Friday, January 25, 2008

The Superficial Media

After watching the Democratic candidates debate on Tuesday, January 22 I was struck by the similarities to the genres of "reality" programs and "infotainment" shows. The geniuses who have handed us a two year presidential campaign season have handed the media, especially the broadcast and cable TV channels, a gold mine. Who needs news when one can air all "politics" all the time. However, after already campaigning for a year do these candidates actually have anything new to say? What is it going to be like from now until November? With their positions already well staked out all that is left besides repetition is muckraking and mudslinging. The TV pundits, commentators, analysts and consultants have their hands full. The challenge is to hold on to their viewing audience for the next nine months in the absence of anything new and of substance to talk about (actually, there are many substantive issues to be addressed but these are equally ignored/neglected by the candidates and the media folks). In order to do that, shows on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, etc. have substituted Hillary, Barack, John and the others for Britney, Paris and Lindsay as subjects of their excessive scrutiny and superficial or misplaced analysis. Their view, or that of their corporate masters, is that serious, in depth discussion of issues that matter deeply to the American people is bad television. It won't sell their advertisers' products, or worse, it might expose the role of the parent companies in contributing to those very issues that are causing such grief to the country.

So rather than add fresh insights, accurate information and objective analysis to the unfolding events of the campaign, these shows tend toward the sensational as a means of attracting and holding viewers. They endlessly replay provocative sound bites, exaggerate or inflame candidates' comments that may (or may not) have some racial or ethnic edge to them and beat to death minor issues that have no significance to anyone but, perhaps, the commentators. They also encourage silly and pointless sparring between "liberal" and "conservative" commentators. All to fill air time. There are so many words being spoken about so little it is truly astonishing! These are the people for whom the term "talking heads" was invented.

The one program that I would cite as an exception to the typical news programming characterized above is Countdown with Keith Olberman. Although not completely exempt from the criticism noted above Olberman has been given a longer leash by the network bosses, allowing him to make more pointed criticism of the Bush Administration and individuals in it, including the President himself. NBC appears willing to take a calculated risk that it will attract more viewers. Presumably, an increase in viewers of a more progressive persuasion will more than offset a loss of viewers of a more conservative persuasion, resulting in a net gain. I am under no illusion that the continuation of the Olberman show represents a leaning to the Left by NBC. It is simply business. As long as the advertisers are pleased Olberman will remain.

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