October 26, 2010

Pimp My News

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Weary, restless and abroad in a hotel room in Venice, my friend Jordan and I laid by the bedside. While we briefly thought about finding the nearest brothel in an attempt to recreate some of my favorite moments from episode 15 of Ulysses, Stephen and Bloom ultimately had to settle for the next-best alternative — watching the news.

I flipped on the television, and to my pleasant surprise, the BBC was airing the G8 meetings in Canada. For those of you who do not know what the G8 is, it is the group of eight “major industrial democracies” (Japan, China, U.S., France, Germany, Canada, U.K., Russia in height order). The group meets annually to discuss major macroeconomic and political issues. Recently the group has turned its focus to issues involving developing countries — discussing subjects such as terrorism and world hunger.

This meeting in particular involved foreign ministers from the represented countries and those of other nations as well. For me, this program was as visually stimulating as the first time I watched Michael Jordan play basketball. Here was unfiltered footage of representatives from foreign countries having real discussions about world issues. I had simply never seen news like this before.

Embarrassed by my intellectual curiosity on the matter, and in an earnest attempt to entertain my roommate, I changed the channel. I turned to CNN, which at the time was airing an episode of Larry King doing a special version of Pimp My Ride with Snoop Dogg. What could be more fun, educational and newsworthy? You got me.

I looked at Jordan sheepishly. He took the role of the younger brother who wanted to watch cartoons during game 6 of the 1997 finals between the Bulls and the Jazz. This was the G8 meeting discussed in Professor Lowell Turner’s popular ILR class “Politics of the Global North.”

But why hadn’t I heard of the G8 meetings beforehand, and why wasn’t it more publicized on American news channels? Why would the U.S. virtually ban something this informative? Is it because authentic opinions are being discussed, which may not always view the United States favorably? Maybe one of these foreign ministers had the gall to criticize our War on Terror.

As I lay there, I wondered why I couldn’t find this sort of all-encompassing and objective news coverage in America.

The truth is, American news channels are profit driven, and thus are incentivized to deliver entertainment-based news. If ratings are driven by sensational stories of The Theme Park Arsonist or the continued search for the missing eight-year-old from three years ago, can we blame the news companies?

But if the news companies are not at fault, then who is to blame? Are Americans the problem? Are we really interested in seeing whether our anti-terrorist strategy put in place in 2001 is being carried out effectively with respect to other nations, or do we want statistics reported by talking heads that support government action?

Do we simply want to be able to smile as we fall asleep to the news in our fully heated homes next to our blond wives and fat middle-management Corporate-American paychecks? What does anything I have just said have to do with one another? I am not entirely sure.

What I find interesting is one of the biggest critics of American news coverage has been The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, a man I admire. But, I find Jon’s approach to solving the problem immature and destructive. Jon uses his program to bombast news networks such as Fox News. While Jon is entitled to do so, his show is hypocritical to his mission.

Jon seeks to educate his audience on the dangers of conservative-biased, entertainment-based methods of delivering the news. But his show arguably does the same thing from the liberal perspective.

Jon retorts that his program is “comedy first, news second” and therefore is not subject to the same criticism as Fox News. I see this response as a cop-out for a couple of reasons. First, while he may believe that his show is not a reliable news source, his viewers do not. Comedy and news coverage pretty much go hand in hand on his show.

Second, if he truly believes that America needs to improve upon its predilection for childish news coverage — where it seeks to drive home opinions of the reporters, rather than objectively delivering facts — isn’t Stewart contributing to this problem?

The only way American news coverage will change is if a couple of things happen. First, American preferences need to change. We need improved media literacy. We need an ability to read and analyze the media better to discern what actually matters, and what matters for ratings.

This improved literacy can come through our education system. In fact, Americans need improved media literacy across the board, not just in regards to the news. For example, I truly believe that if the media taught us that a supermodel’s body is not in any way representative of the average body, America wouldn’t be as body-obsessed.

A second solution is for private media companies to do what Proctor and Gamble did for consumer goods; drive, control and change our consumer preferences. A media company needs to properly market and sell news-first media coverage. The only way this will happen is for the news channel to find incredibly adept reporters who know how to sell a program. The media companies need to have an addiction to delivering objective news the same way HBO does to delivering cutting-edge content.

I am sure many of you probably believe that CNN has attempted to do this, and while I do agree that they deliver this non-partisan approach, let us recall my Italian experience watching Larry King. Being non-partisan is one thing, but making me watch Larry King hang out with Snoop Dogg in Southern California is not gr8.

Original Author: Mathew Sevin