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Infotainment, Sort Of

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I have a very odd relationship to television.  I spent a lot of my life without it.  From the time I left home to live at school until I married Bill, I never owned one, and only lived with a roommate who owned one for about six months.  And over the course of the years since Bill died, I’ve cancelled out cable service for long periods on at least three occasions, usually because I thought the boys were watching too much of it.

And even when I’ve had television in the house, it’s often been off by decree.  For most of their younger school lives, Greg and Matt were not allowed to watch television at all (even on week-ends) during the term time (except for the news, which I watch), and they were only allowed to watch television during vacations if they could pass a quiz I’d set up for them first.  Every day.

One year, Greg couldn’t get permission to watch television during the summer until he was able to recite the Bill of Rights verbatin, explain them, and identify and give a summary of about 15 SCOTUS cases dealing with them.

If anybody ever came up to one of my children to do one of those surveys about “what Americans know,” they would NOT be among those who think that “from each according to his ability” is in the Bill of Rights, and they would be able to find the US on a globe.

Okay, whatever.  It’s one of those things.

I do watch television beyond the news sometimes, and what I seem to get sucked into are those long miniseries things–Band of Brothers, Boss, Political Animals–that all the mininetworks now seem to be very interested in producing.

My big favorite of these at the moment is a thing called The Newsroom, written and produced by Aaron Sorkin, who did the same for The West Wing.

But, me being me, I don’t watch these things when they’re on.  I almost never even know when they’re on.  I watch them when they hit the FOD, and then I watch episodes in bunches.

A couple of days ago, after I finished work, I ran about four episodes of The Newsroom in succession.  It’s very well done, even though, being by Aaron Sorkin, you can figure out the politics before  you start.  The rumor is that Sorkin researched the way a newsroom operates by investigating the operations of Keith Olbermann’s Countdown, and you can sort of see it.  The main character (Will McAvoy) is played by Jeff Daniels, who sort of looks like Olbermann.  And the snippets we get of actual segments of the show sort of sound like Olbermann.

On the other hand, much as I loved Countdown while it was still on, I wouldn’t call it a news show, and I don’t think MSNBC called it that, either.

I don’t think even Olbermann himself would have called it that.

I am not going to recommend the show–a lot of you are just going to be annoyed by the politics.  Aaron Sorkin is Aaron Sorkin.  I think the term “liberal bubble” was invented just for him. 

For those of you who will not be annoyed by the politics, though–this thing is really, really, really well done.

And in this last set of episodes I watched, it also managed to bring up and interesting issue–something else Sorkin is good at, so good at that I keep wishing he’d develop more scope in his understanding of ideas.

It’s not the issue of news vs entertainment per se that comes up–although of course it does, as a foundation.  But the broad issue so described is about things like the doings of Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan, vs reports on the debt ceiling or the war in Iraq.

And on that level, the issue is easy to figure out.  Yes, what’s happening in the war in Iraq is Real News, and what is happening to Lindsay Lohan really is not.

On The Newsroom, however, what happens is this.  There’s a big story out there which the show is (as one character says) “too highbrow to cover,” and as a result, the show loses fully half its viewers to another station in the same time slot that is covering that story.

My problem is what the story is–it’s the Casey Anthony thing. 

Now, I have no problem at all with people who say that celebrity stories aren’t Real News, because I don’t think they are.  And that impression is getting stronger and stronger as the years go by and more and more of the “celebrities” are people I don’t recognize. 

But is it really the case that something like the Casey Anthony investigation and trial is not Real News?

It would seem to me that crime in general, and murder in particular, is almost the definition of Real News. 

This would be true without reservation in any local context.  One of the most important things the news does is to tell us what is happening to our friends and neighbors, and what is happening in our communities that could affect our lives.

And crime does, in fact, affect our lives.  We make different decisions about what to do and where to go based on whether or not we think the area and the activity is safe.  Crime rates are one of the things our local and state governments need to take into account when they make decisions about laws, about police presence, about lots of things.

Given that, the underlying assumption of the episode must have been that the Casey Anthony case was not Real News because the television program in question had national, rather than local or regional, reach–that is, that crime, and especially sensational crime and murder, is not information important for people to have if they live outside the locality where it occurred.

And in this, I think the show was just wrong.

I do understand the objections to the way in which the Casey Anthony case was covered by most news outlets. 

The approach taken by people like Nancy Grace–it’s her show that gets half of Will McAvoy’s audience when Will won’t cover Casey–

Anyway, I think the approach taken by people like Nancy Grace was in fact to turn the story into entertainment, to not so much report the facts as to make the entire thing into a circus.  See Casey Anthony’s hair in court today?  What does that say about her state of mind?  Look at her face–she shows no remorse at all!  There are rumors coming from reputable sources that say Casey Anthony intended to have an abortion and her parents forced her not to!

This sort of thing is not Real News, and I understand the position of a serious news program not to be involved with it.  In fact, I’ll go farther.  This sort of thing is not only not Real News, it’s destructive. It creates  a climate in which the general assumption is that you can “just tell” if the accused is guilty or not–he cried or he didn’t, he sat stonyfaced and that means he had no emotions.

But there is a difference between that kind of thing and the honest reporting of a story about a murder. 

And it’s not true, any longer, that such stories only concern the localities in which they happen.

This is most clear in the case of serial killers, who can be very mobile and operate in several states.  Ted Bundy, after all, murdered his victims in Washington state, Colorado, Michigan and Florida, to name just some.  That’s a national murder story if there every was one.

But even much more localized cases tell us something about the state of our nation and the characters of our fellow citizens.  They tell us what the pathologies are, and where they are.

They tell us where the fault line are.

We don’t, of course, pay attention to every local murder.  We know the stats on the usual stupid stuff.  The unusual ones, though, raise questions, and they’re questions we should be prepared to answer.

One of the characters on The Newsroom explained the appeal of the Nancy-Grace style reporting of these things as being one where the viewer could watch and tell herself:  that child deserved so much more than that mother gave her; she deserved a mother like ME.

And maybe that is the appeal of that kind of thing.  I tend to be bored by it, mostly because it feels repetitious and trivial.

But it’s one thing to say that the way some stories are reported is wrong.

And it’s another to say that those stories should not be reported at all.

Whatever Sorkin wants, the rest of us don’t turn into the news for economic analysis and policy debates to the exclusion of everything else happening on the planet.

Written by janeh

August 25th, 2012 at 10:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Infotainment, Sort Of'

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  1. Hmmm. Telvision first. There has generally been a televison around, except for the first year or so of graduate school and and a couple of hardship tours. It hasn’t been connected to antennae, cable or sattelite dish for maybe 10 years now, and not used as a news source for maybe 15-20 years. It IS hooked up to a DVD player, and earlier to a VCR. That means movies or an hour or two of televison many evenings. The television programs are usually not mini-series, but individual episodes which can be watched out of context: BONES or BANACEK, X-FILES or KOLCHAK, or the great space operas.
    For me, television goes with radio, film and live drama–it doesn’t do information and reason well, but it’s really good with emotion. It does Truth, if you will, in place of facts–but it can do Untruth just as easily: hence M.A.S.H., THE WEST WING and, presumably THE NEWSROOM.
    For facts and reason, you want newspapers, books, magazines and the internet. Yes, of course they can lie: but they can’t mislead or do half-truths as well as the visual and auditory media, and they leave an unmistakable trail. The best you can say for using TV as an information source is that you can do something else at the same time.

    And if you consider an hour of television “in-depth analysis” against reading 60 pages of magazine articles on the same subject, you’ll realize that what Sorkin & Co want is for us all to feel the same way about the subjects–including the importance of them–and to have the same opinions about them. The game’s been rigged since Murrow’s day.

    As for child-rearing, the kid had to have his homework done first, bedtime was pretty strictly enforced, and since there was never more than one TV, I had a veto. It worked out well enough.

    Casey Anthony. I had to look the name up, but I remember the case. I suppose technically it’s news, but news doesn’t come much duller. “Mother Neglects Offspring to Party” ranks right with “Bureaucrat Abuses Power” and “Politician Takes Advantage of Office.” They’re proof we live in a fallen world–but we knew that. I’d much rather spend the evening going back over the loss of RMS TITANIC, The Little Bighorn or Richard III–even Jack the Ripper. There would be more information and some actual reasoning.

    There are, though, crimes which say something about the era in which they take place. An exiled German theatrical producer once said he’d have cast Hitler as a “heiratschwindler”–a man who defrauded young women of their dowries, or other money saved for their marriages. This was once common enough to have a distinctive name. More recently, I knew a young man scraping by by identifying himself as the father of illegitimate children. This got the real father off the hook for child support. The fraudulent “father” got a share of the welfare benefits and he didn’t mean ever to have a salary to be garnisheed. Those crimes say something about the societies in which they take place, but the Casey Anthonys will pretty much always be with us.
    News in the Metro section would be my reading. But about the others, you could write a book.


    25 Aug 12 at 1:27 pm

  2. I’ve always had a TV, since I was a kid myself. Multiple TVs, in fact. Probably watch way too much, as I’m fond of science, cooking and home improvement shows, as well as TV dramas. Oh, and the Big Bang Theory.

    These days we stream a lot of movies and older series from Netflix and Amazon, and since we got a DVR, we can watch an hour show in 40 minutes and skip the commercials. In election season, this can save your sanity.

    My son pretty much always has had a TV of his own as well. I would reconsider his having a computer in his room if I had it to do over, but for the past several years he hasn’t watched TV at all. What he does watch is on his computer! Very odd child, in some ways. I never had to enforce the “no TV before homework” but did have to restrict computer time for discipline at times.

    I too had to google Casey Anthony. I don’t keep up with news as much as I should. I used to be an avid newspaper and magazine reader, but since I moved to CA, not so much. Internet is the source of what I do read.

    As for reporting the crime as a media event, isn’t it just an extension of what happened during the OJ trial? It was more about the swarming reporters (“Look at us! We’re telling you something important! That means *we’re* important, please don’t cut our jobs! You need reporters! You need commenters to tell you what to think! Ignore those bloggers over there! You need the masses of reporters to tell you when something is important!”) than about the case itself.

    A lot of this is about the conflict between main-stream media and the blogosphere. You’ll hear about a lot of things in blogs that never make it to any network. Riots in Mexico? Uh, what? MSM wants to be as all-important as they used to be, but can’t quite manage it. So they over-do what they can do that’s different from blogs, which is the media-swarm and the network-sanctioned ranting of people like (ugh) Nancy Grace. Whom I have only observed on shows mocking her or using her to make a point.


    25 Aug 12 at 2:24 pm

  3. I swear we were the last family in our town to get a TV. Logically, it seems unlikely, but that’s what I remember. The whole family had one TV, and there were some moderate limits on its use – no staying up past bedtime on a school night to watch, no watching during family meals, no watching anything that was too violent or too sexually explicit by our parents’ standards, which wasn’t all that much back in the day. None of us became big TV watchers. I might have become one, but when I first left home, I lived in a student residence and the communal TV was always tuned to something I didn’t want to watch, and I lost interest. Eventually, I bought one, which gave me two channels – three if you counted CBC in French as well as English. Then a DVD player…it was very recently that I got cable TV as part of a package including high speed internet. I rarely if ever watch news – I tend to read it on the Internet.

    As for commonplace criminal cases…I don’t see at all how these people can get a fair trial with the media hysteria I read about. I prefer our system where some things are not reported until later – in stuff I see from the US you even have government officials in the public media making all kinds of allegations they haven’t tested in court!! Just to tittilate people and sell ads.

    Our trials are public, and agreements are publicized after the trial is over. The authorities got badly burned on that some years back, but overall I like the system.


    25 Aug 12 at 5:20 pm

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