September 7, 2005: That's entertainment!
So everybody is pointing fingers now about the mess in New Orleans and guess who's leading the charge for accountability -- the television media. How ironic. We all know that television has a very powerful influence on American public opinion, but for the last seven years or so, ever since Monica Lewinsky became the biggest threat to the American way of life since the birth control pill, we have been content to let the television media go AWOL. Rather than focusing on its responsibility to provide NEWS, the television media has been allowed to focus almost exclusively on ratings and profits.
As much as anybody -- as much as FEMA, as much as Michael Chertoff, as much as state and local officials, as much as Bush, -- the press is complicit in the recent disaster in New Orleans for two reasons: they could have helped stop it from happening, and they are directly profiting from it.
Since Bush took over in 2001 and started systematically dismantling the federal government with tax cuts, faith-based initiatives, spending reappropriations, and blind faith in state sovereignty (uh, except when states rights interfere with the larger agenda -- see Terry Schiavo, see gay marriage, see medical marijuana, see stem cell research), the television media has had ample opportunity to question the Bush Administration about not only it's policies but also it procedures. How many bald-faced lies have been perpetrated on the American public by the Administration in the last five years -- Medicare reform, Cheney's Energy Council, the Valerie Plame outing, THE FRICKING WAR IN FRICKING IRAQ, the real story of Pat Tillman, the California energy crisis, Bush's mountain biking greatness, Jeff Gannon, Mission Accomplished!, tax cuts for the lower and middle classes . . . and on and on. The television media not only had front row seats for all of these stories, they facilitated them. They had a chance to investigate and ask the tough questions, and accurately present the facts. They had a chance to honestly inform the public about the political machinations that were going to affect people's lives.
But they were derelict in their duty. Instead of growing a set and cutting through the Administration misinformation to the real issues at hand -- how these policies affect the nation as a whole -- the press too often got tripped up by its desire for continued access, its allegiance to the bottom line, and its hopelessly confused concept of balanced coverage.
Until now. NOW! Now that Bush and his people have finally gone too far with their lies and image manipulation, now that the public's willingness to believe in it's leaders has been stretched to the breaking point, now that the American public is finally rising up in anger, now that the forces of change have been put into motion, now the television media comes out from behind its corporate boards and its advertising revenue and its insider access to the powerful and famous to finally speak up.
Pathetic. The television media had a chance to stop the New Orleans flood, if they had only sunk their teeth into coverage of the Administration's appropriations cuts and revisions that took millions of dollars slated for infrastructure projects -- including specific monies for the levees in New Orleans -- and moved them to the more amorphous and Bush/Cheney-friendly Defense and Homeland Security budgets. By questioning the PR-driven, valueless, supply-side, trickle-down tax cuts that have helped widen the gap between rich and poor in the nation and have left the country's infrastructure weakened and vulnerable. By questioning the organization of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), or by shining a light on the systematic dismantling of FEMA, or by directing more attention to the qualifications of Michael Brown and Michael Chertoff. And they could have made some effort to examine the rationale for going to war in Iraq, a war that has a large percentage of the National Guard deployed half a globe away. They could have come in handy this past week.
But the television media didn't fight for straight answers, instead they played the game. They posed straw-man questions; they gave the arguments from both sides equal weight in a misguided nod to objectivity, even when the facts clearly supported one side or the other; they lobbed softball questions, accepted Administration answers at face value, and rarely followed up on obvious gaps in logic or reason.
The television media was first puzzled, then outraged when Bush declared on September 1, 2005, two days after the city of New Orleans filled with water from Lake Pontchartrain, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." But why should this come as a surprise to anybody that has been paying attention the last five years -- this President is full of shit, and the fact that the television media is just now waking up to this fact is itself pretty revealing.
Because even though the President, the Congress, FEMA, the DHS, and the television media were not interested enough to look into the New Orleans levee situation, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, NPR, and the New York Times were concerned enough to run lengthy stories about it as far back as 2002. But levees are just not sexy enough for TV. Now dykes, especially dykes getting married, well stop the presses, they'll give Joe Scarborough and Neil Cavuto and Bill O'Reilly carte blanche to beat that topic into the ground for days on end.
The press has a unique position in American society, and they must use this position to probe, to pressure, to push those in power for answers. But at the highest levels of the television media, in the boardrooms, the decision has long since been made to favor ratings and profits over information. At the individual level, media personalities have sold out to the forces of fame and fortune. It's just easier to accept things at face value and stay in the game, which includes appearance fees, radio deals, book contracts -- membership in the cult of celebrity has its advantages. Nobody is going to risk all that to rock the boat. The result is a corrupt, bloated press that foreshadows the very decline of American civilization that it refuses to acknowledge.
Plenty of outrage should be showered on the President and his team. Whether by incompetence or design, they sure did a good job of fucking this one up. But where is the outrage at the television media? Instead of anger at their poor performance, the television media is instead being hailed for finally growing a spine and sinking their teeth into the Katrina story.
Maybe because the television media is so powerful, it can control the discourse about itself. Whether it's politics or business or sports, or entertainment, it's all PR anyway, so the television media makes sure to clap itself on the back loudly and often, effectively creating its own positive image.
I just don't understand how even reliably cynical types such as the Washington Post's Dan Froomkin and contrarian blog HoorayForAnything can be sizing the television media up for their Medals of Freedom right now, because the television media still aren't getting it. Despite all their indignation and anger at the disaster in New Orleans and the bungled relief efforts, they are still not able to put two and two together and come up with four.
For example, in the last week of August, the Census Bureau released some rather grim statistics that showed that the number of Americans living in poverty rose by 1.1 million to 37 million last year. The Census Bureau went on to add that it is the fourth straight year that poverty has risen. So as the television media decries the terrible plight of the residents of New Orleans, even timidly pointing out that most of them are poor and black, they still cannot or will not address the elephant in the room: this Administration's total disregard for all but the economic elite in this country. Where is the outrage about the Census Bureau numbers? I guess it's just easier to strap on a field vest and poke around dead bodies and destroyed houses while hyping ratings with unsubstantiated descriptions of armed thugs running rampant on the city streets shooting babies and raping puppies than to draw a line between elitist public policy and it's effect on the masses.
And I have yet to hear one single TV talking head acknowledge that the looting (the actual looting, not the the survival collecting) is being done for many of the same reasons that precipitated the riots following the Rodney King verdict: when people are disenfranchised and abused by the system they get angry, and when circumstances present an opportunity, frustrations will boil over into rioting, looting, and other forms of protest. I guess such discussion would fall more along the lines of provocative social discourse though, and the news is not about discourse, it's about intercourse, it's about entertainment, it's about celebrity galas, it's about staged photo-ops, it's about corporate and Administration talking points, it's about agenda-setting.
And we haven't even talked yet about how the television media is waving its collective hanky for the Gulf Coast with one hand and counting its profits with the other. Executives and "talent" for network news channels and syndicated news services lie awake nights dreaming about events like Katrina. Such fortune may come along just once in a career. With 24 hours to fill every day, the network news channels usually have to devote hours and hours of air time to supercilious coverage of every cute white teenager that goes missing, every soldier pumped up about returning to Iraq for a second tour of duty, and every wisp of cloud that darkens the Gulf Coast shores -- coverage complete with elaborate graphics, expensive on-location reporting, and panel upon panel of distinguished experts to discuss ad infinitum the totally obvious.
But along came Katrina, and the media could hardly control it's glee. It was going to be big, and that meant at least two days of heavy weather, followed by at least a week of cleanup stories; Katrina was bringing with it a solid week's worth of salacious news content and tragedy. Television media executives and producers know that Americans love tragedy, whether Americans will admit it or not, and with tragedy comes ratings.
Because let's cut to the chase here, network news stopped being about the news decades ago. It had of course been sliding toward the precipice for years, but the news part of network news was given the final shove off the cliff during the Gulf War when Arthur "The Scud Stud" Kent and Wolf Blitzer stood on their rooftops in Riyadh and Tel Aviv and showed media people everywhere that the "news" was as much about the reporter and the theatrics of reporting as it was about the events being reported. Folks, that's called entertainment, not news.
The television media was up to all of its old tricks (definitely read this brilliant indictment of everything that is wrong with network news), and the grandstanding for Katrina and the subsequent levee breeches was obvious and totally unconscionable. This went far beyond the obligatory shots of some poor field reporter in rain gear standing out on a jetty somewhere being pounded by wind and rain while trying to file a report on the fact that there's a storm outside, this was blatant exploitation. For reporters and studio anchors, it was a chance to lay out their best cheesy sentiments and maddeningly cutesy prose ("for local residents, relief supplies coming to them like it was the end of the world had some wondering if the end of the world was coming to them" -- uh, this line should be read in the sing-song voice of drippy television news magazine journeyman Keith Morrison); for producers it was a chance to capitalize on the emotional appeal of human tragedy and grief.
In addition to the endless loops of personal stories of "tragedy and heroism" and the same 45 seconds of footage shown over and over again, news anchors got their time in the sun, and field reporters breathlessly recounted their heroic efforts to get the stories. Words like tragedy, devastation, heartbreaking, and crisis were used relentlessly to sensationalize the facts, to make them more enticing to the viewers. Images like the ones CNN showed last Wednesday of distraught and displaced people congealed into staged irony by contrasting them with a shot of the nearly submerged street sign for Humanity Drive in New Orleans are used to pluck the heartstrings and pull in viewers. Reports of thousands of dead without any corroboration (remember back on 9/11, initial television news reports were baselessly speculating at up to 50,000 dead when the actual number turned out to be less than 3,000?), bodies floating in the streets, and up to 100 armed men holding the convention center. Was this the news or the latest episode of CSI: Miami?
Lest there be any doubt that TV news coverage of Katrina was about ratings and profits rather than news, each of the network news channels continued to play their standard rotation of commercials throughout the special reports and breaking news coverage that dominated programming on Wednesday and Thursday of last week. CNN teasers announced "overwhelming emotional destruction" and "firsthand accounts of survival and loss" in the same smarmy voice that last week hyped Larry King's interview with Pamela Anderson. Promos for the Anderson Cooper show on Wednesday promised "Chaos in New Orleans," "Bands of gunmen roaming the streets," "The body count continues to grow," and "Anderson Cooper goes on a search and rescue mission." The latter turned out to be a camera crew following Cooper around as he shamelessly poked his face into people's flooded houses looking for dead bodies like he was filming a demented episode of Room Raiders and made comments like "the smell is overwhelming."
Cooper in particular was in fine form on Wednesday, making his bid for an Emmy, or at least an Edward R. Murrow Award, with gems like, "heartbreak and chaos have risen as high as the floodwaters" and "we went out with search and rescue workers today, we'll show you their grim discoveries when we come back (from commercial)," at which point the critical news coverage was interrupted for a British Petroleum commercial. Over on MSNBC, the promo for Rita Cosby Live & Direct boasted of "the stories and heartbreak only we can bring you."
And each network continued to cycle through its regular daily coterie of news anchors, giving each of its featured studio hosts a chance to have their 9/11 moment of journalistic heroism. You could almost see it in their eyes: every anchor was giving it their theatrical all, so that when the inevitable documentaries of this disaster are made, when the history of this disaster is written, they will be as much a part of the story as the people of New Orleans. It's disgusting.
The studio anchors looking so grave and concerned then kick it out to a reporter in the field, invariably positioned theatrically against the backdrop of either tragedy or devastation. In one story about the possibility of E. Coli bacteria in the fetid floodwaters of New Orleans (No shit? who would have guessed), CNN even had poor Elizabeth Cohen squatting down in the foul water with nothing but a thin pair of hip waders between her and amoebic dysentery. Oh the stagecraft. And there was Anderson Cooper again, looking so clean and freshly shaved on his search for the dead that studio anchor Aaron Brown felt compelled to comment on it. An embarrassed Cooper quickly brought the discussion back to the misfortunes of others.
Most offensive of all is the way the anchors' somber and emotional reading of the syrupy teleprompter script suddenly turns upbeat, with a smile, or a least a rueful smirk curling on their pampered lips as they cut away from floating bodies and starving babies to send it over to Flip Diddler for at look at this weekend's rosy weather forecast for the nation's beaches.
What is the point of showing crying babies, and screaming mothers, and total human devastation over banner headlines like "New Orleans chaos," "Finding bodies," and "New Orleans nightmare"? The point is sensationalistic imagery and language that generates ratings. Ratings attract advertisers and raise the prices for commercial time, and that translates to higher profits. And there you have it, the modern television media in a nutshell.
The news networks were certainly not disappointed in the reviews of their New Orleans theater. According to David Bauder of the Associated Press, "Ratings for the cable news networks also spiked, typical for big events. Fox News Channel averaged 2.8 million viewers last week, up 184 percent from its average this year; CNN's 2.1 million was up 325 percent and MSNBC's 766,000 was up 250 percent." Damn, that's oil company numbers there.
It is clear that the television media is content to go for ratings and let the news fall where it may. Sure, some decent reporting has been done, and the television media does deserve credit for bringing the terrible suffering and inept relief response along the Gulf Coast to the attention of the world. But let's not pull a muscle patting the television media on the back (they're doing a pretty good job of that themselves), because it is clear from the television coverage and the subsequent ratings that television media has looted its fair share from the people of the Gulf Coast and should be looked upon as greedy profiteers for their disingenuous posturing and callous opportunism the past 10 days. Go ahead and spew your venom for Bush, Chertoff, FEMA, Ray Nagin, Kathleen Blanco, Congressional leaders, or Grover Norquist, but save some for the messengers too.
--Don Henly, "Dirty Laundry"
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