News as entertainment: the wonderful world of U.S. television

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“BREAKING: Officer on Ferguson crowd control relieved of duty” screams across the bottom of the screen, blocky white letters on a bright CNN-red strap. A day later, the same story is still running as breaking, with a new twist: “LIVE: Cop suspended over hate-filled rant”.

(If you’ve been living under a rock and need some context on this story, click here.) 

One reporter describes the news as a “stunning development”. I raise an eyebrow. Is it an important development? Of course. I’ve seen the footage and completely understand the anger. Is it so significant as to warrant being labeled breaking news and rehashed for a full day, described by a wide-eyed, blonde-haired hack as “stunning”? I’m not sure. Neither am I stunned.

The global journalism community has been talking about the issue of TV news as entertainment for a decade and more. Increasingly it’s become the norm as networks pull every punch they can think of to up their audiences, sparking much wailing and gnashing of teeth among those of us creaking traditionalists who still believe news should be news, just the facts and nothing more. It’s an issue I’ve been aware of throughout my career but somehow here in the U.S. it is more bluntly in focus, less insidious and more full-blown.  

I’m used to the very much more civilized CNN International. It’s generally rational, perhaps a little too inwardly-focused at times but more often than not it’s reasonably balanced and reflective.

Its domestic counterpart is a different beast entirely. The vivid screen is endlessly slapped with “breaking news” straps and bookended with innumerable ads. In one twenty-minute viewing session over breakfast last week, I counted five separate stories that were labeled “breaking news”.

Now, being a journalist in my country is seriously exciting – there’s rarely a slow news day in the crucible that is South Africa, where politics, social injustice and crime constantly vie for the headlines, with us newshounds simply shooting fish in a barrel. And at home, we’re lucky if we get one story a week we can give the “breaking news” treatment. Five in one day? Never in my 12 years as a journalist.

Flip the channel and suddenly Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping leaps through the speakers. Is it a music video? Perhaps an ad? Mais non, it’s an intro to what appears to be a serious news show on Fox News. The impeccably groomed, pearly-toothed hosts hurtle straight from the anarcho-punk beats into an actual story about Whitehouse officials allegedly having enlisted celebrity reverend Al Sharpton as an on-the-ground source in Ferguson. Then they segue into a chat about him having lost weight, before returning to their criticism of what’s happening in the town and “how the liberal media laps up this BS hook, line and sinker”.

Make no mistake, there is some truly excellent journalistic content on U.S. television. Some of what’s said is exceptionally considered, enlightened and insightful. But across the board it’s packaged in this bizarre gloss, this sheen of slicked hair and snappy suits. Part of me admires the ability of local media companies to package their products so cleverly, so professionally, so enticingly. At home, journalists routinely appear on camera with frizzy hair, hastily-applied makeup or ill-fitting clothes. No doubt they would, along with their news items, be described here as frumpy and amateurish.

Aesthetics aside, the real problem to me is that an oft-commendable news product is also regularly sandwiched between comment that in South Africa (and I hope elsewhere around the world) simply wouldn’t pass muster as journalism; it’s opinion masquerading as analysis. And I’m afraid I don’t like it.

I would expect that the more informed and nuanced viewers of some of this tripe feel much the same way as I do, but I worry about those who rely solely on one local source for all their news and information. Are they able to as easily discern right from wrong in the world of journalism? Do they critically examine what they're told by Barbie and Ken? Are they aware that there's a whole world of suffering and injustice out there, away from the relative safety and security of America? Gosh, I hope so.