Sunday, February 1, 2015

News as Entertainment

One of the most noticeable cultural changes during my lifetime has been in the area of news consumption. When I was growing up people tended to read The Daily News, The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal when commuting to or from work. Some subscribed to the local newspaper, The Standard-Star, for which I had a paper route, and most people watched the evening news on weekdays. Today some people still read physical newspapers and watch the evening news, but in reduced numbers. I haven't seen any recent statistics, but I suspect that most people now get their news somewhat haphazardly in various digital formats.

I was never a big newspaper reader and got into the habit of watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite until he retired in 1981. When Eric Sevareid appeared on the program, he added incisive commentary of a kind that has completely vanished today. Occasionally I would read the Sunday New York Times. Journalists like Cronkite and Sevareid got their start during World War II and gave serious presentations in which they attempted to bring up all the hard news. The contrast between Cronkite and, say, Diane Sawyer, who recently retired from ABC World News, is astounding. Network news now consists of a series of feel-good moments designed to hold the attention of a geriatric audience just long enough to brainwash them with pharmaceutical ads. I doubt that many people under the age of sixty regularly watch the evening news any more.

The purveyors of news and the media in general are now obsessed with content, and the role of news in the important sense of keeping the public informed enough to make sound voting choices within the democratic system is largely nonexistent. Part of the decline in interest in real news can be ascribed to commercial competition from businessmen like Rupert Murdoch who have long catered to the lowest common denominator in order to attract more readers and viewers. However, there are other reasons for the public to be less interested in the news now than they were in the 1960's. First there was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, then there was the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Racial unrest hasn't gone away, but there is currently nothing like the Watts riots of 1965 or those following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. The protests against the Vietnam War, which claimed the lives of 58,000 Americans, were far more significant than any in recent years. In those days large numbers of people watched the news, and the CBS Evening News had a correspondingly enormous budget. Without any immediate excitement, competition for viewers and readers has devolved to providing light entertainment for the largest audience possible.

In recent years I have stepped up my reading and have become aghast even about the quality in higher levels of journalism in the U.S. After following editorials at The New York Times for several years, I finally decided that they rarely are insightful or thoughtful, and it is difficult not to see them as page filler for an uncritical and gullible readership. The same goes for The New Yorker, which isn't really of much interest beyond fashion, whether it's fashionable plays, movies, fiction or ideas: this is the last place to look for interesting perspectives. Most recently I had a complete falling out with The New York Review of Books, which markets itself to quasi-intellectuals and bon vivants. The editor, Robert Silvers, seems to have developed his own formula: recruit writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Charles Simic, Martin Filler, Pico Ayer and Lorrie Moore after they have already made names for themselves, milk them for a few years to perpetuate the myth of high quality at the publication, and then, as they sail off into obscurity, replace them with people from the ranks of the latest falling stars. Editorially, the NYRB is a niche player that concentrates on pabulum for intellectual poseurs.

As bleak as this may sound, there are bright spots now because of Internet publishing. On any given day there are bound to be several new and interesting articles to be found there, and the problem is mainly in finding them. In this frontier, I think 3 Quarks Daily is doing a reasonably good job, and it seems likely that there will eventually be competitors in the field of gathering interesting articles from across the web.

My news and journalism consumption habits have changed a lot over the past few years. For the most part I don't pay much attention to the news any more. In the morning I look at the headlines on The Wall Street Journal and check up on the investing scene. I then scan 3 Quarks Daily to see if there is anything that I would want to read. In the evening we usually watch PBS NewsHour, which is mainly a ritual associated with our cocktail hour. The reporting is better than what you find on the networks, but the reporters rarely ask hard questions, and, like most journalists, aren't that bright. We like Mark Shields as a foil to David Brooks, but I'm sick of both of them and wish they'd retire. David Brooks is the kind of professional journalist who knows exactly how to enhance his career but whose opinions are essentially worthless. In any case, I don't care about domestic politics, and that is usually their main topic. Often it is too painful to watch the entire program, and we prefer the shorter version on the weekends with Hari Sreenivasan. Lately I have become interested in local news and very much enjoy reading the Addison County Independent, which I think is an amazing publication for a county with a population of only 36,000.

Despite my general indifference to the news, technically its low quality and limited influence on public life are problematic for a country whose existence is predicated on the presence of an informed public. However, in keeping with my views on capitalism and democracy, I do not expect this situation to improve. Rather, as I have said, the capitalism plus democracy formula is unsustainable and will end one way or another at some point in the future. Capitalism, democracy or both will sooner or later change from their current forms.

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