Monday, April 28, 2008

Television News is an Oxymoron

Elizabeth Edwards had a fine editorial in the New York Times, "Bowling 1, Health Care 0," about the paucity of substance in the television news coverage of the presidential campaign. I agree with her entirely. I think, though, that she is a little off the mark in blaming the television journalists for this. I blame television as a medium.

Television is a good medium for showing pictures. It is best at fires, explosions, earthquake damage, and shooting. Most news is not well conveyed in pictures. The news is best conveyed in words about non-visual events. The best news show on television is Jim Lehrer talking to a few informed reporters and news makers, slowly and carefully. It is very boring television -- unless you want to find out what is going on.

Cable television does a bit better than the networks, because they can talk a long time. Most of the time they just have reporters spouting their opinions. But Chris Matthews can have a broader range of reporters than a network show can, and can take more time with newsmakers. The cable shows also keep reporting numbers whenever they have them, which is useful.

Really, though, even for numbers we are better off with print sources. As for analysis of complex propositions -- such as the competing health care proposals that Elizabeth Edwards wrote about -- only text sources will do.

I will go a little further. I think that television as a medium can only reach up to the upper-middle brow. Usually, of course, it aims much lower, where it dominates. Even public television confines itself to the limits of middle-brow convention, lest it offending its funders.

For my money, the most intellectual television network is C-SPAN. They put on powerful people talking, or smart people talking, and very occasionally a smart powerful person, talking. Their book show is the best because their host is the best informed and least self-promoting. Their coverage of events is the best because they do not insert themselves at all, aside from selecting the event. I wish C-SPAN covered every real event that I want to see. Wouldn't it be great to have C-SPAN cover the Olympics? No nationalism, no chauvinism, no human interest fluff, and they would show all the events, not just the ones the U.S. can win.

The most important television news show is "The Daily Show," which says volumes about how much real news television can convey.


Anonymous said...

Neil Postman would agree. His book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business has the same thesis.

Tausign said...

Some months ago my cable provider, Comcast, dumped ONE channel and added two in their 60 channel lineup. The one they dropped was C-SPAN 2 -Book TV!! I miss it sorely and have cut my TV viewing by at half or more. I can get it back by switching to a digital lineup for more money of course.