- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 5/10/20
Today is Mothers’ Day. Happy day to all the mothers! Today also is Sunday—the day of the Sunday New York Times and the weekly news shows. I have always looked forward to a cup of coffee, the Times spread out in front of me, watching the morning shows. Now, it’s still good but not quite as much fun.
A WELL INFORMED ELECTORATE
In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “a well informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy.” One would think that, with the advent of hundreds of cable news channels available in our homes and limitless purveyors of information on-line, we should have become that well informed electorate of which Jefferson spoke.
Not so. We may have more “content” but I’m not confident many among our populace are any better informed. Much has been written about the “news” being directed to people based upon what they want to hear, to keep them engaged longer, supporting their beliefs and biases, ensuring they will spend money on targeted advertisements.
THE INDUSTRIALIZATION OF NEWS There was a time when one picked up the morning paper from the front yard. The affirmative action to obtain something of value—rather than having it spewed from TV like water from a fire house—puts the consumer in the position of making choices and demanding value. I would also posit that one is exposed to a greater number and variety of stories in a newspaper (physical or on-line) than if one watches CNN for eight hours straight. Importantly, in a newspaper, information can both be sought (finding a story) or serendipitous (happening upon a story). It isn’t just what Wolf Blitzer (or, worse, Steve Bannon or Rupert Murdoch) thinks you should hear. Newspapers, particularly local papers, have been on a downward slide for years: • U.S. daily newspaper circulation in 2018 was 28.6 million, in a nation of 330MM people. In 1801, newspaper circulation was 16 million, in a nation of approximately 5.3MM people. Yes, that’s right—three papers per person. • The U.S. census reported 2,526 newspapers in circulation in 1850, with a total circulation off 500MM, in a nation of approximately 23.2MM. These newspapers flourished in an ever-expanding America, hungry not only for news from the power centers of the East, but also the news of their local communities. And as the above statistics indicate, there were far more papers that presumably offered a diversity of views. TV and radio were dominated post-war news, with a few national players with worldwide bureaus. While the argument can be made that this limited number of disseminators of the news meant a more homogenized product, we were all consuming generally accepted, well edited and fact-checked versions of the facts. Yes, I know that some will also say this was “fake news” of the liberal elites…
CABLE NEWS TODAY
If one looks at the cable TV news market today, instead of being delivered by journalists who proved themselves in the field, it is decidedly celebrity-based, delivered by “pretty people,” retreads from government service, political animals, and Fox-created personalities. Journalism be damned—it’s all about ratings, “eyeballs” and holding the viewer rapt for as long as possible. And what better way to do that than to tell us what they think we want to hear (or feed our greatest fears).
The news should offer diverse opinions on a wide variety of issues. Setting aside the fact that the Coronavirus rightly dominates the news today, it seems there is always one big story, being rewound and rehashed all day (or even for months). While I have not reviewed the data, my hunch is that, as information becomes ubiquitous, the number and variety of stories has declined in the era of cable news. Further, they maintain our interest by sensationalizing everything. Every day is filled with “breaking news” alerts around that primary story.
ALONG COMES FACEBOOK
As if it weren’t bad enough to have an entire network devoted to a decidedly articulated world view, spinning each story as an “us versus them” narrative, we now have news curated for us by the helpful people at Facebook and other social media. In that instance, the “news” is further refined to a “news just for you” notion—with the stories by-and-large coming from the same folks, about the same issues, regurgitating the same point of view. The Pew Research Center reports that 55% of all Americans get their news “often” or “sometimes” from social media. https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2019/10/11/more-americans-are-getting-their-news-from-social-media/#74d75c713e17
This is troubling because of the singular issue and point of view focus, but also for the fact that it’s not the same as what comes to you and me. An April 2019 Statista report showed that 47% of all millennials consult social media for daily news (eclipsing radio as the second place finisher at 26%, network news at 18% and newspapers at 7%). Sixty percent of Baby Boomers still rely primarily on TV news but no one relies on newspapers as their primary source.
News is now entertainment and self-satisfying. To which I say, we’re lost if people don’t START READING A NEWSPAPER! Sure, it’s going to have a bias. Sure it’s an added cost. But it is informative and in-depth, and it doesn’t insult your intelligence (well, at least not very often). We subscribe to four dailies (two delivered physically). One of these is the Los Angeles Times, not only for its journalism, but also to support local journalism.
For our sanity, we don’t have the TV on all the time and we certainly, when it’s on, we no longer watch cable news very often. I have no scientific data, but I believe my blood pressure thanks me!
THE SUNDAY MORNING SHOWS
I have felt that one place where TV news shines is the Sunday news shows., These Sunday morning shows, formatted as “news magazines” purport to offer a synopsis of the week’s news and some news analysis. One gets a curated magazine with multiple stories. But even they are often dominated by panels of former campaign managers and cabinet officials telling us what we should think.
There is another option on Sundays, news presented in a mindful, kind, less frenetic way—on Sunday Morning. That the show ends with a minute of quiet and pensive sights and sounds found in nature is reason enough to watch. This show offers news, for sure, but also serves up food and inspiration for the soul. If you can sit through a 30 second commercial, this is a beautiful and relaxing end to the show, with serene egrets in the wild: https://www.cbsnews.com/video/playlist/moment-in-nature-cbs-sunday-morning/ and here’s another with a bear and her cubs: https://www.cbsnews.com/video/nature-bear-with-cubs/#x
In the midst of the mélange of quirkiness that wasn’t screaming at us or telling us what to do was a funny fellow, Bill Geist, who found the stories in the strangest and the most ordinary things and regular people (think Ralph Story or Hugh Howell). It was always a learning experience, often lighthearted, but always interesting. An example of his best work was reporting on a typewriter repair store in the desert: https://youtu.be/iX8Y4fWgOjw. Check out this retrospective of his adventures: https://www.cbsnews.com/video/bill-geist-looks-back-on-the-journey-of-a-lifetime/.
I never introduce myself to celebrities—they get enough attention and I don’t want to feed their out-size egos. It’s the odd folks that I am interested in. On a business trip a few years back, I ran into Mr. Geist in an airport. I walked up to him and told him my son Brad’s favorite television celebrity. To which Mr. Geist responded: “He needs to get out more.” He was a true gentleman. He retired last year, diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. I’ll miss his calm on Sunday mornings.
JUST BECAUSE IT’S FUNNY
While we may be congregating at the local gym of YMCA for a while, I still love this:
Happy Mothers’ Day,