Friday, March 20, 2009

CNN: The Messenger is Killing Us

If we weren’t actually, consciously, living in the midst of this perilous, unnerving, and unprecedented period in our history (no, the Great Depression was a whole other ballgame, and anyway, our new-age, high-tech, decline has just begun), we’d think we were watching a disaster movie or having a nightmare. But, as Rosemary said as she was being raped by the Devil, “This is no dream, this is really happening!”

I’m one of those people who keeps CNN on for a good part of the day; sometimes I watch, sometimes I just listen as I tend to other things. And sometimes I turn away, to an old movie or a shopping channel, anything that will bring my temperature back down to normal and make my breathing less shallow. We all know about the plethora of major issues and scandals and outrages that are going on, as well as the few changes for the better that are unfortunately overshadowed by the massive changes for the worse; I don’t have to list them here. The point is, staying informed has become a painful, debilitating process, in large part because CNN, the leading news player in television media, continues to be more a part of the problem than a part of the solution – and we can no longer afford that kind of news media.

I rarely watch Fox News, or MSNBC, or national network news – but I’ve seen enough of them, often enough, to know they display many of the same weaknesses, without as many of the same strengths. I rely on CNN, PBS and C-SPAN as my TV windows on the world. The latter two are godsends in the midst of all this craziness. PBS reports the news with calm and accuracy, and analyzes issues with insight and precision. I’d be a total basket case without The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Washington Week, Bill Moyers’s Journal, Charlie Rose, Frontline, and many of the major, free-standing documentaries. C-SPAN allows me to just watch what’s happening without explaining it to me or churning me up. (And Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO always delights and comforts me, because each week he remarks on the Emperor’s lack of political couture.)

CNN, as my staple, is, as it’s always been, a very mixed blessing. At its best, it’s very good, truly invaluable. At its worst, it’s downright dangerous, as well as tedious. Even though our troubled times call for gravitas and focus, CNN still gets sidetracked by kitten-in-the-well, sniper-on-the-rooftop, starlet-gone-missing stories that it blows completely out of proportion. It still regularly stirs the political pot with horse-racing, blame-seeking, scandal-wallowing gamesmanship. It’s also shrill and repetitive. And most recently, thanks to Twitter, what should be serious reportage is peppered with snippets of banal public opinion; not always helpful.

I know we’re not supposed to kill the messenger, but what do we do when the messenger is delivering more than just the message and is also trying to start trouble? What do we do, for example, in the face of the network’s constant flash messages (nee “the crawl”) that blind us with random tidbits of news that are horrible, bizarre, deliberately frightening, and thrown at us without context?

Indeed, there have been several studies in recent decades about the harmful effect of this kind of news delivery. Much like violence on TV/in films, which doesn’t make people violent but instead makes them insensitive to real violence, a steady influx of horrendous, disjointed, often distant news, renders us socially impotent at a time when citizen participation has never been more important. I sort of understand why CNN needs to report on some shotgun-shooting crazy here at home, but do we need to know about a wacko in Germany? Yes, tell us about German politics, economics and social issues, because it’s a major nation we need to be mindful of. But do we have to know about their isolated crazies? Isn’t it enough that we have to cope with ours?

Now that serious, broadsheet newspapers are dying faster than you can say His Girl Friday, television news has an even greater responsibility to be more greatly responsible, to help us understand the issues and the players, to keep us awake and involved without reducing us to hysteria or inertia, to help heal the nation. The tradition of impartial, disconnected journalism doesn’t seem to fit in a societal construct where our media is our culture. And what’s the point of all this global-reach technology and 24/7 cable-casting if all it does (at least half of the time) is contribute to the static?

CNN, take a page from PBS: tone it down, smarten it up, broaden the view, don’t get caught up in the bullshit of “the game,” and don’t sweat the small stuff. Things are too difficult and too important to do otherwise.

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