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art/W. Ralph Walters
The Sky Could Fall At Any Time, Stay Tuned
We have a television in the kitchen at work, all wired up to the holy Dish Network. It has hundreds of channels, more choices than anyone deserves to have. Occasionally, some generation-Y freako will turn on MTV or some thirtysomething will flip over to Lifetime during the lunch hour, but usually it just stays on one of the big news stations: Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC.
When I go into the kitchen for a cup of water, I'm often bombarded by the boisterous, insistent, minor-keyed violin music announcing the coming of a "SHOWDOWN WITH SADDAM" segment on CNN, or a powerful chime on Fox News signaling a "TARGET: IRAQ" focus with all kinds of exciting war graphics and crosshairs in the background. And every time I notice that this is happening, I am happy that I have not yet been fully programmed. To make things worse, these channels will do completely wack things like putting up the "WAR ALERT" graphic, and then telling me about the retirement of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. Is every event in the unfolding of future history suddenly war-related?
"Mr. President, Yves Saint Laurent is retiring."
"Dear God, man. Get those ICBMs in the bullpen and ready to fly. And may God help us."
It drives one to wonder what it is that cable news thinks we want out of our informational programming. Many would argue that they're giving us exactly what we want, because that is the beauty of a free-market economy. The ones that best serve the public are the ones that survive in the market. In a sense, that's true. We want our world to be an exciting place with issues to debate and loathsome horrors to combat. But I really don't know anyone who wants this kind of video game news channel that assaults the senses and reduces the news to a flashy, quick-paced show of sensationalist technical wizardry. Good news should be delivered in a soft-spoken, objective manner, and certainly not with such sustained powerful ferocity that it begins to cry wolf in a cheesy manner, devoid of respect and impact, and without the baseless speculation by "experts" on what will unfold. Tell me what's happening, for godsakes, not what some talking head thinks will happen.
The truth is that these channels scarcely care what you want out of your news, they're just competing for a few minutes of your attention, preying on your fears of the terribly awful things that have yet to come. Because news, like the rest of television, does not exist to sell you robust content; it exists to sell you to advertisers. They are the real customers in the television business, and they are getting what they want.
Media has become an oligopoly, ruled by the privileged few. Only six corporations control most of the news: General Electric, Westinghouse/CBS, Viacom, Disney, Time-Warner, and News Corporation/FOX Networks. With so few players in any market, strange alliances begin to form between the powerful organizations to maintain this rule, which homogenizes the products they produce and shuts out the influence of smaller organizations. Often, you will see exactly the same stories repeated on all major news sources, regardless of how significant it might be, such as a new study on weight loss. I'm sure thousands upon thousands of people are studying weight loss, so what makes any one study more newsworthy than any other? A great deal of pocket lining and schmoozing, I suspect.
Another casualty of news homogenization and sensationalism is the occasional famous missing kid. Over half a million missing children are reported to police yearly, but from the point of view of media and the obnoxious amount of coverage given to any one case, you'd think it only happens once or twice. In order for a missing child to become important to the general population, there needs to be scandal or fear in the air, some kind of angle for the programmers to grab a hold of so that we can truly feel rage toward the suspect or fear for our own children.
Their favorite kind of story is the miniseries, such as the D.C.-area sniper case. When that sort of weeks-long, continually unfolding story happens, it's a windfall. They can get their graphics department to make up all kinds of clever opening themes, and they can whip up some scary music to make it the ultimate in reality TV.
Corporate news mediums create a culture of liesof issues blown way out of proportion, and issues not blown up nearly enough.
I have discovered, though, that there is one channel among the hundreds that is guaranteed to give you the complete, unadulterated truth at all times, without a hint of intellectual dishonesty. It is where the noblest efforts at informing the public take place, the nugget of completeness, and the pinnacle of fine broadcasting. It is The Weather Channel.
As for other information needs, we can always turn to the Internet, where we can find the sparse but real sources of honesty, unhindered by corporate interests--a place where a modest budget can reach any mind on the planet (within jurisdictions that aren't filtering content.) Television remains the most powerful means of distributing information, and the most predictable for harvesting audiences, but major media and publishers see this diminishing, and are trying desperately to turn the Internet into a mere jukebox or radio station to keep us hooked on tradition. Yet they are attempting to control the uncontrollable, as doing so has had obvious, drastic economic consequences in recent years.
Hopefully, the grand heterogeneous Internet with its trillions of websites will crack the shell in this bold new medium to wean the public off the corporate candy that leaves our minds malnourished, and to change forever the flow of information.
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