February 26, 2003

What TV does well…

Yesterday I did something that I’ve done often over the past year: put quote marks around “journalist” in reference to someone who practices that profession on television. I intend never to do this again because 1) it is snarky, and 2) it does not accurately convey what I’m trying to say.

There are many learned, able, and dedicated people trying to practice journalism on television. It is the medium, not their efforts, that often fail. As Neil Postman began pointing out with his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, television cannot adequately convey the kind of propositional content necessary to make the news politically useful. For the most part, I agree with Postman’s assessment, which will come as no surprise to regular readers of Rhetorica.

But I think Postman ignores what TV can and does do well in journalism: Point a camera at breaking news and offer immediate, on-the-scene reaction from journalists and participants. Print just cannot match the immediacy of TV in this regard.

When the space shuttle Columbia exploded, I rushed to the TV. When terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, I rushed to the TV. When a tornado formed near my suburban neighborhood, I rushed to the TV.

Once the tumult subsides, TV is left with little more than a rehash of video and endless interviews with experts. While some of this may be of value, the structure of television as a news medium ensures that only a limited amount of this information will be useful to consumers. For depth, for perspective, for background, for simple retention, one must use print.

To keep up the illusion of immediacy, TV producers heap onto the screen an ever-confusing array of logos, theme songs, streaming text, and video insets. Watching TV news has become a truly postmodern experience. My wife and I regularly watch News Night with Aaron Brown on CNN. This kind of thing plays out several times per hour:

Wife: >>chuckle<< Me: That's not funny. Wife: No, the thing about the alligator. Me: Oh...on the streamer. Damn... Wife: What? Me: I missed it. It's too much. You can't watch or listen to all that's going on. It gives the impression that news is popping when all that's really happening is that you're getting overloaded. TV can truly be a window to the world. I am thankful for it every time something of importance happens, and I am able to watch and listen as events unfold. Print will never match that. Even the internet cannot match TV at this point. The men and women who place themselves at risk to point cameras at great events, and talk to a lens filled with anxious viewers, deserve our respect and thanks, not snarky quote marks.

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