Did you know that in the not so distant past, television networks were required by the FCC to broadcast a minimum 30 minutes of news programming per day? This is because in the days of Walter Kronkite, news programs did not make money for the networks. News shows generally consisted of sober, dispassionate reports on national and world events.
The likes of Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley were distinguished, mostly unemotional, anchors who provided facts, not drama. Programs such as the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour had in-depth reports that were never very sexy, but always informative and thoughtful.
In the 1970s, network news executives began to see the money-making potential of their news programming. With the advent of CNN in 1980, the 24-hour news cycle was born. This beast required constant feeding with dramatic footage and more colorful personalities that could keep the attention of the TV audience. Thus, we had the networks beating the dead horse of such events as the high speed chase of O.J. Simpson in his Ford Bronco (pun intended).
As news became less about informing the public and more about entertaining the masses, the sound bite became ubiquitous. Instead of those in-depth reports, we are now treated to numerous short segments and the repetition of key clips that will outrage, amuse, or titillate the audience. How many times did we need to hear Bill Clinton claim, “I did not have sex with that woman”?
These developments have led to the trivialization of the news and the increasing unprofessionalism of news personalities. In the past few weeks, for example, we have seen Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly being accused of exaggerating or outright fabricating their involvement in certain high-profile news events. We have a Cleveland morning show news anchor using the racial slur “jigaboo” on live TV.
The ideals of journalism are still alive and well in print and online form. There are many distinguished newspapers, magazines, and online sites. But the vast majority of American citizens get their news from television. And that is why the state of TV news is so disturbing to me.
I get teased because I never know the latest news until I have read about it the next day in the newspaper. But until television news gets more professional and informative, I will stick with the less sensational daily paper.