Sunday, May 23, 2010

Boob's Tube

This is a rant. 
The American media coverage of the Bangkok tragedy was so perfunctory and inexpert as almost to be criminal.  While there's some validity to the old journalism saw that "all news is local," surely a country that so obsessively measures itself against other nations should make at least some effort to get the story, to make it available, and to get it right.

If you take the items contained within the commas above as reasonable journalistic objectives, here's how the American broadcast and Internet media (that's you, HuffPost and CNN) scored:

Get the story:  20 out of a possible hundred.  By and large they relied on British reportage.  Even when a Red Shirt leader was shot through the head while being interviewed by a New York Times reporter, the broadcast media focused more on the reporter than on the event, because they weren't competent to put the shooting into context.

Make the story available:  Pretty close to zero. (And this also applies to most U.S. print media.)  There was lots of air time for Lindsay Lohan and gasbag pundits eructating about a meaningless election (a MIDTERM PRIMARY, for Christ's sake) but no precious seconds to spare for the possible downfall of our longest-lasting and most important ally in Southeast Asia, much less the people dying in the streets.  Absolutely witheringly, appallingly and willfully unconscionable.

Get it Right:  Zero with a bullet, but unfortunately a bullet heading down.  When they had shots of people bleeding heavily, which means it made the air in keeping with the "if it bleeds, it leads" tenet of broadcast journalism, the networks and cable outlets were hopelessly clueless about what was actually happening: what all those people were doing out there behind the barricades of tires, why the Army was shooting them, how long the government had, in essence, forsworn armed confrontation before opening fire.  I mean, this is not really a complicated story: it's a clash between rival groups, with the poor caught in the middle.  How much time does that take?

But all those long names!!!!  And, really, are we allowed to say "Bangkok" on the air? And the people -- they're all kind of . . . brown.  Did Lindsay get back from France in time?

When the story of 20th-century America is finally written, assuming anyone can still write, one of the most melancholy threads will be the development of a magnificent medium that promised to bring directly to us, in  pictures and sounds, the faces and voices of those caught up in tragedy and triumph all over the world.  And how it did that, with some of the most unforgettable moments in American history: the cameras in the Senate chamber catching Judge Joseph Welch demanding of Joe McCarthy, "Have you no shame, sir?  Have you no shame at last?"  The first steps on the moon.  The extraordinary Vietnam coverage that brought down a war. The fried eyes of Richard Nixon stepping down.

And then, how it was sold off, a high-priced second at a time, first to advertisers battling post-nasal drip and then to multimedia corporations that had low risk thresholds and fierce profit appetites.  And how those entities drained the medium of integrity, curiosity, intelligence, and individuality until it became just another pacifier, a highly profitable pacifier, but essentially a direct link to the government-and-corporate-generated soma (to borrow a term from Huxley) that lulls us into life as good little consumers, easily fooled by politicians sitting on top of stacks of stolen money and pointing fingers at each other, by demagogues claiming that they're the ones to "take our government back," and by feel-good stories about America the Wonderful when in actual fact we have become, in part due to the miracle of television, the dumbest first-world nation on earth, narcotized into numb acceptance of our falling relevance in the world.  

Put it together with a destroyed public education system, and you can see (a) why nobody cared about Thailand, since most Americans couldn't find the entire Asian continent on a map, and (b) why our interest is nil in those parts of the world that are farther away than, say, the other side of the street and/or don't have Lindsay Lohan or some other celebrity train wreck in them.  And finally, you can see (c) why this country is probably at the end of its period of glory and innovation, and why, a generation from now, Americans will be looking at (maybe) China on the tube, and saying, "Didn't that used to be us?"

Tim -- Sunday


  1. Tim really nails it with this rant. Like all good rants it swoops into cogent criticism then veers off, talons out, against a worthy target.

    I've long given up on US media and having lived in Asia for some time, am no longer subjected to it. With the Internet, we all have access to English-language media from the entire globe--even places where English is not the native language may have an English-language news outlet.

    With the recent Thai situation, sites like, and (primarily run by on-the-ground bloggers) have been extremely useful, although the mainstream English-language Thai press is worth reading also.

    One of the problems with US media is the pace: soundbites rule, and anything that requires introspection/history/analysis is either mangled or ignored. This by itself largely rules them out as sources of knowledge, but throw in the hysterical binge-and-purge on the latest celeb nonsense (the play does not change, only the players) and the media of Edward R Murrow remains a monochrome, smoke-shrouded sepulcher. More's the pity.


  2. You have nailed a lot of journalists frustration with television media. I know newspapers don't get it right all the time either--but at least the individual reporters seem to cover more broadly than we TV journalists. Yes, I am a TV journalist--a producer on a local statewide station to be exact. One of the reasons I went from full-time to freelance is the exact frustration that led to your rant: myopia.

    We spend a lot of time chasing down the most minute details of a car accident, when the broader implications of legislation or a situation overseas would be better use of that time. I GET the idea that closer to home impacts individuals lives. But proximity isn't always the golden rule. Especially, as you point out, when our country defines it on its relation to others.

    What do we do? When I produce, I put as many national and international stories in my newscasts as possible. But I am just one (freelance/occasional) journalist. I am not bringing in the news--merely putting it on air. Jon Stewart can rant all he wants, but he cannot change the money-making schedule of 24-hour cable news.

    Ok, that's my own rant.

    So, our media says your problems are over. I'm sure that's right. CNN says it.

    Southern City Mysteries

  3. I can't comment on US TV reporting, but I was very surprised the climax in Bangkok didn't make a trending topic on twitter.

    I suspect it's not only the network bosses who don't care.

  4. Tim, I commend you for still having the passion to rant. I gave up on TV news during the Reagan administration. I watch only when I feel compelled to see pictures, of the devastation of Katrina, for instance. Otherwise, I avoid the WMD (Weapons of Mass Distraction) dished out by the media. By Bush II, I had decided to stick my head in the fictional past (I write historical novels), rather then fray my nerve endings by watching the fictional present on CNN or, god forbid, FOX. I know I am wrong to prefer to ignore it all, but it seemed the lesser evil choice between ignorance and the shopping bag full of tranquilizers it would have taken to calm me down if I stayed that angry.

  5. Hi Tim,

    The dumbing-down of the American media isn't a recent phenomenon. And much of it, unfortunately, has to do with the attitudes of the American public.
    Most broadcast outlets in the United States are commercial. Their profit margin, if not their survival, depends upon large audiences. (More viewers/listeners = higher numbers on their rate cards.)
    So, unlike the the BBC, American radio and television gives audiences what they want.
    And what they want, by and large, is...what they get.
    And not, as Michele points out, what many working journalists want to give them.
    An illustration in point:
    Back in 1961(!) I was working my way through college as an announcer at a local radio station in a small town in Connecticut. This town was deep in a valley, and most households couldn't receive signals from outside - so it was a bit of a captive audience. The local newsman (yes, only one) went on vacation and I was asked to replace him. I had long been disgusted by this guy's provincialism and sensationalism. (After one accident, he described one of the victim's "naked eyeballs staring upward into the pelting rain". (I swear to God. It's been almost fifty years, and I've never forgotten that line.)
    Anyway, I saw my chance. I started filling the news programs with stuff off the wire. World news. Intelligent feature stories.
    And we started getting a myriad of complaints.
    I remember one irate citizen demanding to speak to me. When he got me on the 'phone he started out by saying, "I don't give a damn about what's happening in red China. I want to know about what's happening here in town."
    That, too, I have never forgotten.
    And it marked the end of my attempts to bring knowledge and culture to the hills of Connecticut.
    I'm glad that the news programs I watch these days are all on Brazilian television. Brazilians ARE interested in the rest of the world, and the coverage on what's been going on in Bangkok is excellent.
    As was the documentary, recently run, that explained the situation in detail.
    Of course Brazilian TV isn't perfect either.
    At the moment, they're telling me far more than even I want to know about the World Cup. (More on this in my post of tomorrow.)

  6. Unlike the previous posters, I am not well-traveled and I have no experience of Asia. I do have a world view that is somewhat different from that of most Americans because I read and because I have an interest in history.

    Unfortunately, Tim, it is unlikely that Americans will pay attention to anything happening a world away when they don't pay attention to anything in their own backyard. Everything you say about the media is true; what you didn't mention is that mainstream America doesn't watch the news nor read the newspaper. Those who do watch the news watch FOX which is not news but political brainwashing that entertains its followers by repeatedly telling them that they are the victims of their political, social, economic, and intellectual inferiors who aren't patriotic or real Americans. Why waste time on any news that doesn't blame Obama and the left for everything? If they could have found a way to connect him to the events in Thailand, it would have been broadcast around the clock.

    My children are well-educated, intelligent, and committed to issues regarding social justice. They do not read newspapers or watch the news, two things that make their father crazy. I am the recipient of a steady stream of links to articles on blogs but they generally reflect what my kids perceive as attacks on the liberal agenda regarding the poor, immigrants (legal and otherwise) and on the ecological disaster in the Gulf. They are aware of what has happened in Thailand and they are appalled by soldiers shooting their own people but they are not curious about the causes.

    It astonishes me that while we have the ability to see conditions anywhere in the world in real time, we are less engaged by it. There were few cameras following the events of the Berlin airlift and those pictures were shown for about 20 seconds on the 15 minute broadcast of the nightly news hosted by John Cameron Swayze. But Americans supported it because it was the right thing to do. Now we see people being beaten in the streets and it doesn't make a lasting impression.

    Getting back to Cheney/Bush, which I am really quick to do if it involves the negative thinking that has imbued this country, we had 8 years of a presidency that was conducted by a man whose loyalty went to increasing the bottom line of the very rich. I don't think Bush is as cold as Cheney; I think he was just criminally clueless to life in these united states. The world they presented to us was one I didn't want to know.

    For two days, Yahoo's main page has carried a story about Katie Holmes appearing in public in a bad outfit. The American public loves these stories because they don't require that anyone think or reflect on events and the reasons behind then. No Child Left Behind (again, I get to lay blame), requires that teachers avoid discussion that sharpens critical thinking skills. In the old days, that had to be part of the lesson plan and it was a category that appeared on report cards. All there words have been eliminated from the vocabulary of education assessment. If students are taught to do so, they might actually question what is going on in the world and in their country.

    We are, again, the ugly Americans, willfully stupid. We are generous to those in need but we don't what to know why Haiti cannot in any way help itself recover from the earthquake. That is too complicated and has nothing to do with us.

    I don't know how to make US care. I think the last time that the United States, and the world, was united by television was the night the young man in the white shirt stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square.

    What will happen to the protesters in Bangkok, Tim? Are they at risk of deadly reprisals from what passes as the government?

    Please keep ranting. I think there are many people who read this blog without posting. You educate us.

  7. Hi Tim-

    Interesting rant.


  8. Hi, everyone --

    Thanks for the forbearance. I regretted much of that piece the moment I posted it, but the parts of it I didn't regret won out and I left it up. Ultimately, I decided that a rant was a rant and, as such, wasn't required to be as fair and balanced as, say, Fok Snooze. Which is, of course, the top-rated snooze network.

    It fascinates me that the Berlin airlift got as much as 20 seconds on John Cameron Swayze's 15-minute broadcast when until the final death agonies Bangkok couldn't get five seconds on the 24-hour news cycle of CNN, Fox, and the other round-the-clock outlets. Even THE WEEK, a newsmagazine I more or less like, couldn't get around to coloring Thailand red and attaching a paragraph to it in its central global news roundup -- not until the final flurry of bullets and blood.

    And the guy with the plastic bags in Beijing whom Beth mentions -- surely one of the most indelible images of the 20th century -- came to us by way of the same media that declined to run, for example, the footage of the shooting death of a nurse who was on her knees trying to save a wounded man. Or protestors who returned rifle fire by launching cherry bombs with slingshots or by aiming roman candles at the soldiers. Not newsworthy. Even though, as Don Hendley says about TV news in "Dirty Laundry," "It's interesting when people die." Maybe it's more interesting when they're white.

    I gotta watch out or I'll be ranting again.

    Michele, I didn't mean to criticize everyone in TV news -- obviously there are lots of good individuals. But they're in a toxic environment, not, as Leighton points out, like the BBC which doesn't have to function as a corporate for-profit entity. Good God, Leighton, a documentary about the situation? Wish we'd seen it here.

    This is, of course, the nation in which a candidate for the governorship of New York, Rick Lazio, reading off a TelePrompter, in a speech written by HIS OWN CAMPAIGN, pronounces "Kim Jong Il" as "Kim Jong Two."

    I'm not really an Orwellian conspiracy theorist. I just think that our natural isolationist tendencies (remember, we didn't enter World War II until Pearl Harbor) have been exacerbated by the worst educational system in the developed world, plus corporatized "news" that's designed as slightly upscale reality TV.

    In fact, that's a show I'd watch: "The Anchor," in which five or six telegenic bubble-heads compete for the anchor desk of a national news outlet one hour per week. No journalistic experience necessary, of course; and you could import all the experts from "America's Next Top Model" to teach the wanna-be Edward and Edwina R. Morrows about hair and makeup and walk. And a third-grade teacher to improver their TelePrompter reading skills.

    Why isn't this already on the air?

  9. I did NOT take it as insulting at all! I completely agree with you and meant to say that your frustrations are also the frustrations are shared by many in the media as well.

    I love the idea of The Anchor "reality" show. Unfortunately, only the lowest level anchors would agree to something like that. Remember who controls shows like that...The Networks!

    Southern City Mysteries

  10. This is coming in a little late but thanks everyone for your thoughtful and very passionate views on the pathetic state of mainstream media, education, and America's dumb and getting dumber general public.

    I read today that it is more likely that a child owns a cell phone than a book.

    Downward with a bullet indeed.

  11. Hi Tim, I sent this out and got FIVE responses from friends of different nationalities, four of whom lived in Bangkok for years. They were highly appreciative of your views and felt the same, then again, this isn't really CNN's target audience.

    I wonder who IS. With the Internet, why read rubbish?

    For a good (and related) laugh, read:
    Journalists Continue To Parachute Into Bangkok
    File wildly discursive and incongruous stories about the crisis