Monday, March 17, 2008

What my lectures look like

J215 Lecture 10

(This is tomorrow's lecture for my second-year Contemporary News Media class at Concordia. It's relatively short because of the clips. Usually, they're about 3,000 words.)

Thirty two years ago, the movie Network packed theatres in North America. The story centered on long-time UBS Evening News anchor Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch, who died shortly after the movie came out and was posthumously given an Academy Award) being dropped because of the show's low ratings. The following night, Beale announces on the air that he will commit suicide during an upcoming live broadcast. He’s fired on the spot.
After promising to give an on-air apology, Beale is allowed back on the air for a final sign-off. It takes serious persuasion of the network brass from Beale's producer, protector and best friend, Max Schumacher (William Holden). Instead of apologizing, this is what Beale says:
I’m Mad as Hell clip ( 2 min):
The show is an instant hit. The UBS Evening News morphs into The Howard Beale Show, which starts off as his analysis of the news and ends up featuring astrology, gossip, opinion polls, and scandal. After a while, Beale is introduced to a live audience as the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves. His friend Max is ethically confused, partly because of the success of this “news” show and partly because he’s sleeping with the new VP News/Entertainment (Faye Dunaway’s character, who started off as an entertainment producer and was brought in to bring some ratings to the 6:00 news slot). Then the head of the network dies.
Howard Beale as the Mad Prophet (4 min):
After the death of the network’s president, UBS is targeted for a take-over by Saudi interests. Beale uses his show as a platform to plead to his viewers to send telegrams to the White House demanding federal government intervention to block the deal. Beale is called into the office of the chairman of the network, who hits Beale with his own “corporate cosmology”, convincing Beale that Beale is meddling with the elemental forces of the universe.
This is a revelation for Beale. He goes back on the air, telling his viewers that they must submit to corporate control. Ratings tank.
Network executives want to fire Beale, but the chairman of the company wants Beale to keep delivering the corporatist message. Dunaway’s character, appalled at the ratings, makes a deal with American urban guerilla terrorists to kill Beale on-air. Beale is gunned down to spectacular ratings.
Beales’ show is replaced by the Mao Tse Tung Hour. That was the deal Dunaway made with the terrorists. It has spectacular ratings.
So, did Network come true? In 1976, there were three big TV networks. The “objective”, authoritative 6:30 newscasts were the only TV news available. There were no cable news networks, no Entertainment Tonight. In fact, the only thing out there that resembled Howard Beale was the AM radio talk shows, which drew tiny audiences during the dead time between the morning and afternoon drive shows. There was nothing like Jerry Springer or Montel Williams.
Saturday Night Live went on the air in the 1975-1976 television season. It had Weekend Update, a partial adaptation of Glowball News, an early Global TV show. (Lorne Michaels, who started Saturday Night Live, had started his career as a comic on CBC TV).
The 1980s and 1990s brought CNN, FOX, CNBC and MSNBC, along with torqued news coverage on the networks, daytime TV shows like Geraldo and Springer, which pitted guests against each other and the audience, Entertainment Tonight and Current Affair-type celebrity coverage and, as in Network, the erasing of the line between news and entertainment.
So here we have Keith Olbermann, a skilled writer and journalist deliberately blurring the lines between journalism and entertainment and adding his populist take on the day’s news events. Like Howard Beale, Olbermann was a rather ordinary journalist stuck in a dead-end job.
And, like Beale’s network, MSNBC was in a ratings free-fall, its bare-bones coverage unable to compete with the other cable networks. MSNBC was supposed to be the “convergence” payoff in the deal between NBC and Microsoft, but that hadn’t panned out.
So, what to do?
If blurring the boundaries between the Net and the networks hadn’t been a ratings winner, maybe a further blurring of the boundary of news/entertainment would work. In the fictional world, it had.
Here’s MSNBC ratings leader Keith Olbermann as Howard Beale (2min):
And here’s Olbermann taking this to its logical conclusion:
Keith Olbermann demanding Bush/Cheeney’s resignations (10 min):
There’s a reaction from the mainstream, and there’s nothing more mainstream than the Wall Street Journal. This from Mark Lisheron’s paper in the American Journalism review (one of this week’s readings):
"Part of the problem here," says Peter Kann, the Pulitzer Prize-winning chairman of Dow Jones, "lies in fashionable new philosophies that argue there are no basic values of right and wrong, that news is merely a matter of views.
It's a dangerous philosophy for our society and a dagger at the heart of genuine journalism."
Kann says he has never seen "Countdown." (!!!!!!) He does not mention the show by name in the speeches he delivers to students, businesspeople, reporters and editors. But at the top of his list of the 10 trends in mass media he says we ought to be most concerned about are two of "Countdown's" chief virtues: entertainment and opinion. The need to entertain almost certainly leads to distortion and misdirection, Kann says. Couple this with a blurring of the line between news and opinion, he adds, and the audience will eventually lose its ability to recognize what is true and untrue, will assume that news necessarily comes equipped with a way of thinking about it.

Of course, Olbermann is not alone, nor is he really a pioneer. CNN and Fox (and to a lesser extent, CNBC) had been in a race to the bottom for years. Bill O’Reilly led the way, showing that the public would tolerate, in fact, reward, “journalists” who entertained more than informed. Olbermann, by fishing in O’Reilly to answer his attacks, in fact used O’Reilly’s fame and notoriety to pull himself up. Olbermann knew O’Reilly could not handle any public criticism. Here’s Bill O’Reilly pushing the boundaries in an attack on movie producer Mark Cuban. O’Reilly’s attack on Cuban is a nasty reaction to Cuban’s contemptuous rebuttal of O’Reilly that occurred a few days earlier.
Bill O’Reilly attacks Mark Cuban (5:35 min):
This type of evolution of television news has been happening since the 1970s. What’s behind it?
• The need to “feed the goat” of 24-hour cable news. Think of the unpredictability of the news cycle.
• The incredible cheapness. (Compared with a network TV show, O’Reilly and the rest cost peanuts). If it wasn’t for these types of shows, the cable news network, which is a mile wide and an inch deep, would need real reporters in real bureaus all over the world.
• The ratings. Unless there’s a history-making news event like 9-11, cable news ratings are very, very low. Cable news has found the only way to pull out of the ratings cellar is to have the most Beale-like personality-driven programming.
Now look at Canadian network news and cable news networks. You are looking at what US TV journalism looked like in the 1980s. Now, think about Richard Cleroux’s thesis video on Parliament Hill scrum coverage. Could there be any thinner journalism? Any type of journalism more cheap and superficial? Any type of reporting more succeptable to "spin"? Could there be anything more predictable?
And Canadian cable news interview shows are even more tedious and predictable: a few politicians, a few "political strategists" delivering straight spin, usually in empty confrontations with each other, some Hill journalists spouting conventional wisdom and planted facts.
No wonder Canadians have tuned out of Canadian news. Yet Canadian cable news has not yet coughed up a Bill O’Reilly or a Keith Olbermann, nor have they come up with an alternative.
Now, most American TV journalists are still constrained by traditional news values and programming templates established between the 1940s and the 1980s. 99% of American TV news and interview shows feature “soft” news, the kind of happy talk that, in Canada, CTV and CTV Newsnet, along with local newscasts, specialize in. The epitome of this type of news are the “sick kid” stories that are very familiar to anyone who watches the CTV newscast in Ottawa hosted by Max Keeping. Here, the Internet media/political satire site The Onion takes a big swipe at the genre:
The Onion mocks the sick kid charity report:
The second mainstay of cable news is the talking head point-counterpoint interview that developed in the early 1980s on shows like ABC’s Nightline and CBC’s The Journal.
The Onion mocks talking head interviews:
And in many ways, the news business, fake or real, has come full circle. Jon Stewart’s "fake news" draws about 1.5 million viewers, many of who rely on it for analysis of the news. As Geoffrey Baym says in this week’s second reading “The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Television Journalism.” Political Communication 22.3 (2005): 259 – 276, The Daily Show is much more than a Saturday Night Live-style fake newscast. It has taken the critical discourse much farther: it is a dissection of the news, but also – and very much so – an analysis of the way the press covers the news and warps it.
As Baym notes, Jon Stewart is possibly the most trusted journalist in the United States. Stewart would argue – and you will see him argue – that he is simply a comedian doing fake news, but The Daily Show is much more than that. For many people, especially those who are up on current events and politics and are media-savvy, The Daily Show provides a very cutting analysis of events and media coverage.
While Bill O’Reilly (and Don Newman on CBC Newsworld) claim to operate in no-spin zones, The Daily Show and its spin-off The Colbert Report cut through spin and media coding in the guise of satire shows
And it comes full-circle here, in this interview on CNN’s Crossfire.
Jon Stewart guts Crossfire (14 minutes)
Stewart not only made his point, he killed the show. CNN’s senior executives agreed with Stewart that the show was bad journalism. As for Carlson, the interview killed his career. After being let go by CNN, he was picked up by FOX. Last week, his show was cancelled because of bad ratings.


Anonymous said...

Olbermann seems to be positioning himself as the new Edward R. Murrow with his regular expositions on
the perfidities of the Bush/Cheney regime. I wonder what he will be doing January 21.
His feud with O'Reilly seems even stranger. A dig at O'Reilly, his competition, practically every night.
Not a big fan of O'Reilly or Fox News but he, at least, seems to absent himself from the feud.

Anonymous said...

Will we be tested on this shit?

Ottawa Watch said...


j said...

students lucky to have you for a prof. j

Anonymous said...

Hope you examine the impact of "political strategists" and other talking heads in one of your lectures. Losing an election because some unelected prognosticator cries "beer and popcorn" is just wild. And some of those "Republican/Democratic Strategists" look like they are barely out of college. Should one truly be considered a "political strategist" simply because they run a blog? My main question: What toll is commentator-driven talk television taking on the role of public intellectual?

Ottawa Watch said...

Thanks for the (mostly) positive comments. I'm new at this prof stuff and all of a sudden I feel like a kid again, with some of the insecurities.

Ottawa Watch said...


It's a lot easier for cable networks to book dial-a-quote party hacks and partisan bloggers -- and journos spouting the same-old -- than it is to find real experts and political participants willing to go on TV. Television is the worst thing to happen to democracy. The Internet has become a way to fight back.