Saturday, January 07, 2006

What News Is Good News?

Staring Blankly At The TV – (DCF) – I’ve been watching a lot of CNN lately.

It all started during the elections in 2004, when it was suggested to me that I should probably have more sources for my news than just the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  Okay.  Fair enough.  I decided to check out the available options:

  • Local News.  This is a no-go from the very start.  First, because there is no local news here in Port Huron.  The best I can manage is the Detroit network affiliates, and they never talk about my town unless someone gets killed in a unique way, there is a bomb threat of some kind, or it’s time for the Port Huron-to-Mackinac Race Boat Weekend.  They only cover the most popular nationl and international news stories, but with little substance.  Other than that, they just cover Detroit, which holds no bearing on what I do.

  • Network News.  A little more substance, but not enough.  These shows usually just talk briefly about any breaking news (and if they don’t have any, they make it up, from what I understand), and then move on to some sort of investigation about how washing my own socks could kill me.  An offshoot of this is shows like “60 Minutes”, where the whole thing is dedicated to telling me what frozen foods contain rat parts.

  • Headline News.  I consider this to be CNN Lite.  They are owned by the same corporation that owns CNN, but lack the hard-hitting journalistic skills that allow then to send their reporters into dangerous situations like its Big Brother does.  Instead, they mainly focus on financial news, which, again, really means nothing to me because my finances are well below the radar of the folks at Headline News.  Plus, they have a show called Mad Money that, as far as I can tell from the few times I happened to pass by it while looking for something better to watch, consists of a guy who yells a lot.  If I wanted that, I’d watch wrestling.

  • Fox News Channel.  This is an oxymoron, with a stress on the “moron” part.  This far-right leaning cable channel bills itself as “Fair and Balanced” (even going so far as attempting to sue Al Franken because he used that phrase in the subtitle of his book, Lying Liars and the Lies They Tell – A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right), but they are nothing of the sort.  Their roster consists of hack journalists like Geraldo Rivera (I mean, come on!), and conservative pundits like Sean Hannity, John Gibson, and Bill O’Reilly.  Oh, they do have the occasional liberal on the air, such as Alan Colmes, but they are largely ineffective because they get ganged-up on and outnumbered by conservatives on whichever shows the appear.  If you want to watch this, try to do it on an empty stomach because if it isn’t, it will be soon.

With those channels out of the lineup, we start moving further down the ladder.  It ain’t pretty.

  • C-SPAN.  Oh.  Good.  A video feed from the security cameras in the Senate and House.  The only time anything good is on there is when someone is being grilled in front of a committee.  My recent favorite was when Condoleeza Rice and Barbara Boxer looked like they were about to get into a catfight during the hearings concerning why the U.S. went to Iraq.  Other than that sort of thing, it’s a real yawn-fest.

  • PBS.  Public broadcasting!  The last bastion of unbiased reporting!  The Sunday Morning news programs on PBS are considered some of the best, with a solid focus on the issues without all the partisan hackery.  Instead, they bring nicely balanced panels on each show and allow them to look at each other sternly and mutter “I strongly disagree with my associate,” which is Politician-speak for “You are an ass, and I hate you.”  However, it’s about as exciting and interesting to me as watching bread toast.  Of course, they also show the occasional concert or movie that can be moderately entertaining.

  • E! – Entertainment Television.  Because of a lack of actual news, one may find oneself trolling around this dung heap, listening to vapid “reporters” talking about even more vapid celebrities.  The most disturbing thing to me is that these people appear to take themselves seriously.  How serious can you take yourself when you take a camera crew to film Howard Stern’s radio show and then slap it on the tube for all to see?  And then there’s Joan and Melissa Rivers.  Don’t get me started.

Then we hit the bottom of the barrel:

  • Cable Access.  If there is a Hell, I suspect that this is the only thing on TV.  For those who have not experienced the joys of cable access television, it consists mainly of privately-funded shows where people who would otherwise never have a camera pointed at them (unless, of course, it was during the taping of an episode of “Cops”) talk about things that only matter to them, such as NASCAR and macramé.  What makes it worse it that these are people from my own community.  I see them all the time at the store or the mall.  Watching this is like having a fork jammed in my eye over and over again by someone I know.  Occasionally, they will air a band concert or sporting event from one of the local high schools, which is great for the community.  However, I do not know a single person – including those who actually appear on the shows – who watches this stuff, myself included.

So I’m left with CNN, which is at least moderately entertaining and informative.  And they’ve got a guy named Wolf Blitzer!  (And I don’t believe for a second that this is his real name.)

One of the more entertaining shows on the channel is The Situation Room, which Blitzer hosts.  I watch it for the up-to-date news, as well as the opinion pieces by a grizzly, bitter journalist named Jack Cafferty.

Cafferty is, as I said, a very bitter man, and it certainly adds something to his reporting, especially when he’s particularly angry about something.  For instance, during the whole FEMA debacle in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina ripped it to shreds, Cafferty had this to say:

“I have never ever seen anything as badly bungled and poorly handled as this situation in New Orleans.  Where the hell is the water for these people?  Why can't sandwiches be dropped to those people that are in that Superdome down there?  I mean what is going – this is Thursday.  This is Thursday.  This storm happened five days ago.  It's a disgrace.  And don't think the world isn't watching.  This is the government the taxpayers are paying for, and it's fallen right flat on its face, as far as I can see, in the way it's handled this thing.”

Now that’s passion!  And it isn’t just Cafferty.  Anderson Cooper, who is quickly rising to the top of the heap in the 24-hour news reporting…thing.  Again, during the New Orleans debacle, he issued a very enthusiastic verbal bitch-slap to Senator Mary Landrieu, D-La., in a live interview, pointing out that no, he hadn't heard that Congress is going to an unprecedented session to pass a $10 billion supplemental bill tonight to keep FEMA and the Red Cross up and operating, because "for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi."  (The video can be seen here, or read the transcript here.)

More recently, we saw Cooper’s incredulity as he reported first that the twelve miners who were trapped in a Virginia mine were alive; only to find out several hours later that the word he had received was wrong.  He just kept saying over and over, “I can’t believe this.  This is just amazing.”  You’re not going to see this sort of thing on C-SPAN.

However, when all is said and done, I still go back to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show.

Am I wrong somehow?  Did I take a wrong turn somewhere?  Am I harming my knowledge by getting the bulk of my news from a comedy show?

Not according to a September 21st, 2004 Annenberg Poll report commissioned by Comedy Central after Fox’s Bill O’Reilly suggested that Stewart’s viewers were little more than “stoned slackers”.  According to the poll:

“People who watch The Daily Show are more interested in the presidential campaign, more educated, younger, and more liberal than the average American or than Leno or Letterman viewers,” said Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, a senior analyst at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, who conducted the research for this report.  “However, these factors do not explain the differences in levels of campaign knowledge between people who watch The Daily Show and people who do not.  In fact, Daily Show viewers have higher campaign knowledge than national news viewers and newspaper readers – even when education, party identification, following politics, watching cable news, receiving campaign information online, age, and gender are taken into consideration.”

So, I guess I’m in pretty good company, wouldn't you say?

All the best,

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

2006: For Better Or Worse

Well, here we are.  It’s officially 2006 now, and it still hasn’t really sunk in yet.  In fact, I’m still not sure what Thanksgiving and Christmas were all about, let alone New Year’s Eve.

Don’t get me wrong – I like the holiday season.  I just feel like “Holiday Season ‘05” wasn’t that big of a deal for some reason.  I don’t know why.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I know part of what the problem was – for me anyway – but I also know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

From the beginning of last year, it seemed like it was going to be a losing proposition from beginning to end.  Nothing felt like it was going right, and every time I turned on the TV or picked up a newspaper I found that it wasn’t just an unjustified feeling of apprehension that I was having.  The economy was going into the crapper, jobs were being lost left and right – largely because they were being outsourced to other countries where workers were cheaper, the people who still had jobs were being treated worse and worse, gas prices were ridiculous, the current administration was using the Constitution as its own personal doormat, much to the indifference of a Republican-controlled Congress that was mired in its own problems, and an unwanted war continued to drain the country and its people of their faith in the government.

And this year doesn’t appear to be looking much better, so far.

So what went wrong?  Why is it that I’ve lost the sense of excitement that I used to have at the beginning of every New Year for as long as I can remember?

I had always looked forward to New Year’s Eve.  It meant a chance to get together with friends and/or family and just have a good time as we welcomed the New Year.  For most of the past twenty-plus years, it also meant a getting out and playing one last gig of the year – the BIG gig.  There was excitement in the air, and a sense of optimism that the New Year would bring about a host of new and interesting experiences and activities.  When we watched Dick Clark (or, if you were some sort of philistine, someone on a different channel) count down the last ten seconds of the year, everyone would get worked into a frenzy and the noise would be almost unbearable.  Noisemakers and those squeaky horns would blurt as the seconds counted and the big ball in Times Square dropped.  And as the big sign would light up, welcoming the New Year, the crowd would cheer, confetti would fly around, and friends and relatives would hug or kiss or shake hands in celebration of making it another year.  “Auld Lang Syne” would be played, and there was always someone who knew all of the words.  The rest of the crowd, most of them drunk, would mumble along, singing the few words they could remember.  Champagne corks would pop.  Fun stuff.

While the celebration was there, albeit in a more subdued manner than normal, the rest was missing.  There was no sense of excitement or optimism.  Instead of a feeling of “here’s a fresh start”, it was more of a feeling of “at last, it’s over.”

And for me, personally, what was supposed to be the big gig of the year felt like just another night.

And now, I’ve got a whole new year facing me.  Rather than feeling excited and optimistic, I’m nervous and worried.  Sure, the political stuff isn’t much of a help – it looks like business as usual, although it appears that Jack Abramoff (I just realized I spelled his name wrong in my “Year In Review” post) is going to start naming names as part of his plea bargain, which should make things pretty interesting in Washington, D.C. – but this feeling of apprehension is on more of a personal level.  It feels like something major is ending, but I haven’t got a clue what it is.

Is it just me?  Am I the only one who feels like this?  I don’t think so, because just about everyone I’ve asked about it has said that they, too, were feeling a little twitchy.  However, they also could not explain why they felt this way.  They just said that nothing seemed right last year, all year long, and Christmas was more or less the peak of blandness for them.  It just felt like another day, the only difference being that on any other given day, friends and family didn’t usually show up to give them things for no reason.

Anyway, as negative as I feel about the past year, and apprehensive as I feel about this year, there is a tiny seed of optimism inside me that keeps telling me things are going to get better.

I hope it’s right.  With feelings of discontent like this, and an overwhelming sense of despondency, I wouldn’t want to see what it would be like if it got worse.

All the best,