📖 Blog>Blog Post
2008-01-02

title: Corporate Television Still Sucks

"Nor did the ability to transmit pictures, voices, and stories from around the world to living rooms in the U.S. heartland produce a nation that is more sophisticated about global affairs."

I found this article by John Hockenberry (posted all over the place) to be an engaging diatribe against the (perhaps obvious depending upon one's internet perspective) failures of corporate news. Hockenberry worked for Dateline NBC for nine years before getting kicked out in a corporate downsizing extravaganza.

In the essay, Hockenberry muses about the failure of television to capitalize on its early technological promises. "One might have thought that the television industry, with its history of rapid adaptation to technological change," he writes, "would have become a center of innovation for the next radical transformation in communication."

He continues:

It did not. Nor did the ability to transmit pictures, voices, and stories from around the world to living rooms in the U.S. heartland produce a nation that is more sophisticated about global affairs. Instead, the United States is arguably more isolated and less educated about the world than it was a half-century ago. In a time of such broad technological change, how can this possibly be the case?

This is a question worth considering. Hockenberry's answer to his question appears to be that the push for the "emotional center" of news stories has turned corporate news from a provider of information in a sometime scary world into a great pacifier that draws in viewers so that they will sit patiently for advertising. This remark, actually, struck me because it was exactly what I said to my family at my grandmother's house over the holidays.

My grandmother is a daily watcher of evening news, but the regime she is subjected to when she watches this "news" is depressing. At 5:00pm she gets local news, which dutifully advertises headlines for stories to come. At 5:30pm national news arrives, seamlessly blending with the local anchors in a marriage of local to political. One could be forgiven for wondering when the national news started and the local news stopped. After that, she gets another hour of local news. At each division point, news anchors report on the stories to come with a kind of "don't miss" flair, but they never give away when those stories are actually coming. In such a way, one can waste away a good two hours waiting for "news" of a particular subject. How democratizing internet news looks by comparison, where one can demand information on that subject and immediately find it.

Further, Hockenberry complains that in their push for the "emotional center" of stories, executives at Dateline totally failed to understand and capitalize on changes in information dispersal because these things were new, untested, and scary. The great joke here is that it is the purpose of "the news" to report on the new and when journalists forgo the new in favor of the safe, they can no longer really be called journalists. He writes of their brand of television news:

Gone was the mission of using technology to veer out onto the edge of American understanding in order to introduce something fundamentally new into the national debate. The informational edge was perilous, it was unpredictable, and it required the news audience to be willing to learn something it did not already know. Stories from the edge were not typically reassuring about the future. In this sense they were like actual news, unpredictable flashes from the unknown. On the other hand, the coveted emotional center was reliable, it was predictable, and its story lines could be duplicated over and over. It reassured the audience by telling it what it already knew rather than challenging it to learn. This explains why TV news voices all use similar cadences, why all anchors seem to sound alike, why reporters in the field all use the identical tone of urgency no matter whether the story is about the devastating aftermath of an earthquake or someone's lost kitty.

This is, of course, what has made so rich a sport for writers of The Daily Show. In fact, it almost seems like corporate news should have woken up when Jon Stewart and co. started ripping into them so well that their commodity was so stale as to be easily and savagely parodied. They didn't get it, however. Oh well.

Hockenberry's criticisms are apt, but instead of bashing corporate news for what we can agree are its obvious failings, we should be mindful of corporate dominance over internet news. These people won television a long time ago and they can have it. Let's be on the look-out for their "emotional centers" creeping into our information in the future.