The Ugly Circus

Edward R. Murrow responds to attacks by Senator Joseph McCarthy, 04/13/54. (photo: CBS)

Written by John Cory for Reader Supported News

In a recent article, Barbra Streisand asked: Where Is The Fourth Estate When You Need Them?

Well Ms. Streisand, they ran away from home and joined the ugly circus of pundit shows and cable news, with big floppy shoes and red rubber-ball noses and lots of money in the trunks of their clown cars.

There are good and great journalists out there who have and do take their profession seriously and honestly, and for whom fact and perspective is important. I think many of these journalists would also tell you that they had to fight like hell to get management to support their story, and then win corporate over to publish and/or air their story. I am thinking of Seymour Hersh, Amy Goodman, Chris Hedges and Bill Moyers among many others.

The fact that news has become a product for sale is not new, nor is the fact that media has embraced celebrity over content and corporate sponsors over substance, and mindless entertainment over education and illumination. Edward R. Murrow warned of these things in his RTNDA Convention speech in 1958. And now, 54 years later, it echoes with immediacy as though written yesterday.

Television news is an ugly circus of innuendo, gossip and tabloid sensationalism. Whether ABC or CBS or NBC, the news is read by celebrity personalities between self-promotional appearances on late-night talk shows.

The nightly news is anything but news. Seven minutes of shallowness, two car chases, the latest celebrity divorce/trial/book/or murder-mystery followed by a feel good human-interest story. Information, elucidation and perspective are sacrificed for pharmaceutical elixirs of youth and sex, insurance lizards, and the latest in-dash tracking system that monitors and synchs up with your Blackberry/iPhone with a voice that guides your every waking movement and thought. Everything you don’t need and can’t possibly afford but must have.

Cable news is nothing more than nightly WWE cage matches between hot-air blowhards and giggling snark. Yes, I’m talking liberal and conservative programming.

I don’t want to be entertained. I read books or go to the movies for that. And, I might add, they do a much better job than anything on cable news. Why sometimes, movies and books even make me think.

FOX News Channel is pure unadulterated propaganda for the far right. I don’t care whether it’s morning, noon or night, that’s what I see and hear. And that is certainly their right, as it is my right to dislike their product and not watch.

MSNBC and now Current TV seem to think that they must be the anti-FOX by imitating the FOX formula with a splash of snark and sarcasm and calling it “liberal TV.” And in my opinion, they are failing stupendously.

How, you ask?

If you host comedians as guest panelists to analyze the other tribe’s culture war statements or perform skits in spacesuits or title segments after School House Rock segments or feud with bad-hair rich guys to prove how smart you are, or obsessively cover some Republican sex scandal while people try to understand healthcare reform – then you fail. You fail me, you fail the seriousness of what is happening in the very real world that the rest of us live in, and you deserve not to be taken seriously. Talking down to me to show how smart you are or simply yelling at the other tribe or making fun of ignorance does not illuminate or educate. All it does is keep the tribal wars going for the sake of ratings and your own ego-driven millionaire status. Good for you – bad for US.

Let me ask viewers of these programs, what do you know about education reform issues? Is the teacher’s union to blame for bad schools? Do you think student test scores are the lowest of the low? That our kids ain’t learnin’ nothin’?

Did you know that according to the2011 NAEP report on mathematics, the “gold standard” of student testing, that: “Both fourth- and eighth-graders score higher in 2011 than in previous assessment years.” That’s what it says in the Executive Summary right at the beginning of the report. You can get your copy of the report here. When the report says higher scores than in previous years that means since 1990 when they first began this math and reading test. Twenty years.

On page 12 the report says that White, Black and Hispanic students have made gains – but that gaps persist. In fact, it states that there were larger gains from 1990 to 2011 for Blacks than for Whites. And by the way, “the 20-point gap between White and Hispanic students in 2011 was not significantly different from the gap in either 2009 or 1990.”

The report details lots of progress and lots of problems, and I am no expert in breaking it all down and disaggregating the data to provide any insightful analysis. But if I had a nightly TV show and could bring experts together to discuss this, I’d ask the following questions:

  1. If, as this report states, there has been very real gains in student scores over the past 20 years, doesn’t that speak well of the quality and hard work of teachers?
  1. If Black and Hispanic students are making progress, what can we do to help them close that 20-point gap?
  1. What are the causes of that gap? Language? Home? Cultural environment? Income? Safety? Hunger?
  1. What is the responsibility of the community, state and federal government?

And then I’d ask some questions about the test-score cheating scandals under the former Chancellor of Public Education for DC, Michelle Rhee, or the cheating in Georgia and Texas. How many other states? Is this driven by teaching to a test?

Has any one of the liberal programs dedicated a whole show to such a thing?

And what about healthcare in this country?

Where is the liberal host that offers an in-depth examination as to why Americans pay $7800 per person for healthcare with the same or worse results of other OECD countries that pay $2800-$4800 per person per year? Are Americans being ripped off? Where does all that money go? Why do Americans pay double or three times the amount other countries pay for the same pills and procedures?

Surely there are real experts for a panel to discuss these issues, and I don’t mean talking-head partisans or corporate shills. How about a panel consisting of Maggie Mahaar, author of “Money-Driven Medicine,” Jonathon Cohn, author of “Sick: The Untold Story of America’s Health Care Crisis,” and others who would deal with why America is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not offer its citizens universal healthcare. And how much could we save through preventative care?

Does being born in the wealthiest country in the world simply mean: Welcome to the world. You’re on your own now so goodbye and good luck! Sickness is a profit center with potentially high profit margins. Do your part and shop well!

Of course this would require a network and sponsors willing to give us, the viewing public, credit for being interested in learning and understanding the issues. That would empower us and make us – informed.

That’s bad for corporate-owned pundits, bad for corporate-owned networks and their corporate sponsors, and even worse for corporate-owned politicians. An informed public is just plain bad all the way around for our would-be masters and their court jesters.

People say all the time that we are an Attention Deficit Disorder society. The media says that they only give the public what they want. None of that is true. The corporate media simply wants to think they have trained us to that end for their profit.

Murrow said: “One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of these is a rather bizarre and demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles …”

And there is the nub of cable television news. The dust never settles. It is a prizefight. Three minute rounds, a bell, a commercial or three, a preview of coming attractions and then -DING!- Time for the next round.

The feud between Lawrence O’Donnell and Donald Trump or Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly would be laughable if we were in high school and not real life. Performing skits in spacesuits and giggles about sex scandals while giving out cocktail recipes is more than just disappointment of high hopes, Rachel. I understand that all of this is tribal war and your bosses profit from aligning the tribes and providing much-wanted entertainment space for sponsors. It is and has become, I say with great apology to the wonderful writer Sherman Alexie, nothing more than a nightly Lone Ranger and Tonto fistfight in heaven.

But as Murrow pointed out: “If Hollywood were to run out of Indians, the program schedules would be mangled beyond all recognition. Then some courageous soul with a small budget might be able to do a documentary telling what, in fact, we have done – and are still doing – to the Indians in this country. But that would be unpleasant. And we must at all costs shield the sensitive citizens from anything that is unpleasant.”

The airwaves and the print media are an ugly circus of ugly entertainment.

It should be remembered that Murrow’s speech was not to the public, but given to his peers and the industry for which he worked. He believed that the public was smarter and more intelligent than the industrial-media-complex gave them credit for. He believed that information presented calmly and fairly would illuminate instead of agitate, and that the public would benefit from such knowledge. He believed in we, the people.

In his 1951 This I Believe program, Murrow set what I believe should be the standard for any hour-long news/pundit show: “Perhaps we should warn you that there is one thing you won’t read, and that is a pat answer for the problems of life. We don’t pretend to make this a spiritual or psychological patent-medicine chest where one can come and get a pill of wisdom, to be swallowed like an aspirin, to banish the headaches of our times.”

Or I suppose we could just keep watching the ugly circus.

– PEACE –


Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.