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Network News: Another Corporate Rip-off
August 10, 2002
By Joseph Arrieta

I 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, CNN.

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. [1] If the networks refuse they can always cough up the spectrum fees they've gotten such a free ride with. One billion dollars annually.

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 understand.

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.

[1] 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 Jose, California.

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