American media sensationalism, is this new?

I’m young, 23, but my political side is still only a toddler. It was born about 4 years ago, so I’ve been playing a lot of catch-up.

One thing I got to thinking the last couple of weeks is about the sensationalism in the news recently. I’ve only been watching the news on a regular basis for about 4 years, since my political side was born. I didn’t think much about the dramatic graphics and incessantly breaking news until I came to live in France. For instance, I didn’t even know that the riots were as widespread as they were for the first 6 days or so because it was reported as though it was absolutely nothing (this could be explained by what I’ve been told is the fact that the riots really weren’t anything new until people started to realize that they were still going on after a week). I’ve been conditioned to gauge news’ importance by the amount of maps with fires, imbedded correspondants, and the amount of liberal/conservative talking heads yelling at each other.

There was really none of that on the five channels I have (nothing is a hyperbolized comparison to what I’m used to).

Anyone who has spent some time in France and watched TV knows what I’m talking about when I mention the quotedian roundtable discussion/debate television shows. I’ve actually come to enjoy these, though people are rarely able to finish a thought without being interrupted, the panelists at least talk for several hours without interruption. Where as, it seems a guest on FOX or CNN gets about 3 minutes, if he’s lucky.

This is not to compliment the French. That is just an example. The only example I have for the time-being.

Then, the other night, Bowling for Columbine came on, a film that almost every non-American I know has seen, but few Americans I know even knew about when it came out. I personnally, can’t stand Michael Moore, not because I disagree with him, but because I believe in (what I think is) the purpose of BFC and F911. I hate that someone could be so misleading (mixing speeches from different times to make it look as though they went together, giving misleading statistics, emotional lies of omition) when there is so much information that proves his point, that is concrete and undebatable.

Again, MM is just an example. This is not an anti-MM debate.

I put MM in this same group of division-mongers in the US right now: Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Al Franken (though I admit he’s funny), Sean Hannity, and the list goes on…and on…and on.

These are people who seem to me to be defined by what they are opposed to. They are people that claim to be fighting for what they believe in because they are patiots, yet they all tend to be insulting, belittling, etc. to anyone who is not in the same boat. They are just preaching to the people who already agree with them. They are not converting anyone. Can you imagine a liberal saying, “Oh, I was watching Bill O’ Reilly last night, and he completely changed my mind on San Francisco voting not to let recruiters in schools.” Or a conservative saying, “That Michael Moore, he’s so insightful.”

That said, (finally, approaching the actual question) the way I look at it, is that if people want to truly make improve our way of life in the states and resolve disagreements, wouldn’t they want to approach their subjects with a less flame-laden tongue? I don’t mean everybody hold hands and laugh about the days of yore when we used yell so much at each other, rather, I’m saying why not just be civil, knowing that human nature says that someone will not change their views if they are insulted right off the bat.

Moore, Coulter, O’Reilly don’t want to present information and try to change people’s minds. They want to divide people more because that’s the only reason they are famous, right?

(Finally the question) Has our media always been this way in the states? Has there even been an outlet that most people watch/listen to (which is to say not NPR, C-Span, or PBS) whose viewers would be disgusted by the non-debating, ranting style of the division-mongers.

So here, in sum are my points and the question.

  1. The news in the states seems to me to actively look for people who are going to raise the hair’s on the back of people’s necks, not someone who will present actual arguments in a manner in which they could be accepted by the “other side.”

  2. The news itself seems to be presented in an melodramatic style (in fact, the news here almost laughingly showed reports from the US when the riots were going on, with reporters comparing the streets of Seine-St-Denis to towns in Iraq).

  3. The questions for debate (if there is one):

  • Am I wrong in assuming that our news is oversensational and catering to people’s desire to be constantly entertained?

  • If so, is this a new thing? Have these networks (since the surge in viewership since 9-11/Iraq invasion) used these tactics just to keep people watching?

In closing, sorry this is so long, but I still don’t feel I’ve explained my question, but I’ll let the conversation start, and see if it goes in the direction I meant.

Big oversimplification here. The US is a consumer society; more so than any other country.

Consumers consume.
Advertisers advertise to consumers.
Advertising increases consumption.
Increased consumption equals increased profits.
News programs fight for ratings along with every other program.
Higher rated programs attract more advertising dollars.

It’s all about selling your brand of beer, cars, tampons, and laundry detergent.

The lines between news and entertainment have been converging ever since Barbara Walters was offered a million dollar contract 30 years ago. And boy was Harry Reasoner pissed.

I think a realistic assessment is that the news has always been sensationalistic in one way or another.

What I learned in j-school - I’m also 23 - is that the current style of television broadcasting, with its emphasis on crime (“if it bleeds, it leads”), entertainment and celebrities, dates to the early 1990s and WSVN, a Fox affiliate in Florida. And I think a lot of the news-related stuff today is presented in a style taken from Fox News. Fox became very popular in the last few years, and naturally, the other networks tried to copy it to keep up. The result, I think, is more personality-centered talk shows and more confrontational talk.

Leaffan hits mnost of the high points. Pardon mre for blathering on at length, but this subject is very interesting to me.

I have to start off by saying that anyone who gets the bulk of their news via television services, whether broadcast or via cable nets, is fooling themselves if they think they are well-informed about much of anything except the products avertised in the commercials.

That said, I don’t think you are wrong, at least in the largest sense. Television news is mostly a for-profit operation, and networks chasing advertising dollars, regardless of their intention, are at least as much concerned with building and maintaining a veiwer (revenue) base than with the actual content of their news. This condition exists to some extent in all journalistic media, but the particular conditions of US-based broadcasting seem to make it more noticeable there.

I’d trace it back rather earlier, to the first broadcasts of 24/7 news-only networks over cable, and particularly to CNN’s wall-to-wall coverage of the first Gulf War.

24/7 news networks have the problem of generating sufficient content to keep viewers interested; the current choices are mainly to rerun the stories with the most attractive ‘hooks’ (a la CNN Headline news), probably resulting in a high turnover of short-time viewers; or mixing in Opinion-Editorial content via designated brand-name pundits, as do Fox News and most of the other cable nets.

Again, the majority of these OP-Ed shows are driven mainly by a need to generate advertising revenues, so there is a vested interest of the hosts to a) be as attention-getting as possible; b) be as simplistic and one-sided as possible, so as not to bore and/or confuse viewers; and c) convince their viewers that they are gaining special knowledge that is somehow unavailable elsewhere.

O’Reilly and Coulter, although neither particularly honest nor factually accurate in their commentaries, are particularly good at doing these things. To keep the revenue stream going they simply must manufacture controversy each day, even if nothing particularly controversial happens to be going on. Consider O’Reilly’s current ludicrous campaign to make a big deal out of whether people wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’.

If most of these pundits tend to be right-wing reactionaries, I can think of at least two reasons why this is so; 1) many of them seem to have modeled their careers after that of Paul Harvey, who’s been doing this sort of thing since the 1950s and who despite being a doddering joke news-wise, apparently remains a highly effective advertising pitchman; and 2) left-wing reactionaries, seem to share an aversion to advertising sponsorship that basically shuts them out of consideration for work at the big commercial networks except as occasional foils to the name-brand right-wingers.

Like I said, just my opinion, I’ll sit back and listen to what everyone else has to say.

I wouldn’t classify alleged “news” programs as catering to people’s desire to be constantly entertained. I view them as selling emotional satisfaction. The conservatives who watch Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity know exactly what they’re going to hear before they turn the television on, so it’s difficult to imagine how they could be entertained by it. What the audience gets is the smug feeling that comes with being told how right they are about everything, and the fictional belief that Coulter’s and Hannity’s blather are deeply distressing to liberals and other targets of their hatred.

I would trace the roots of such tactics to televangleism mostly, particularly Pat Robertson. He built his public persona on a careful strategy: tell the audience what they want to hear, make them feel morally superior to everyone else, look and sound professional and you’ll come across as the intelligent alternative to the stupidity of the other side.

I agree with you in theory, but I have to say I do not believe that Franken and Moore should be lumped in with the rest as being defined by their disagreement with the other side.

Infact, if you read there books, they talk a lot about how to make things better, not just by saying “It’s the other side’s fault”, but through actions.

Also, I know “This is not an anti-MM debate.” But I feel I have to say, I keep seeing one person after another debunk Franken and Moore. Then, I look harder, and I find that the debunk doesn’t actually mean anything, and/or Moore later debunks the debunker’s claims.

Wow! I wasn’t getting the emails that there were new posts. I just decided to check anyway.

I just wanted to say, Scott Plaid, that to a large extent, I do agree with you. I question myself, though, actually, because I didn’t know if it was my bias (the fact that I for the most part agree with their purpose [more so the case with Al Franken, and I’ll throw in Bill Maher as well]) that I see them as less division inspiring than the other’s.

The point is though, that even if they do provide logical, feasible answers, they still address a specific audience. Their material, it seem to me, isn’t produced for conservatives (the people who should be reading it. Just as, “How to Talk to a Liberal,” wasn’t written for liberals.

I would point to Jefferey Sachs as an example of someone whom I think has a failry obvious bias (or at least shows frustration towards conservatives for not listening to what he’s saying), but who at the same time presents astounding ideas in a manner that is uncontraversial and (as one of my professors deemed subjects that are important but few people pay attention to, like malaria) not sexy.

Thanks for the responses.

None of this is anything new. As for bias, that’s always been around-- there were Whig newspapers and Tory newspapers, each with a blatant agenda. They didn’t have TV, so the Bill O’ Reilly-types stood on soaboxes in the public sqaures, saying much the same thing.

Murder trials were covered in elaborate detail. (The Lizzie Borden trial is a great example of this. They even reported on what the defendant was wearing, and lovingly noted each time she covered her face at the horror of the testimony.)

Sex scandals were pounced upon with delight. Andrew Jackson always blamed the death of his wife, Rachel, on the persistent hounding of reporters who insisted she was a bigamist.

Right. The idea that news sources are supposed to be objective is comparatively new.

You say that like it’s a bad thing.

No, I don’t. I take it very seriously. When people over here propose that news sources are all biased and should stop pretending otherwise, I always argue against it because I think objectivity is very important ideal. That doesn’t change the history, though.