In case you weren’t paying attention to late night talk shows (and, really, why would you), Trevor Noah ended his seven-year run as host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central last week.
I have a confession to make.
I haven’t watched TV news since sometime back in September. Not the 24-hour talking heads channels, not the broadcast network’s evening summaries, not even 60 Minutes.
But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been keeping up with current events, in all their crappyness.
Instead of suffering through all the faux debates and BREAKING NEWS!!, I returned to only consuming day-old news.
Some of it comes from the old fashioned paper delivered to the door every morning. Some on websites that write about events from several days or even weeks ago. Maybe a video or two when appropriate.
Information sources like the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Guardian (UK) whose writers and editors go beyond just relating what happened but also why it matters.
Of course, that doesn’t mean those day-old sources are 100% accurate. Even with the extra time to develop some context for events, they sometimes make mistakes. Occasionally they create misleading, even stupid, headlines. Even so, day-old is a whole lot more accurate than up-to-the-minute.
I’m not sure I’m a better informed person for this change. And the extra effort required may not be for everyone.
But I feel better.1
I probably don’t have to tell you that the Super Bowl happened last Sunday. And I have a confession about that: I really don’t care anything about the game.
I haven’t been to a Super Bowl party since the event was in the XXXs, couldn’t name any player on either team other than Tom Brady, and even had to ask Google where it was being played. Is that anti-social? Un-American?
Now I did have the program playing on my tablet in the background while I did other things, so I guess the ratings people counted me as one of the billion or so viewers. But I find the periphery of the event far more interesting than football. The competition to create entertaining ads, the subtle (and not so subtle) political messages people try to inject into everything, Lady Gaga’s backup drones, the running commentary on Twitter.
Being completely oblivious to football during most of the season, I have to rely on others to explain why this Bowl became so Super, which is where a recent segment of the Freakonomics podcast, An Egghead’s Guide to the Super Bowl, was so valuable. That 30 minutes, half the length of the actual game play, was more interesting. One of the former players on their panel is even a PhD candidate in math. At MIT. Now that’s something I never expected.
One other item that caught my eye during the game were two high profile commercials (featuring “that person looks very familiar” celebrities) for web hosting companies2. Both ads were trying to sell the idea that anyone can build a compelling, profitable website for their business. It’s a nice, if somewhat inaccurate, story.
I know web publishing technology has advanced to the point where it really is easy to build a site. However, I also know that creating a site that people will actually want to use is still a very complex process. My advice as someone who has worked on many of these projects is, in addition to paying SquareSpace or Wix, spend something on a good designer.
Anyway, that’s pretty much my Super Bowl experience. I can’t recall much about the actual game, especially the second half since I went to bed after the Snickers live commercial (which did not live up to the pre-game hype).
Yes, I know there was a “historic”, first-ever, tie game that was won in overtime. And New England set all kinds of records. And there were possibly many other significant cultural aspects to this event. Sorry, I just don’t care.
Anti-social? Un-American? You decide.
This quote is on a wall in the Newseum, a museum in Washington DC dedicated to news, information (not always the same), and the First Amendment.3
However, with all due respect to Ms. Mead, I don’t think her optimism for television was ever warranted. Even in it’s early days, the medium was controlled by a few corporations run by those elders and the world being viewed by kids, and everyone else, was heavily edited (a nicer way of saying censored) by them. Today that’s even more true, even with hundreds of cable channels, most run by a few large media companies.
So, is Ms. Mead’s quote any more valid if we replace television with “the web”?
It’s too early to say. The possibility is still there. But only if “the young”, not to mention their elders, learn to filter the crap (see Sturgeon’s Law) on the web from the history being made. Developing that crap detector should be at the core of every school’s curriculum.
A recent piece in Rolling Stone makes some great points about how what passes for TV news these days is not serving it’s audience. The writer claims Americans are Too Dumb for TV News, and that is the fault of the news producers themselves.
We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games. You want bigger margins, you just cram the product full of more fat and sugar and violence and wait for your obese, over-stimulated customer to come waddling forth.
The old Edward R. Murrow, eat-your-broccoli version of the news was banished long ago. Once such whiny purists were driven from editorial posts and the ad people over the last four or five decades got invited in, things changed. Then it was nothing but murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.
When you make the news into this kind of consumer business, pretty soon audiences lose the ability to distinguish between what they think they’re doing, informing themselves, and what they’re actually doing, shopping.
The big problem is that TV “news” these days is just too easy, both to produce and consume. But actually staying informed in an age of a constant flood of data is not easy.
You need to seek out sources you can trust to tell the truth (even if it’s not always what you want to hear). Then take the time to regularly read/watch/listen to them. And then you need to continually question the information they provide. It’s hard work.
So, is the American TV news audience dumb? Or lazy?