Painful Insights

Talking Heads/News Anchors/Readers/Entertainment NewsIn elementary school, Mrs. Murray Norman praised me one day for my ability to keep up with current events. As a kid I watched the Today show. I watched the Huntley-Brinkley Report. I watched local news on Augusta’s WJBF and WRDW. I knew what was going on and I could answer Mrs. Norman’s current event quizzes.

I no longer watch the news. The news lost me by taking a long slow slide into a big puddle of ineptness. Never have we had so many ways to be informed but never have we had such a clueless bunch of faux journalists. Maybe the news has lost you too.

In elementary school we didn’t have twenty-four-hour-a-day news, but we had something else: real journalists. What happened to the Walter Cronkites? The John Chancellors? The Huntleys and Brinkleys? I no longer see journalists. I see public relations specialists who fawn over celebrities. I don’t give a hoot about Tom Cruise’s scientology beliefs or romantic flops. Because main street media subject me to these stories the news lost me for good. I haven’t even watched local news in three years. Why? Because I know what’s coming.

First a chirpy weather person tells us what not to expect with the five-day forecast. As the news resumes the co-anchors banter as if they are celebrities whose every word we’re to hang on. Then they deliver the usual litany of robberies, rapes, murders, and drug deals gone wrong with dashes of politics thrown in. Note too how they wear their celebrity halo. “I’ll be emceeing and singing at the local high school talent show tonight. See you there.” Now and then a useful story surfaces, something like the need to boil your water because a water main broke but that’s it.

Car commercials provide comic relief. A car mogul appears as Godzilla stomping through car lots offering prices no one can refuse. Whether it’s news at five, six, seven, or eleven the clichéd formula remains the same. It’s repetitive, it’s boring, and it adds nothing to my life. I have better things to do with my time. And let me tell you something else. The very act of pairing blacks and whites sends an unintended message. Check any channel you want and you’ll see a cookie cutter blend of races designed to not offend the viewing audience. It’s as if every news desk must be packaged like a pristine box of Crayolas.

Memo to station managers: just hire the best people you can. I don’t care if newscasters are red, yellow, black, white, plaid, or paisley as long as they deliver factual, objective news. But no, we no longer have many real journalists. We have politically correct propagandists who believe they are Hollywood stars. When he recorded “Dirty Laundry,” a commentary on the news and news anchors, Don Henley got it right. TV news is a shallow business populated by beautiful people. “Well, I coulda been an actor, but I wound up here. I just have to look good, I don’t have to be clear.”

They don’t have to be clear but they do have to be blonde and beautiful. If you’re a brunette wanting to deliver the news on Fox forget it. Henley’s farsighted “Dirty Laundry” addressed that too. “We got the bubble-headed-bleach-blonde who comes on at five. She can tell you ’bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye. It’s interesting when people die. Give us dirty laundry.”

It’s interesting when we want to die thanks to commentators who drone on and on. CNN probably hopes the verbose Wolf Blitzer will live to be 200 so he can bless us with his painful insights for decades to come. Wolf Snoozer’s more like it but give this rather plain guy credit for staying power in what amounts to a beauty contest. Today’s major league anchors get hired and fired based on viewer ratings, not on how well they do their job. As proof I present none other than Katie Couric, who despite her ineptitude keeps landing cushy jobs. The emphasis today is on looks and entertainment. The Today show has its Friday summer concerts and wedding tripe. That’s not news folks. Do you really give a hoot where in the world Matt Lauer is? He can go off to Bora Bora and never come back to bore bore me again for all I care.

News is often fabricated. If no news exists on a given day your local anchors will find something to call news no matter how weak because it’s their job to be talking heads. And they get away with it. Do people even know what news is anymore? Over the years I have taught a college-level journalism class, Mass Media 202. One thing we cover is what news is and isn’t.

To be considered news a story must have some of the following values. Impact: The larger the number of people an event affects the greater its newsworthiness. Flu shot availability comes to mind. Timeliness: The more recent, the more newsworthy. Timeliness can reach back a long ways. Skeletal remains discovered ten years after a person went missing is news.

Prominence: Situations featuring well-known individuals can be newsworthy. A celebrity such as the late Princess Diana comes to mind. Fine just don’t subject us to a celebrity ad nauseam a la Charlie Sheen and Lindsey Lohan’s self-inflicted tribulations. Proximity: Events taking place in your region are more important than distant ones. The collapse of a local bridge trumps the forest fires raging in southern California. The Bizarre: A three-headed calf makes the news every time.

Conflict: When big-name rival coaches snipe at each other it transcends sports and becomes news. Currency: Occasionally a matter assumes a life of its own. We saw this recently when gay rights protestors descended on Chic-Fil-A restaurants. Human Interest: We watch with fascination as a camera crew films a guy who leaps into a flood-swollen river to rescue a dog.

All too often, however, we get news items that don’t merit coverage. We get slants on issues designed to support a political agenda. I present the tearful congressman who’s been caught having an affair. With his wife by his side he holds a news conference to apologize. One network praises his honesty; another rips his immorality. Those of you who loyally follow one network do yourselves no favor. You open your mouth wide and swallow a one-sided view known as propaganda.

So, where can you turn for real news? That is a tough question to answer. I say turn off the TV. Just give it a rest and hope that journalism schools will turn out graduates who better deliver news in the years to come. (Don’t hold your breath.)

For now, we have a pathetic situation. When it comes to the upcoming election I refuse to let a network influence me. I prefer to be an outlier. I’ll seek facts from reliable sources outside the mainstream media. I’ll make my decision based on a sense of who I am, where I’ve been, and what I’ve learned from “The School of Hard Knocks.”

And when I am curious if it will rain I’ll check the regional radar on my Mac. I don’t need a local “celebrity” to tell me if it will rain. I can figure that out just like I figured out today’s news is much ado about nothing. Henley figured it out too. “Dirty Laundry’s” closing lines say it all about bubble-headed celebrity wannabe news anchors.

“We can do the innuendo. We can dance and sing. When it’s said and done we haven’t told you a thing.” No you haven’t and no you don’t, and that’s precisely why you no longer get to waste my time.

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Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].