "repeal the state gas tax" campaign. This wasn't only self-serving ratings based journalism; it was a partisan and possibly misguided political action. No opposing viewpoints were ever presented, or even acknowledged. As a result, anyone exclusively loyal to FOX2 News would have had no choice but to conclude that not only were gas prices high only because of the state gas tax, but that the only reasonable answer to the problem would be to repeal that tax immediately! In contrast, NPR's evening news show, All Things Considered, presented a full-length story covering many of the possible causes of the high-prices. While they did interview some people who thought, as FOX2 did, that tax relief was a possible answer, there were other experts consulted. Some of these advised that national petroleum reserves should be tapped, but others maintained that Americans are basically spoiled brats who brought the problem on themselves, should pay the high prices and should just quit whining about it. Accordingly, all the various viewpoints were presented without any bias. As usual, people on every side of the issue commented that they thought NPR was biased against their particular point of view—a sure sign of true impartiality!
In their defense, it may be said that the characteristic one-sidedness of television news may be brought about by their colossal time constraints. Perhaps they just don’t have time to show both sides; after all, TV news never goes into enough detail to adequately inform a truly interested observer about one side, let alone both. They operate under commercial obligations to perforate their broadcasts with advertisements, leaving them with only a portion of their already inadequate, one-hour time allotment within which to deliver substantial news coverage. These strictures force TV news to rush through most stories at a breakneck pace. Presidential campaign speeches are usually reduced to a 10-20 second sound byte, which is inevitably taken out of context and stripped of its original meaning. NPR, however, will often play at least a minute or two of any important speech, and will have commentary on what that excerpt means from two opposing points of view.
This balanced approach allows a thoughtful individual to come to his or her own conclusions. This is diametrically opposed to TV news, which often tries to help their viewers form meaningful opinions by giving them cues in the form of newscasters’ facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Consequently, a TV audience member knows exactly how to feel on any given subject and can avoid undue confusion or thought; indeed, the appropriate feelings are all modeled to them like so much French lingerie by that beautiful person sitting behind the desk.
To understand why these differences exist, it is necessary to ask why commercial TV stations even offer news to begin with. Network TV stations were originally given their licenses to broadcast over the public airwaves for free. At the time, they were told that in exchange for this veritable bonanza they were required to provide news and public service announcements for the public good. At first, much of TV journalism was balanced and important, and represented an honest attempt to fulfill that obligation to the public, but as TV shows became more and more expensive to produce, advertising fees failed to increase proportionally to cover the added operating expense. As a result, TV news became much more profitable in comparison to prepared programming, as it is cheap to produce the news and easy to sell it to advertisers. Nowadays a commercial network may make the lion’s share of their commercial revenue through the advertising dollars gained during the news broadcasts which were, originally, intended to fulfill their public service obligation. In order to keep bringing in that money they must guarantee viewers to their sponsors; however, delivering impartial news is incompatible with that new, purely monetary, goal. NPR, on the other hand, is beholden to no one but its listeners. They have, and they exercise, the freedom to deliver timely, complete and balanced news and information without fear of retribution from a marketing department. Indeed, listen to NPR for a week and watching network television may become a frustrating and painful ordeal. The superiority of its comparatively thorough, balanced, and broad-based news coverage may prove addictive and could turn a body off of TV news forever, as it has this author. One word of caution, however: once hooked, NPR will ask a listener to donate a small amount towards their support, but would anyone begrudge them this pittance, if in exchange they receive such a superlative wealth of information?
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