Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Surrender, Integrity

"Theater is Life. Film is Art. Television is Furniture."

-- Unknown

I don't watch much CNN anymore, or TV news in general for that matter.

I figure since there's no longer a steady paycheck to provide the requisite level of incentive, there's really no need to subject myself to most of the horseshit the networks try to pass off as legitimate news these days. The average human digestive tract can handle only so many breathless reports on the latest missing blonde girl or bombastic warnings about the threat posed by plastic water bottles before it goes all Lovecraft and starts trying to force itself out of any orifice it can find. I'd like to believe that joining the ranks of those who play 24/7 watchdog to the news industry -- the ones attempting to quixotically stand against the tide of daily abuses -- will make some kind of difference, but I'm just not sure that's the case. As much as I want to feel otherwise, I don't think organizations like Media Matters really, well, matter. They're fighting the good fight and bringing the power of new media to bear against a previously unchecked leviathan, sure -- but there are times when I can't help but believe they're stoically trying to empty Lake Michigan with a spoon.

I realize that this kind of thinking stands in sharp contrast to some of the antagonistically insurgent, all-or-nothing statements I've made in the past. But when a discordian convergence of the magnitude that we've witnessed in the past few days occurs, it makes me just want to throw in the towel, take my Paxil and let the chemically-induced somnambulance wash over me like a warm bath.

It started last week, at the annual National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. The event's keynote speaker was none other than actor, activist and slightly pompous ass Tim Robbins; he took the opportunity to verbally scold America's broadcasting community while simultaneously calling upon it to remember its responsibility to the public, reinvest itself in quality product and turn away from celeb-fellating, political ass-kissing, ratings-driven nonsense. Needless to say, Robbins received a warm reception and a staunch chorus of amusingly indignant "hear hears" from the crowd, which then dispersed to head back to the bar, then to the casino, then to the panel discussion entitled "Tits and TV: How To Make a Freezing Cold Air Conditioner Work for You," then to the Cheetah lounge.

Given the amount of lip service paid to Robbins's noble but perfunctory attempt at forcing change from within the industry, you'd figure on at least a minor grace period of self-reflection and soul-searching from America's broadcasters before completely disregarding any half-drunk vows made in Vegas to clean up their act.

You'd of course be wrong.

Sure, executives say they want to see integrity and honor restored to television and radio -- particularly when it comes to news. But here's the thing: Each person sincerely believes it's the other guy who's to blame. Finding a news or programming manager who'll say that he or she is even partially responsible for inundating the airwaves with crap is like trying to nail down Warren Jeffs on Father's Day.

These people are like addicts: They'll never admit they've got a problem.

Which is why, just one week after Robbins's verbal beat-down and the obligatory head-hanging and hand-wringing it produced, two of America's most powerful television networks are still doing what they do best -- and that's whatever the hell they have to do to get ratings, regardless of how shameful an abandonment of their responsibility to respectable broadcasting.

Last night, NBC's strangely successful game show Deal or No Deal was visited -- via a satellite image displayed on a huge, somewhat Orwellian monitor -- by George W. Bush. The president was on hand to lend his support to a contestant on the show -- a captain in the U.S. Army who pulled three tours of duty in Iraq and whom dingbat host Howie Mandel referred to as "the ultimate American." (As Mandel is Canadian, who knows whether he was being slightly facetious.) The surreal image of a giant George W. Bush head doing its self-deprecating "aw shucks" routine while wishing the best to a man who's spent the past few years dodging bullets and picking sand out of his ass in the name of a war Bush himself started was almost too much to take. All that was missing was a final Vaudevillian mug to the camera and a hearty "Sock it to me!" Despite Bush's on-air joke that he's "happy to be anywhere with good ratings," however, the numbers for last night's Deal or No Deal actually mirrored Bush's own anemic approval rating these days: The show matched its lowest Monday night numbers ever.

Incidentally, the president's support didn't do much good for the contestant either: The Iraq war vet went from banking around $140,000 to just a little over $25,000 before finally recouping some of his losses -- which makes this just the latest instance of a U.S. soldier being fucked by George Bush.

While there's technically nothing wrong with giving the president a forum on a harmless game show, NBC has spent so much time over the past several years pandering to this administration -- going along with it in the name of condescendingly appealing to the GOP's cheerleading base -- that you'd think by now the network would want to draw a very distinct line between itself and the unmitigated controversy that is the Bush White House. This would be particularly important given the criticism NBC News -- and to be fair, most other news organizations -- was forced to endure from those who say the network gave Bush and company a pass during the lead up to the Iraq war.

But, once again, network executives aren't interested in legitimacy in programming or news -- they're interested in being able to promote appointment television. In their eyes, that's what Bush's appearance on Deal or No Deal was (although the audience apparently knew better and believed otherwise).

Likewise, NBC saw nothing untoward about handing off an entire hour of Today to first lady Laura Bush and her twin daughters this morning. It may seem innocuous at first glance, but really, think about it: The wife and daughters of a low-rated and staggeringly divisive president, taking the reins of a network news show -- even one as toothless as Today.

It's a jaw-dropping violation of the fragile but sacrosanct Rubicon dividing the government from those whose job it is to police and maintain an adversarial relationship with it.

Murrow would've quit before allowing something like that to happen on his watch.

But if you think that's bad, it's a journalistic parking ticket compared to what CNN just did: It hired former White House Press Secretary and Fox News shill Tony Snow. I've had plenty to say recently about CNN's comically inept attempts at proving to the Fox Fans that it can be trusted with their viewership; the network has basically bent over backward and spun itself into one ethical pretzel after another trying to gain momentum against FNC's ratings juggernaut -- abandoning every principle it swore to uphold at its inception and napalming the very last vestiges of its journalistic credibility in the precious name of ad revenue. CNN has been as guilty as anyone of not holding the government accountable for its offenses over the past several years; although not the blatant mouthpiece for the White House that Fox has been, CNN in some ways abandoned its post in an even more egregious manner. No one with a brain ever expected Fox to tell the truth, not with Republican interests at stake; CNN had a responsibility to be the necessary beacon in the night -- to balance out the bullshit -- and instead, it drank the Kool-aid, hopped on the bus and did exactly what it was told to do by people like, irony of ironies, Tony Snow. In some ways, it only makes sense that the circle is now complete and the chicken hawk has come home to roost -- but it damn sure doesn't make it right.

CNN, in its relentless pursuit of Fox's audience, has just closed the White House's deal to buy the media outlet that should've been standing against it all along.

It really is enough to make even the staunchest defender of journalistic independence give up once and for all.

Malcolm X once famously told a crowd, "You've been hoodwinked; you've been had; you've been took; you've been led astray; you've been bamboozled."

Turns out, he was only half-right -- because when it comes to today's broadcast media, you're still being hoodwinked, took, led astray and bamboozled.

And I'm not sure there's a damn thing that can be done about it anymore.


sparksinner said...

Goddamn Chez. This is some truly righteous indignation. And you couldn't be more right. I've been meaning to vent about the news/media end of what you're talking about. The political end I don't have much I can add to.

Funny you should have mentioned Deal or No Deal. Few weeks ago I learned that the show was holding auditions in town. Where? Not from a stupid radio promo. No, from the local NBC news. What? Yes, indeed. And if that wasn't enough, they had a "reporter" on location, where the prep was going on. But wait, you sonsabitches. I was distracted as they went to commercial and didn't change the channel. When they came back, guess what? More fucking Deal or No Deal "news" on the local news.

Nausea and rage fought a fierce battle inside me. Rage won, but it was close.

It's little wonder then that NBC is the lowest ranked in all news slots.

Joshua said...

Case in point regarding CNN's stupidity: firing a popular and eloquent blogger who at least had the integrity to never disclose where he worked - while he worked there, that is.

It's like they had a fairly harmless pet tiger that they were thinking of declawing, just to be on the safe side, but instead decided to give it a machine gun, teach it how to shoot, and kick it in the balls on the way out the door for good measure.

"Yeah, we don't have to worry about that tiger problem anymore."

Jacki Schechner said...

You forgot to mention that Richard Quest is still "one of the most instantly recognizable members of the CNN team."

For an organization that was afraid of what message your extracurriculars might send...

Anonymous said...

Well, just when you thought you were out, they pulled you back in...


Al said...

mind boggles



Deacon Blue said...

And this is why, in hindsight, I am glad that I *didn't* get my wish of ending up in a consumer or msm journalistic career path after college and ended up in the trade/association press instead. After some 16 years of journalism, I have no complicity in any of the bullshite out there right now.

Well, except for having viewed a lot of it. Oh, well, couldn't I couldn't end up with completely clean hands....

Anonymous said...

Regarding Tony Snow.....why is it any more wrong for CNN to hire Snow as a pundit than it is for them to have partisans on the Democrat side? Snow is a Republican partisan hack, and the likes of Paul Begala, James Carville and just about everyone else on their political panels is a partisan hack for the Dems. Snow wouldn't be an anchor or reporting the news, he's just there to give opinion......the viewers know that. What's wrong, are you too closed minded to listen to all sides?

Chez said...

I love it when someone breaks out the tired "closed-minded" argument.

Tony Snow worked as the face and voice of a sitting president. He shouldn't be anywhere near a newsroom.

Nate said...

Chez is mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore!

Chez said...

Is that what you're getting from this, because that's definitely not what I was going for.

Quite the opposite, actually.

Marie Walden said...

I loved Tim Robbins' speech and wondered what impact it had. I assumed a little hand wringing and not much else. Sure enough.

I can feel your despondency over the lack of integrity in the media. It is the same lack of emotion I feel when confronted with the entire political process.

No, I don't think Chez is mad as hell. I think he's just over it. Like I am.

b80vin said...

Yes, yes, the MSM is in the hands of the advertisers and the advertisers demand that they show...WHAT? What the people want to see. No, I am not arguing that journalistic standards are as vacillating as Nielson ratings. What I am saying is the sooner or later WE the viewership have to take responsibility for the hungers we allow ourselves to be fed.

Most certainly news networks are culpable in not attempting to raise their own bar, but I for one am tired stupid things being done for a bunch of intellectually lazy stupid people who demand that no one question their right to be stupid. That is not democracy. It is OUR responsibility to be informed and to demand that those charged with informing us be competent at it.

So yeah, the television media machine is chewing up its own legitimacy, but we're maintaining that machine with our viewership, patronage and complacency.

Peter L. Winkler said...

GE owns NBC. GE is a major defense contractor. George W. Bush and Congress have hugely increased war spending since 9/11. GE is a major beneficiary. Therefore, NBC happily cooperates with government pro-war propaganda.

Res ipsa loquitur.

Stephen Mercer said...

It's like fighting against the dying of the light ... the problem here is that the public want the dark, they crave it. How else do you explain Nancy Grace? Words fail me when it comes to how wrong I believe it is that she is on television. But she sure as shit won't be, if there was not an audience. In a country where the likes of Jerry Springer can set the 'standard' for 'talk shows' - it's like the trailer park has taken over network television. Kill Your Television indeed.

Chez said...

Nancy Grace should be hit in the face with a 2 X 4 -- repeatedly.

She already looks like she has been anyway.

Stephen said...

Ol' Nuke done good.

I miss NAB. You forgot to mention that in their endless pursuit of ratings and more ad revenue, they've cut the wonderful perk of allowing directors to go out to NAB and not use any vacation time.

I am depressed.

Anonymous said...


Ok, this post bothers me far more than any of the crap I frequently yell at on the teevee. (And with having only two channels--one of which is 'Fux'--you can imagine my throat gets very, very tired. But never my ire or disgust.)

Despite my sometimes overwhelming levels of disgust, I've come to expect the tiresome, superficial tripe that is television news.

But I've also come to expect that there is a far more eloquent and industry-savvy blogger that can communicate just what I am thinking. A person that can see the wrongs and isn't too afraid or jaded to say something about it. Your stage has grown, and I don't think it is a coincidence that it happened when you and TV broke up.

Don't give up on us just now, C. Just when the tide might have a chance of turning, don't give up on us now. Speak louder. We really are listening.

BV said...

I don't have cable and mostly watch PBS for my nightly news if I watch at all. I lost interest in missing hot chicks and crazy bat shit ladies that yell at me in my own home years ago. I have my own Nancy Grace and her name is "mom".

Blade said...

I believe, that as long as "Ow, my Balls!" is not the number one show, and "The Violence Channel" is not the number one network, that there should still be some hope.

Unfortunatly, it's rapidly declining.

Anonymous said...

How many people do think remember what job Stephenopolis(?)had before puditry? I remember there was "comment" and "question" at the time but no matter.

Chez said...

As much as Stephanopoulos's move to ABC was indicative of the line being blurred between the government and the media, it happened after the Clinton years ended.

Once again: Stephanopoulos wasn't a recent member of an administration still in power.

Chris Jones said...

If FNC only tells lies then why is it that year after year they absolutely destroy the other cable news networks?

The free market dictates the success of radio and television. If FNC was terrible than nobody would watch it.

The reality is that damn near EVERYBODY watches FNC with the exception of angry left-wing bloggers.

Oddly enough, the vast majority of Fox critics have never watched a single minute of it.

Chez said...

Fox is successful precisely because it tells a segment of the population what it wants to hear -- it pitches propaganda over truth. What then happens is that the demographic it's aiming for -- in this case, the stubborn as hell red state idiots -- watch it not for a few minutes at a time (the way CNN and MSNBC's audience does and will likely always do) but for hours and hours on end because it's nothing more than a televised version of right-wing talk radio.

And sorry to burst your bubble there Chris, but having seen the ratings myself over and over again, it's laughable to say that EVERYONE watches Fox. No matter how much those trying to catch up to it (and the Fox news promotion department itself) may claim that FNC is HUGE, it's not. In the great scheme of things, Bill O'Reilly has fewer total viewers each night than WNBC's 11pm news here in New York. Sure, hundreds of thousands of viewers sound like a lot -- until you spread it out over the entire country.

And leave it to someone who espouses the eternal good of the free market to brag about the power of Fox.

willpen said...

I have just been checking in on your year end Top 28 posts and had to stop and say thank you, albeit late, but thank you for this none the late.