The Boob Tube #56: The News

I came upon this TV Guide (January 13, 1979), read the quotes on the cover, and started laughing... then reality kicked in, and I thought about how far our news has sunk since then.  Truly a sad state of affairs.

Think about the points these network execs are making:  (1) That ratings literally should not be a factor in newscasting, and (2) the outlandish idea that we could one day extend to ONE HOUR of network news!

Obviously, we have wildly strayed from these perspectives, and we have paid dearly for it.

Consider both of these discussion points for a moment.

Ratings: Not only are news networks governed by ratings, they proudly proclaim them from the rooftops.  The only thing Fox News talks about more than Trump is their own leading ratings! Sure, there's always been a competition to get the biggest audience (Burgundy v. Mantooth); however, the notion that ratings shouldn't even be a news channel's guiding principle - that it's dangerous - frankly, isn't a topic that's on anyone's mind these days.

But before we move on - don't get hung up on whether it has or hasn't always been the case.  Let's presume that news networks have always been ratings-oriented, always been in a competition for ratings - and that competition is actually a healthy thing for a news channel.  I'll concede all of this.

The trouble comes when the news loses the mindset that they are providing a service - that they are giving us information they feel is important, and that, ultimately, ratings are irrelevant to the value of a story.  I contend that this not-so-subtle mindset shift has contributed to our news falling off a cliff, and leading to a uninformed and misinformed population - a dangerously unhealthy state of the nation.

And here is the ultimate result:  While the Islamic state marches across massive swaths of land, leaving untold atrocities in their wake, we get maybe a ticker tape note scrolling at the bottom of a screen about it. In place of real news, we give the people what they supposedly want - a shit ton of Donald Trump fluff.  Oh my God, what did Trump twitter about now?!?  What did Trump say about some washed up celebrity? Oh no he didn't?!? Did some chick get her forearm bruised trying to talk to Trump?!? The inhumanity!!

Meanwhile, forearm bruising is the least of the worries for much of our planet, contending with a seemingly endless parade of atrocities.  Not to bring the room down, folks, but there are hundreds of thousands of babies - BABIES - being raped in South Africa (supposedly as a barbaric way to protect men against AIDS).    Are you aware of the level of drone strikes taking place under our country's command? Once upon a time, we couldn't just launch missiles at populations and have that go under the radar.  Yes, whether North Carolina allows transgender bathrooms is much more important

Ugh.  I think you get my point.  To capture our inherent craving for insignificant gossip, we've jettisoned truly impactful news in the name of ratings.  It's no wonder things seem to be coming apart at the seams.

Now consider the second point: Extending network news to a whopping one hour.  Can your mind even comprehend a day when this was an outlandish concept?

In theory, this could have actually been a good thing.  With 24 hour news we could potentially cover even more of the important events happening around the world.  We could become more informed, with valuable documentaries and have time to hit impactful events from around the globe.... and still, maybe, have time for a few puff pieces.

Instead, we've made the puff pieces our bread and butter.  Crime in Detroit, Baltimore, and Chicago will have to take a backseat to Bruce Jenner's sex change.  Science and Technology topics will have to wait. So, coverage of CRISPR technology's impact upon the world  will have to make room for round-the-clock coverage on Trump University.

Perhaps the biggest blight upon the news is the talking head.  Instead of actual news coverage which requires actual journalism, actual research, actual investigation, we get round-the-clock talking heads.

So, let's say the topic is violence at a Trump rally.  Instead of real coverage, we get a few soundbites, then are treated to a roundtable of blathering douchebags and snarky bitches all vying for "the win".  They're all paid to be there and they all have an agenda.  This is what's considered "news" these days.

Debates and arguments between opposing viewpoints used to be reserved for specific programs entirely separate from the news.  Let me reiterate - IT WAS SEPARATE FROM THE FUCKING NEWS.

Sorry. (Deep breaths) Remember Firing Line with William F. Buckley?  There used to be intelligent, informed discussion.  Now it's a confederacy of dunces not far removed from Hollywood Squares giving us our news.

Actually, I'd prefer to get my news from Paul Lynde and Jim J. Bullock than our talking heads, so that may not be a fair statement.

So, before I repeat myself (more than I've already done), I'll end this rant by asking you to take another look at the cover of this TV Guide, and ask yourself - which have I been more informed about - a kid falling in a goddamn gorilla cage, or the aftermath of our military operations in Libya?

Certainly, more and more people are turning away from the traditional news.  Fox News' major demographic is Baby Boomers, ages 65 and up.  So, it's on its way out.  But what will fill the void?  A combination of YouTube, blogs, websites, and podcasts, all giving their own spin, all confirming pre held beliefs.

But it didn't have to be this way.  24 hour news could have delivered something intelligent, relevant, and truly important.  Instead, we get a poor-man's Hollywood Squares, a cacophony of one-upping ignoramuses.   Sure, Walter Cronkite and his ilk had a liberal slant, but just watch a news broadcast from the 60s and 70s (even 80s). It looks nothing like today's "news"; it's a different species entirely.  And, despite the fact that TV news is dying and non-traditional news may very well usher in a reawakening, I can't help but wonder if it's too little too late.  The news has created an Idiocracy; it's here.  The uninformed masses have arrived and aren't going anywhere, and we are about to reap what we've sown - and the reaping may get ugly.

We now return to regularly scheduled program on Retrospace....


  1. In response, Gilligan, I give you the movie "Network".

    It's all about the Benjamins, my friend!

    Well done rant, and I agree 100%.

  2. While the news today is a total mess the idea of a Walter Cronkite deciding what was important for people to know and what wasn't really was not better.

    1. Ultimately, you're always going to have to rely on someone to deliver your news. Whether it's Cronkite or O'Reilly or Drudge or Rather, it's an unavoidable fact that we are at the mercy of someone at a desk deciding what is worthy and what isn't. At least what Cronkite delivered could be considered news; talking heads and O'Reilly/Matthews style bloviating doesn't even come close.

  3. While the news today is a total mess the idea of a Walter Cronkite deciding what was important for people to know and what wasn't really was not better.

  4. There's been hour-long local newscasts at some stations. At the local ABC affiliate, the schedule from 5-7pm Central time reads: 5:00 Local news at 5, 5:30 ABC World News Tonight with David Muir, 6:00 Local news at 6, 6:30 More local news-but with different anchors.

  5. Excellent essay, Gilligan! Dr. Jim is right in mentioning NETWORK--a visionary movie. I immediately thought of an outstanding and still timely book I read 20+ years ago--Amusing Ourselves to Death by the late Neil Postman. I gave up on the network news long ago when Peter Jennings was still around and now despise FOX, CNN, and MSNBC with equal vehemence. For a brief time I flirted with the 'alternative" Alex Jones, but his "newscast" is just a front for selling DVDs and health supplements, and is possibly more overheated and blustery than even O'Reilly, Maddow, et al. Thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking change of pace! ~ Gary in Omaha

  6. Regardless of what they have ever said, TV news execs have always been concerned with ratings. Ratings determine ad revenue and no television network is in business as a philanthropic exercise. It is unfortunate that most people mistake the round-table commentary shows with actual news. They aren't - and aren't meant to be - hard news. They are commentary only and, by their very nature, biased. The other problem is that the shows that are supposed to be hard news have become more and more biased over the last 20 years. That isn't to say they were ever completely objective. Even Murrow and Cronkite had evident biases. But any attempt at even appearing objective started to disappear with the introduction of the 24-hour news network. It's one thing to fill 30 minutes or even an hour with real news. But there's only so much you can say about the same stories over and over for 24 hours every day. So, we get pundits and commentators to fill the majority of the day blathering on about one thing or another. These days we're just choosing our news shows based on worldviews we want reinforced. If you're liberal, CBS, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, CNN and most others (even ESPN here lately) will make you feel very good about yourself. If you're conservative, Fox is ready and willing to help you out. As a former news writer, my advice is to learn the tell-tale signs of bias and take everything with full salt shaker.

  7. I think one exception to all this is The Newshour on PBS. Interestingly enough, executive produced by the same Les Crystal who's on the cover of that TV Guide. The Show started off as The MacNeil/Lehrer Report (running a half hour in length) then in 1983 it went to a one-hour format as The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. I was working at WNET in New York at the time and was involved with the on-air promotion campaign announcing the length change ("Pick up your evening news with The Newshour"). The idea behind the show was not to fill the hour with more and more puff pieces, but to take a few important stories and use the time to expand on them and go into greater depth of coverage. The show originated from two cities simultaneously (New York and Washington). I think it has become the "one fixed point in a changing world" as far as continuing to be a reliable, accurate source of intelligent information.

    1. I'll have to disagree with you on this Larry. The Newshour on PBS is so slanted that it keeps falling off my screen. It seems to try and rival the BBC for skewed reporting. A mantel of respectability to cloak its agenda.

  8. They are commentary only and, by their very nature, biased. The other problem is that the shows that are supposed to be hard news have become more and more biased over the last 20 years. That isn't to say they were ever completely objective. I liked your blog, Take the time to visit the me and say that the change in design and meniu?

  9. AnonymousJune 14, 2016

    Gilligan, I would recommend an HBO mini series called "The Newsroom". The plot revolves around a news anchor trying to recover his integrity as a journalist. He has a rant in the first episode of the first season which is priceless. You can watch it on Amazon.

  10. AnonymousJuly 11, 2016

    First off, I have to note that it's a bit naive to believe there was some golden era of "real news" (and nothing but. And as for those darn ::making shaky fist:: network kids these days *suddenly* touting their ratings out of the blue - think: "the most trusted in America".

    On this:
    "Are you aware of the level of drone strikes taking place under our country's command?" -

    If you are aware, then you took in news sources of your own choosing to find out . And that's the bottom line - it's up to you, me and whoever to be informed on news we care about. It's self-responsibility.

    Great fun site, by the way - enjoy it every time I stop by. Good work!