News: Another Corporate Rip-off
August 10, 2002
By Joseph Arrieta
recently underwent the net head's ultimate nightmare: marooned
in America without http. I was surrounded by refrigeration,
internal combustion, AC, electronics, telecommunications and
plumbing at my in-laws, but no computer.
There was no newspaper. I'd stumble into the living room
every morning desperate for news, only to face that ubiquitous
American device, that slimy slinger of imagery, shameless
purveyor of useless chatter, instigator of countless atrophied
minds and swelling asses: television.
I'm familiar with the technology, of course. Television brings
me the Oakland A's and Raiders, plus Jim Lehrer, for which
I'll always be profoundly grateful. Other than that I never
watch anything else.
From a public policy perspective, network television has
earned yet another negative moniker: rip-off!
Since the beginnings of television the major networks have
been given free spectrum space as long as
they performed a public service by broadcasting news every
night. That free ride has long deserved to be over. Calling
television journalism news is like calling a Big Mac food:
it seems genuine but only makes you sick.
Dan Rather was on the Lehrer News Hour early last year, remarkably
sanguine about the whipping his network executives were about
to get in Congress for the utter debacle of Election night
2000. "Well, we deserve it, " he said, chuckling.
Wrong answer, Dan. You've deserved it for a long time.
I found network news to be maddeningly incomplete and fundamentally
off mission. A story would run on the deficit but with no
reference to the crooked accounting that allowed the rationalization
for the tax cut to take place. There was endless blather about
a kidnapping/murder of a girl in California, but zero reference
to any trends in American child crime. I knew a lot of background
for the stories, and the network presentation was infuriatingly
consistent in its woeful shallowness.
Since when did American television journalism become so obsessed
with health issues? Obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, some
killer Nile mosquito, asthma, Alzheimer's, an incredible amount
of yap about female hormone therapy (barf)--all received a
great amount of precious air time. Some viewers might be interested,
but this simply wasn't news.
Since network news was such a wasteland (22 minutes of almost
nothing), I turned to the Big Kahuna, the total news network,
Amazingly, CNN has shattered their medium! What the hell
is that scrolling text at the bottom of the screen? I noticed
it after 9/11 when I walked by a bar and saw the TV on the
wall, but thought it was one of those optional side channel
feeds, like simultaneous Spanish broadcasts, that one could
choose to display.
Hello? Is CNN broadcasting imagery and sound-to watch-or
text, to read? I'd be reading a story and they'd break for
commercial, completely shutting off the text right in the
middle. Anybody home? Pick one medium, guys.
It got immediately worse. CNN constantly exhorted viewers
to go to their site and participate in their instant polling,
which they were always careful to state was "not scientific,"
meaning that these useless polls held no value. CNN seemed
completely unaware that they were deliberately steering their
viewers out of one medium (television) into another (the Internet)
for useless junk.
I was almost embarrassed for CNN. They'd blown the presentation
of their core medium and were steering their viewers right
into another. I guess it never occurred to them that viewers
would soon figure out these useless polls were pure pap, but
that the Internet offered endless fascination for even the
least curious person. Go, I mentally exhorted the viewers,
go and take that stupid instant poll, but keep that browser
fired up! Go, go, click the mouse away from that horrible
flashing box into the bit stream of ip!
Television news matters. Even if I blessedly never have to
watch the stuff again, roughly 50% of the country has no Internet
access and depend on it for one of the most vital elements
of democracy: an informed citizenry. If you don't agree, I'm
sure the folks at Media Whores Online
would like to have a little chat with you.
We can play an active role in improving network news, which
would also have a positive effect on CNN. Pass legislation
dictating all national network news broadcasts be one hour
in length with no more than 12 minutes of advertising.  If the networks refuse they can always cough up the spectrum
fees they've gotten such a free ride with. One billion dollars
Network news would have to adapt to a reporting/interview
model similar to the Lehrer News Hour, but with probably much
more reporting in the mix. If the topics aren't particularly
interesting the News Hour can be real sominex, but in the
past few years they've brought in excellent media and economic
reporters who file superlative stories, followed by expert
interviews. Now that's broadcast news.
I'll write to Gephardt, who will likely ignore it. Fine.
Some day some politician is going to figure out this rip-off
is an opportunity for votes that every citizen can immediately
Voters remember the debacle of Election 2000 and have flat-out
had it with corporate rip-offs. Dan Rather was right -- network
news does deserve a whipping. Time to pay up.
 Network ratings, along with network news, has been declining
steadily for years. Maybe if the networks actually delivered
value their ratings would go up. Duh!
Joseph Arrieta is a writer and web producer living in San