The death of dignity in The News

Once upon a time we had newsmen such as Walter Cronkite – once known as ‘the most trusted man in America’ – whose style brought professionalism and dignity to the small screen. Today we have news anchors who try to be pithy but fail (more noticable in local news; IME especially with Kent Shocknek), and news programmes that bring us sensationalism instead of professionalism and human interest (‘News Lite’) instead of hard information. What’s more important? The Downing Street memos, or the Michael Jackson trial?

I was watching From The Earth To The Moon yesterday, and there is a subplot that shows the new reporter usurping the power of the established reporter. He has no regard for privacy, he has no regard for propriety, and his stories are shallow. But the network likes him. They call him a genius. They think his approach is ‘fresh’. NASA eventually accepts the new guy, since they can’t afford to alienate a network.

I remember reading something by Harlan Ellison, either in an introduction to a story or in one of his Glass Teat commentaries, where he railed against a TV news reporter shoving a microphone into the face of a woman who had just lost her husband and asking, ‘How do you feel?’ IIRC, this was written in the early-'70s – contemporary with the bit in FTETHM.

Certainly there were sensational stories early on. The trial of Fatty Arbuckle was ‘The Trial Of The Century’. So was the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping trial. But it seems to me that the real abandonment of decorum started – or at least accellerated – in the early-1970s, and ‘News Lite’ was firmly entrenched by the late-1970s or early-1980s.

What do you think?

You will most likely get a flood of posts answering in the affirmative. However, if civil rights was the price paid for a loss of dignitary in the news, then I say it was worth it.

P.S. I as point out every time, Arbuckle was innocent.

P.S. On the other hand, maybe dignity will come back once politicans stop insisting on the media being their lap dogs.

Unfortunately, I see this as a “Give the People what they want” approach. An appeal to the lowest common denominator. I probably sound elitist but I just don’t see how dumbing everything down has been helpful in any way. Mostly I think it’s contributed greatly to polarization of public opinion along socio-economic class lines.

Who said anything about Civil Rights?

Yes, but the trial was sensational.

The Media seem to be lapdogs nowadays, but tha blatant partisanship seems to be more pronounced today than in the early-1970.

I’m not talking about taking sides in an issue. I’m talking about the style of coverage.

I know of what you mean, but as I recall, during the period of time that you speak of, the country was bland, and the popular image of Americans was white and protestant. Any and all other images of Americans was rejected by the news. The civil rights movement, for example.

Giving the people what they want generates revenue. KTLA (channel 5, in Los Angeles) was an early user of helicopters in their news coverage. Expensive, but they got shots other stations couldn’t and that resulted in more viewers and higher revenue from advertisers. But it was still news. The objective was to transmit information. The current format seems to be geared more toward generating higher profits than toward transmitting information. It’s ‘infotainment’. Somewhere along the line, either people did not want ‘hard news’, or they were preceived as not wanting it. Am I right that this seems to have ‘started’ in the early-1970s?

I think the change you’re percieving comes a lot from people switching from traditional reliance on print media to television as their main source for news.

If you look at early newspapers, you see much the same sensationalist phenomenon. Gossip columns reported the doings of the wealthy much the way our media salivates over Paris Hilton’s latest making-an-ass-of-herself. Murder trials were lovingly detailed, down to descriptions of what the accused wore in court. (Look at the Lizzie Borden trial for a late Victorian example, but the phenomenon extends as far back as you can find papers.)

Even before newspapers, pamphlets describing executions were published, going into vivid and graphic detail of the crime and the punishment.

Indeed; I took a grad course a while ago that pretty much argued that the novel as a literary form was an evoution from these graphic scandal sheets. At one time, the confessions of condemned men were published by the government as warnings against the wages of evil … they had to stop when it turned out people loved reading them! :smiley:

Sensationalism is nothing new. The age of “responsible journalism” the OP describes is the historical exception, not the rule.

Right. Which is why a framed the OP as pertaining to television news.

I’m 41 so I believe I’ve got enough of a perspective on what you’re asking. It’s my opinion that the train left the tracks about the time MTV hit the airwaves. Traditional news outlets somehow took the MTV broadcasting model and adapted virtually every aspect of programming to that type of hyped format.

The streaming text of unrelated news bites on the bottom of the screen while the talking heads delivered news and the in-your-face branding came along with the explosion and subsequent ubiquity of the internet in the early 90’s.

I’ve studied and worked in TV news, so maybe I can add an insight or two.
First of all, yes, news is a moneymaking venture. It costs a lot to run and maintain a TV station and employ a competitive staff. So, you need to bring in the biggest audience possible so that you can sell that audience to advertisers. Once people figured out that you make HUGE profits doing this, things got a little out of hand.
I believe you are less likely to see silly, sensational news on a local program because in the end, people want their damned local news, weather and sports. Your local WXYZ station may make a nod to MJ and OJ, etc., but they’re probably focusing more on fancy graphics and reporters to attract audience. Parent corporations will also probably insist on less ideological control of small stations.
The big boys, however, like CNN and FOX, are under far greater pressure to not only make profits every year, but to increase their margins every year. Considering the amount of advertising revenue these guys generate, that’s a pretty tall order. And, since they are making vast amounts of money, the parent corporations are vastly interested in continuing to make vast amounts of money and therefore exert more control over what is broadcast (political bias aside).
As for the theory of giving people what they want…there is some truth to that. People are fascinated by the tragic and the bizarre. But I believe it’s a bit more cyclical than that. There’s an old saying that TV doesn’t tell people what to think, it tells them what to think about. By constantly broadcasting sensational stories the networks in effect tell people what they want (in fact, that is the philosophy of advertising) so that it makes perfect sense when they claim, “We’re just giving the people what they want!”
Another reason for “light news” is to simply break off from all the doom and gloom. If the news was all about government lies, train/plane crashes, war casualties, identity theft and such like, people would become even more paranoid and reticent than ever. Many (not all, mind you) people take portrayals of racial/gender stereotypes on TV to heart, like it or not. Constant bombardment of negative imagery takes its toll after a while. You also have to factor in education and interest level in more technical topics. If you tried to engage in a discussion of economics on FOX or CNN that was anything more than superficial peoples’ eyes would glaze over and their hands would grope slowly for the remote to see what’s on TNT. People don’t understand complicated issues (I have a hard time with a lot of it myself), which leads me to another point: it’s a lot more fun for many reporters to do stories without heavy technical, political or religious context. Reporters don’t always understand the complicated stuff either.
You need to find programming that doesn’t treat you like an imbecile. That’s why I like NPR. They don’t talk as if they’re speaking to a 10 year old.
Hope that helped some. If not…sorry.

Funny you should mention that. In the morning, I flip on the Bloomberg Channel and read the news crawl on the bottom of the screen. Five minutes of this will give me more information than watching an entire half-hour of network news. The local news shows spend only a couple of minutes on the real news (and I’m usually in the shower when this happens) and then switch to “human interest” type stores to pad out the rest of show.

I’m glad you said 1970 rather than 1940. Dewey Defeats Truman, anyone?

And regarding Cronkite, he once said they were supposed to report the news, not be above it. He did his share of puff celebrity pieces, most notably some sort of celebrity party at Madison Square Garden.

Hm, I’d blame CNN more than MTV.

Quite frankly, there’s not a whole lotta news. Congress droned on, there’s a drought in Africa, there’s trouble in the Mid-East, and the fire department got a kitty out of a tree (I’m being obviously facetious but you get my point). That takes, what, two hours? CNN has another 22 hours to fill. When there’s nothing left to say they start looking for news. What used to be the funny bit at the end of the local broadcast is now a major story on all-news networks. No one but CSPAN diehards care to hear about the intracacies of the latest appropriations bill so we’re stuck with the infamous Missing Bride. Not that I mind the Missing Bride story all that much, but it’d be nice if the media could spend 2 minutes on that at the end of an hour of a Frontline-type program.

The mingling of news and journalism cranks me off, too. When Mel Gibson’s stinker Signs came out the Today show did a huge-ass story on those awfully mysterious ( :rolleyes: ) crop circles. I did a little digging at the time and it turns out NBC and one of the backers of that film are parent/child companies, or something like that. Even here, locally, the trucking company for which I once worked appeared on the local Fox channel. Go ahead, guess to which political party the company’s officers donated in the last election. There’s a lot of controversy about tax dollars going to PBS, but do you really think NBC is going to put some serious investigating time into Microsoft? Do you think GE’s ownership of a biomed firm affects in any way its coverage of American health care? At least with public dollars PBS isn’t as dependent on its sponsors as private news companies.

Another fallout from all this extraneous reporting is that we’re much more afraid than we used to be. Rates of violent crime - including child abductions - are at their lowest in decades yet parents are afraid to let their kids out of their sight. Isn’t that stupid? Has anyone seen a news program where they talk about the disconnect between reality and reaction and the media’s role in that disconnect?

looks up

Whoa, didn’t mean to type that much. Gonna let it stay, though, to see what comes out of it.

Sorry, I didn’t catch that. What was the point of talking about Fatty Arbuckle and Lindbergh if the subject was strictly confined to TV?

Because I knew someone would mention that sensationalism predates the era I’m talking about, and I couldn’t think of any teevee sensationalism before the 1970s.

I remember one news report that I still look back on as a perfect example of how television news has changed and its standards have fallen. There was an item during the evening news on a local station (fitting that this thread would have been started in western Washington, I think it was Steve Raible and Susan Hutchison on channel 7) about the discovery of evidence that there were planets orbiting distant stars. There was the usual intro by the anchor, then the taped report from the correspondent (I think that part was from the network) and the camera comes back to the anchors and one of them said something like “and I didn’t understand any of that.” It was the standard Friendly Banter[sup]tm[/sup] that all anchor duos do, and poking some fun at the complex and technical nature of the report, but I remember wondering when it became acceptable for people to brag about not knowing something; especially people in the public eye, and even more especially for those people we expect to be well-informed and to inform us.

I think some of it is tied to the Most Trusted Man in America title that was used for Walter Cronkite. And these days, the way to be trusted by the audience is to be seen to be like them; friendly and approachable. Smile at each other, smile at the camera, cut to commercial. (And if they come back from the commercial to do a report about how awful it is that American high-schoolers do so poorly in science and math, I expect the irony would be lost on them.)

The sensationalist, “if it bleeds, it leads” style of TV news is sometimes credited to a news station in Miami in the late 80s/early 90s. I think this is the right station. After that became a hit, other stations tried it, and the idea that news stations should turn a profit (instead of lending prestige to the network or what have you) started to dominate.

The very first TV newsman whose name I can remember is Gunnar Back who was hired by Philly TV the year I was born. The others of his era, Cronkite, Sevareid, and Murrow didn’t esteem themselves as TV stars. They were newsmen obligated to deliver the facts, a mission those gentlemen took quite seriously.

I think you hit on a crucial distinction, danceswithcats. They were journalists first and foremost, not personalities, ‘talent’ or stars–and decidedly not pundits. There was much more emphasis on journalistic standards.

I think part of the deterioration can be attributed to pundit-for-hire shows. So-called journalists became the story instead of covering it; a whopping no-no in classic journalistic ethics. The good ones maintained a professional distance from pols, movie stars, etc. instead of inserting themselves into the limelight right along side them. My rapidly eroding respect for even print journalists took a hit when George Will shilled for Ronald Reagan but still retained his position. Alter’s barely pseudnomymous political-insider novel pretty much finished it off.

Network limo-journalists aren’t journalists. They’re just overpaid personalities.

I think part of it came in the '30s with the depression. The facination with the glamour of Hollywood I think really began then. Have you ever seen LA Confidential? Muck raking tabloids goes back to well befor television.

I think if you want to blame something Entertainment Tonight has more to do with it than MTV. ET started reporting what was number one at the boxoffice for the weekend and America became facinated with those meaningless numbers. They became so facinated that the numbers became meaningful.

Right now this Cruise/Shields thing makes me feel like we are a nation of high school kids, gossiping about the petty battles of the popular kids. Did you hear what Tom said about Brooke? Well Brooke said this!

I think another huge problem is the consolidation of the media. Look at the media giants. Viacom, Rupert Murdoch et. al. (Viacom = MTV+Nickelodeon+BET+VH1+Paramount Pictures+CBS+UPN+Infinity Broadcasting+a huge outdoor advertising billboard company+theme parks) There are other similar empires so most everything is owned by a few huge companies and some really old really rich dude. Then someone invented the synergy and everything went to heck.