Breaking news: the news is broken

Brian Williams’ conflation is the latest fissure in the crumbling edifice of national television news. (Is my schadenfreude showing?) When it eventually achieves whatever-happened-to… status, most of us will remember the value it furnished to the public was far eclipsed by the value it furnished to the pharmaceutical industry. But even within the national news industry, there are degrees of bad. While major-network news programs serve as carnival tents for drug-company barkers, fair-and-balanced Fox also has a conflation problem, mixing opinion, much of which it shills for the plutocracy, with fact.

Breaking news! It snows in winter! We now return to our regularly scheduled programming…

Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and others in the new golden age of political satire have hilariously skewered the TV news industry’s industrial scale misapplication of journalism. Fox has even helped by becoming a parody of itself. So there’s no need for me to pile on.

Let me pile on, anyway; some of the more egregious nonsense rates an underscore. To begin with, why is “trust” a requirement for a well-coiffed anchor to read stuff from a teleprompter mostly written by other people? Fear of ad-libbing the text on the fly? Why is it necessary to stand in bad weather in order to report that the weather is bad? Why does… oh, never mind.

But as bad as national TV news is, local flavors are worse, and border on irresponsible use of publicly-owned bandwidth. Actually, they’re all pretty much the same flavor and seem to come from some sort of news-program-in-a-box.

Except for one, which stands out for its exceptional and expert perversion of ostensibly a public service, even one for profit. There are almost certainly others, but Houston’s Local 2 news, as it identifies itself, is at the apogee of mostly useless infotainment.

It’s hard to know where to start. One of its on-air “reporters” performs the role of clown, lacking only a red nose and floppy shoes. Another worthless feature introduced recently is the one-question, multiple choice, real-time poll. My selection would always be “Who cares?” but that option is never available. I suppose this device does have one use: it enables the avoidance of consideration, which is harder to do than just being told to think what most people think.

The latest “innovation” at both the local and national level—reading tweets on the air—could be taken prima facie as an admission of irrelevance.

Then there’s my bête noire: the weather as news, which issues from something called the “Severe Weather Center.” This is a cynical and craven attempt by local news to position themselves as irreplaceable protectors of the public who “keep you safe.” While they’re busy saving the citizens from Houston’s severe weather (mostly benign semitropical), the only time a weatherperson doesn’t stand outside in the weather is when conditions would most invite it. Apparently, they don’t think their viewers can comprehend the word “rain.” I can, and don’t need to see of one of them standing in it to get the idea.

Yes, I know; it’s me who doesn’t get the idea—that local television news is advertiser-attracting theater first and expense-incurring information second (third? fourth?). That’s OK, they can be whatever their corporate masters want them to be. But that has a serious consequence. In the act (literally) of becoming entertainment, they have abdicated a crucial role in the proper functioning of a democracy. Many of the direct effects of government on the governed come at the local and state level. At this interface the devil is in the details. But details are usually MIA. Skimming the subject has the feel of covering it, but without any substance. Hey, you’d have to ask thoughtful questions and explain complex answers. Why bore the public with that?

This disservice serves ratings, but why is that? The best place to start participating in what government does for and to you is to learn the details of what it is doing and intends to do. We should insist that the use of our bandwidth comes at a higher price—more informed coverage of all this—than local television news is paying right now.

I mentioned “consideration” earlier. Subtlety of thought is a requirement of living in a complex age. One-question, multiple-choice polls are not the way to inculcate that process. But frankly, encouraging subtle thinking would likely be a form of suicide for local TV news programs.

We the public should demand better use of our bandwidth if we are going to allow the use of it for profit. Mindless entertainment is fine—let’s hear it for Downton Abbey!—but as occupiers of television bandwidth granted by our government on our behalf, local news organizations are intermediaries in serious affairs that affect us all. Here’s my review (in the entertainment section) of their performance in this role: epic fail.

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