|A recent study of the knowledge that Americans have about their government and
national affairs documented what most of us already know 69% of Americans rely on
television for political information. Over the last twenty years, television has replaced
newspapers and magazines as the tool of sharpening our minds about the world of politics.
The only real surprise in the study is that the Internet now provides 10% of the political
information that we seek. With the explosion of Internet use, it is likely that newspapers
and magazines will slip further when this study is replicated in the future.
of television in describing and shaping national politics may be a given, but what is
often not addressed is that sitting in front of the tube watching the nightly news or
those vapid political commericals need not be a passive experience. Television is without
question a powerful medium, but that does not mean all of us who rely on television
automatically become bleary-eyed zombies under the spell of NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN. We can
control the wave of political information coming across that 27 inch Sony in the family
room. There are ways to tame the television monster and use the networks for
improving political understanding. Here are some helpful hints that may lead to improving
the quality of television news watching and information gathering.
- If possible watch more than one news program; theyre not alike and the definition
of what is news on any given day can be vastly different.
- Beware of reporters who use terms like I think or an unnamed source
said. Remember, the news is about presenting facts and should not be a speculative
- Politicians and government officials are now masters of image-making. Watch out for
those news segments that are clearly puff pieces designed to make someone look good,
rather than provide news.
- Politics is about give and take, two sides to a story. Be conscious of balance in news
reporting and watch out for slanted news stories.
- After all those commericals, the nightly news is only about 26 minutes. Ask yourself,
what are the news items that never made it to the screen, and why did the editor choose
these stories ?
- As a corollary to the above, remember also that the choice of what goes on the air each
night is not a terribly democratic process, but is usually the decision of Tom Brokaw,
Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. They may be wonderful journalists, but whats news is
still their decision.
- Be ever mindful that news shows have ratings and sponsors just like all the other
television programs. News programming is not pure journalism, it but is a
money-making venture. Viewers are consumers first and interested citizens second. The
result is that the boring stuff of public policy has too often been replaced
by the exciting stuff of disaster, crime and sex.
- News is about the four Cs controversy, conflict, criticism and
confrontation. Stories about the world at peace or people solving problems usually have a
hard time making it on screen. It is important to keep in mind that the news need not be
an accurate picture of America. On too many occasions, it is not.
I am often reminded when I watch the evening news or a program with political content
of the actor Peter Finch in the movie Network. Finch played a television news anchor who
was slipping into madness. In one of those memorable moments from the movies, Finch goes
on the air looking dissheveled in a ratty raincoat and speaks to the millions of viewers
who had gathered around the television for the nightly news. As Finch raves on about the
declining state of the country and the world, he utters the now famous line,
Im mad as hell, and Im not going to take it anymore. Finchs
outburst has become the tag line for all those Americans who are angry with their
government. But Network was not really a movie about angry Americans; rather it was a
well-crafted message about how television has the power to shape our minds and our hearts
and make politicians into statesmen or fools. Finchs message therefore was a call to
arms for television viewers that they would be wise to tame the monster before
it tames them. As citizens of this great democracy we owe it to ourselves to
use television as a means of improving politics and national affairs, and not become
zombies entranced by the mediocrity and slickness of
Michael Kryzanek is Editor of the Bridgewater Review