Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Voracious 24/7 News Media Has A New Diet

For years now the 24/7 news media has sated itself on periodic, fear-fueled, dog-pile feeding frenzies.    Now it has a new diet that involves trolling for opinions from small groups of people (20% more or less of the adult population) of so-called angry adults and then piling on their story like only 24/7 news media can to amplify it out of proportion and give it legs for as long as possible.

Starting with the Tea Party and now with so-called scanner-gate, it is clearly a trend if not a newsroom model for how to build ratings and readership.  A bonus dessert with the Tea Party was millions and millions of dollars in much needed advertising at least for radio and television, thanks in part to the mistaken belief by a majority of the Supreme Court majority in a recent casew that regulations were in place to prevent such a flood of anonymous campaign ads.

I expect the pendulum will ultimately swing back far enough on the scanner story for a few more outlets to finally reveal that John Tyner has explained that his “touch my junk” comment on video was intended to make light of the issue.   Obviously TSA on the ground didn’t get his humor and that made him angry.   But “making light” or the real issue wouldn’t have been enough to satisfy 24/7 news coverage.

Over-amped repetition at a superficial level may further incite but it isn’t insightful and it is ultimately distracting us from the real issue involved which is the far more widely held frustration we all feel about security delays since 2001, just as we are with anything where misguided attempts at so-called “fairness” leads to “main-frame” solutions v.s. targeted solutions.

Local news is typically much less addicted to exaggerating the “angry” angle but not entirely immune.  I still can’t believe journalists milk the “why do people hate Duke” angle, even here in the university’s home town and nearby.  The real story isn’t that a very small cohort of envious bloggers harangue about Duke, the story is that the Duke men’s basketball team has ranked #1 in popularity nationwide for 7 of the 13 years since the poll has been taken and 2nd most popular in five other years for an average of #1.5 over that span.

Why a small minority loves to hate Duke couldn’t be more obvious (IT’S BECAUSE IT IS THE MOST POPULAR TEAM, STUPID! – to paraphrase a famous campaign slogan from the ‘90s) and doesn’t warrant comment (even tongue-in-cheek) unless also accompanied by how popular overall the team is…but as late as last week a local reporter used the “hate Duke” slant in a story.  It would be equally stupid of me to suggest that failure to do so is because local journalists are often drawn from UNC’s journalism program (Duke’s rival for the half of the US that doesn’t follow college athletics.)

Life is complex enough without exaggerating the size and influence of small groups.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with many news journalists, local and national as well as many in news management as well as overall news media management both as colleagues and friends as well as a source.  I know this 24/7 stuff makes their skin crawl but there is nothing they can do.  Or is there?

Maybe it is time for the news media to do a better job of covering the news media, a la what managing editor Brooke Gladstone and co-host Bob Garfield do with On The Media, a radio program produced by WNYC and carried by more than 200 public radio stations around the country like Chapel Hill-based WUNC does throughout most of North Carolina including where I live in Durham.

Maybe it is time for the news media to admit and come to terms with the fact that “assembly-line” journalism has resulted in running the same 10 storyline over and over and over and over, while choking the life out of what journalism could truly be.

Maybe it is time for the news media to finally make former USC provost and now Lewis & Clark College president Barry Glassner’s book The Culture of Fear – Why Americans Are Afraid of The Wrong Things required reading and rereading for all journalists as well as everyone in news and media management.  Maybe others should be added to the reading list such as Harvard visiting professor Dominique Moisi’s The Geopolitics of Emotion – How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation and Hope are Reshaping the World.

Maybe it is finally time for the news media to wean itself from its tradition of obsessing about anecdotal comments or at the very least to refrain from giving them much more oxygen than they deserve without always putting them in context (near the point they are referenced, not back on page 37.)

Mostly, it is time for the 24/7 news media to take responsibility and to be introspective, in an effort to become more  accountable given the power and influence it has.  Even before one of America’s most notorious immigrants unleashed Fox News on us, it is due time for the news media to realize how important it is to society and how much society relies on information and perspective.

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