Jesters in journalism: A professor looks at TV news

Right before our eyes television news journalists seem to be metamorphosing into entertainers. Across the nation, whether in Boston or San Francisco, Knoxville, Tenn., or Columbia, Mo., the format is the same. Around the crescent-shaped studio desk sit the news "teams," who connect the filmed reports on strikes, fires, and murdered children with their scripted conversational cheer. Even major urban centers offer viewers no alternative to these synchoronized newscasters who are as uniform as franchised food. With minor variation they look like stock characters from plays or novels: the narcissist, the flirt, the sensible soul (often female), the naif.

It does not take a linguist or grammarian to be offended by the level of the "entertainment." On Boston's ABC affiliate station the current weatherman has dispensed with meteorological terms and in 1980 forecasts "hot stuff" and "wet stuff." On a competing NBC channel an anchorman reports on poultry prices for the forthcoming holiday season, assuring viewers of plentiful supplies for the Thanksgiving "pig-out."

At the highest, national levels television news journalists may not so easily confuse vulgarity with wit, but the drive to entertain is evident in insidious ways. Regularly the impact of very serious news reporting is weakened when the subsequent story is pointedly frivolous. An NBC Nightly News special segment suggested recently that Chicago's Cook County Hospital has become a medical dumping ground for the poor. It was a powerful report of extreme human misery and exploitation, but immediately followed by scenes of trained dogs. It was as if viewers must not be allowed to linger for long with appalling or shocking information, but need a dog act to relieve a societal malady, just as the sponsors' pills promise to alleviate symptoms of physical distress.

The crucial issue here is not a mere imbalance between pleasing and informing , those two enduring criteria for good literature. Nor is it some dubious matter of combining comedy with tragedy, a technique proven successful in the plays of Shakespeare because he used so-called "comic relief" to intensify appreciation of the tragic. Rather, the entertainment format of television news works dangerously in the opposite direction, to diminish the importance of the serious information presented. Television news departments, supposedly the intellectual quarter of the mass communications industry, evidently work under the assumption that only frivolity, titillation, or vulgarity can be certain to hold viewers' attention. The trained dogs and the jolly news teams chatting in every time zone subvert the seriousness of the news itself. The medium undermines its own message.

One result of this subversion is evident among young people. Some of us who teach in colleges and universities notice among students that serious engagement has itself become suspect. A colleague who teaches history at an urban university in Ohio remarks that during lectures students grow sullen because they cannot change the channel. But it may be more accurate to say that students grow restive during any lengthy explanation, whether of literary symbolism or the Hanseatic League, because they are not accustomed to listening to sustained information unpunctuated by the entertainment that assures them they need not take matters very seriously for very long.

No teacher seeks license to be dull. No one in the name of high seriousness wishes for a return of the earnest, talking heads of the early days of television news broadcasting, or a banishment of wit from journalism. From Benjamin Franklin to Ernest Hemingway and beyond, this nation has a distinguished tradition of the journalist-writer whose work provides public enjoyment. But whether Hemingway or his cohorts wrote news dispatches or stories, the forms in which they spoke did not contradict their messages. Television news journalists, on the other hand, subvert their own materials but seem unaware of doing so. Nicholas Katzenbach, United States attorney general in the Johnson administration, called television "the central means . . . of impelling people all over to see and confront ideas they otherwise would turn away from." The television journalists seem determined not to let that happen.

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