In the wake of the Brian Williams controversy, I decided that even if he got caught cheating with the facts of his true proximity to danger, this event creates an opportunity for us to consider what a pack of lies the average, ordinary news broadcast is.
I am not trying to emulate Michael Moore here with scrappy rhetoric. I surely would not say that everything on the news is deliberate falsifying. I believe there are fine reporters out there doing their best to bring us the news in the most objective fashion—the way many of us were brought up to believe was the backbone of objective reporting.
However, I have some long-standing concerns about broadcast journalism. The focus of coverage about Williams seems to be about shaming the guy. The implication is that we need to replace him to ensure that our news is reliable. However, that smokescreen just hides how subjective, manipulated, and selective normal, everyday news is.
IT’S ALL ABOUT COMMERCIALS
To know where I am coming from, first consider the main objective of a news broadcast: it is to deliver viewers to advertisers. Commercials on TV are little propaganda pieces. They may not be outright lies, but they fudge. They are designed to prompt you to take action and buy something.
The purpose of a newscast is to attract and then keep viewers glued to the tube. They do this to deliver viewers to advertisers for profit. So, for example, they might tease us with a short preview clip of a disaster and promise to deliver exciting video after the commercial break. If we want to watch exclusive video of the 35-car pile-up on the Interstate that killed 7 people, we watch (or otherwise deal with) the commercials, too.
A newscast must borrow strategies from entertainment not much different from the serials I saw as a kid at Saturday matinees. They’d show the cliff-hanger and hope you came back next week to see what happens. The bottom line of news is the same—stay tuned so that the medium delivers audience for profit.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Viewers often become blind to the process of how something gets on film or digital media. We see the news through the selective vision of the camera. There is no big picture.
Consider for a moment how visuals are selected for news stories. When filming a natural disaster, for example, the film crew will search for the most dramatic shots, which usually means where the most visually compelling damage is. We see that over and over. Scary. We don’t see what did not get damaged. Not so scary. The quake may have collapsed a few buildings and even killed some people, but the area as a whole is nothing that bad.
In several instances, Williams is accused of not being exactly in the heat of battle but pretending or inferring that he was. Maybe so. Still, I am not so sure that any high profile news anchor has not been the beneficiary of some of the normal, everyday fudging that goes on to produce a good-looking, even thrilling show. If they endured the kind of scrutiny Williams endured, would they pass muster?
My favorite example of fudging is not news-specific, but it is appropriate. Think of documentaries you’ve seen about people exploring a wilderness with survival at risk. The narrative of the story is ooh, ain’t this dangerous? Will I make it? I remember once chuckling at a shot of a guy in peril nearing a mountain top. The shot was taken from above as he climbed toward the camera. What we so often don’t see or have acknowledged to us is that a film crew is also on the scene! We become oblivious to that reality.
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED
Mainstream news is frequently criticized for how it refuses to cover certain phenomena. This is especially true in metaphysical circles. Is there ever serious consideration given on the mainstream news about UFOs, God, the afterlife, reincarnation, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, spiritual ecstasy?
Conspiracy theorists are also very vocal about what’s not shown on TV, and this is often cited in their own documentaries. The charge is often made that mainstream news is beholden to certain government or commercial interests, slamming the door on objective reporting. There is a whole new industry which uses the phrase “this is what X doesn’t want you to know!” The X factor could be big government, big oil, big pharma, big finance, big healthcare, big insurance, big food, and plenty of other bigs.
So if the news doesn’t report what kind of crap is contained in the food its sponsors sell, is that lying? If the news doesn’t argue for alternative fuels because that would interfere with the profits of big oil, is that lying? If the news takes and airs a government-issued press release and doesn’t question it, is that lying? If the news doesn’t address issues that conspiracy theories bring to light, such as the many questions about 9/11 that are ignored, is that lying?
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
A news show is a highly timed and edited product. The opportunity for exploring anything in depth usually amounts to a catastrophic disaster like 9/11, massive tsunamis, a televised war, or an assassination. That’s when a news show stays with a story for hours if not days.
A newscast may attempt to cover a major everyday development in a two-minute story. To do that, details need to be prioritized, and by necessity much needs to be cut from the discussion. Compelling visuals need to be added. Catchy sound bytes need to be featured, which often means a sentence or two that from the speaker’s point of view could easily be taken out of context.
This is not supposed to come across as lying, and perhaps a good case could be made for how things are done to preserve the integrity of the truth. However, editing is still selective perception, a form of cherry picking of what works best for the broadcast.
The news is generally not solution-oriented. I have often joked that a news broadcast should be entitled World Shit Tonight or Nightly Shit because that’s what it mostly consists of.
Is this lying? In some ways it’s like being with a friend or relative who constantly complains about the evils of the world. It’s draining. It’s exhausting. Isn’t it more rewarding to be around people who seek solutions and who have a positive vision for the future?
I would love to see a major paradigm shift where the news evolves into something more about creating win-win solutions. This might be an update for the idea of what’s newsworthy, which is defined as interesting enough to the general public to warrant reporting. I think solutions are interesting enough. Who knows what would happen to our world if solutions dominated the news?
I include myself among viewers abandoning the news because it is more soap opera and freak show than helpful and informative. It may be peddled as non-fiction, but if it just focuses on conflict without the perspective of solution, is it really true?
And then there are all those commercials! Ugh.
SILENCE IS NOT GOLDEN
So this story about Brian Williams, while clearly a serious matter, is almost like a diversion from the deterioration of news quality in general. The whole of news broadcasts could use a status check and overhaul.
This still leaves Williams being shamed at the public stockade, deserved or not. NBC has created a situation where Williams cannot defend himself, at least publicly. Under the terms of his suspension, he is not allowed to talk to the press. When negative stories about him are floated in world media, he cannot respond.
So, um, the news organization that wants us to believe its reporting is top-drawer doesn’t want Williams to talk, eh? They want to manage his mouth. News stories from other outfits keep saying that NBC executives are not talking behind the corporate iron curtain.
The silence that Williams endures and the mum of the execs in charge seems much more like what I used to hear communist regimes would do to freedom of the press. What is the power elite afraid of?
FOR FURTHER READING
My previous post was on shaming in our culture from cyber-bullying to documentaries about dealing with mega doses of humiliation.