Monday, June 15, 2009

Long Time Listener

Most people turn to their television or radio for one of two reasons: they want to be informed or they want to be entertained. In the first case they are looking for news or the weather, what the stock market is doing or what movies are opening that weekend. In the second, they don't feel like reading a book or doing their taxes, or are hoping for something to distract them while they're driving to work. (Yes, they could also be obsessed with "American idol" but that qualifies more as a sickness than anything else.)

Occasionally these two are deliberately intertwined, especially on outlets like the Travel Channel or Discovery. There you can watch shows such as "Iron Chef America" and marvel at the dance in Kitchen Stadium while learning a few new recipes in "Battle Skirt Steak." On "Ice Road Truckers" you can be impressed with the derring-do of Hugh "Polar Bear" Rowland, while learning how to prevent a four-wheel skid. And you can watch "Mythbusters" and be entertained while also learning if it's true that a sky diver whose parachute fails to open who hits a playground seesaw would actually send a small girl flying seven stories high.

Still, when it comes to each side, they are generally true to form. That means if you're looking for entertainment, you'll find it in everything from scripted dramas to sitcoms to an ever increasing number of reality shows. If your idea of escape is something which enables you to turn off your mind, no worries: a random flip to any channel brings up numerous candidates, supplemented by a nearly continuous screening of "Law and Order" in one of its various flavors.

Conversely, when you turn on an information program, you can generally expect a reasonably authoritative delivery of whatever goings-on you're interested in, coupled with interpretation by knowledgeable professionals. On ESPN you can catch innumerable sportscasters paired with ex-jocks and coaches who help make sense of what's happening on the ice, the field or the court. Meanwhile, CNBC offers up simultaneous postage stamp feeds of business reporters, traders, portfolio managers and economists, all giving their spin on the markets, creating the most crowded screen on the airwaves.

True, the opinions offered are shaded based on the biases of the presenters. You see this especially on MSNBC and Fox News, which seem more and more intent on being mouthpieces for extreme positions on the left and right. Still, in each case you generally know what you're getting. That's not to say that you can't learn something from pure entertainment, or be amused by something in the news. But while there are a disturbing number of people who get the majority of both their current events and their yuks from Jon Stewart, most are able to separate the two, and know where to turn for each.

There is, however, a troubling development on the information side. CNN bills itself as the network of record treading an ideological middle ground. In fact, "No Bias, No Bull" was the name of one of their prime time shows for a time.  Instead, or perhaps because of their poor showing in the ratings, it seems that the network has regressed to middle school. Based on their recent actions, they could adapt another well know news slogan. Rather than Fox's, "We report. You decide," they might consider adopting "We report. So... whatdaya think?"

How else to explain their seeming fixation on all things email with the audience? Not a story goes by that their anchors don't implore you to offer your reaction by friending them on Facebook or tweeting them on Twitter. Not content to wait for the ratings to come out, they seem desperate to connect with viewers, somehow equating the number of hits they get as a true measure of their veracity as a news organization. Thankfully Edward R. Murrow never thought that way.

By itself, that much pleading for recognition is just insecurity. But unfortunately they take it a step farther. I'm quite willing to listen to Wolf Blitzer solicit comments from a professor from Princeton on economic issues, or thoughts from an Undersecretary of Labor on unemployment benefits. I confess, however, I care less about the views on either subject from foxymom or rt2thecore. Still, Wolf and his brethren spend lots of time reading back their posts. Yes, they're entitled to their views, but I didn't tune in to hear them.

On call-in shows on the radio, people often begin by saying "long time listener, first time caller." But that's what those programs are all about... the give and take of opinions with the host. When I turn on the news, I want the news, not my take or my neighbor's. Put another way, be a long time listener... and stay that way.


Marc Wollin of Bedford flips between all the news channels most evenings. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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