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How Infotainment Won the Culture Wars: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love PBS’s ‘Frontline’
September 1, 2015  | By Alex Strachan  | 3 comments

Two things happened recently that caused barely a ripple in the world of TV — and that’s the point.

On Tuesday, Aug 25, CNN blew off Anderson’s Cooper Hurricane Katrina 10th anniversary special for its round-the-clock coverage of Donald J. Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination for president.

So much for the deeply personal journey, in the words of CNN’s promotional material, in which Cooper observed “the tenacity of the survivors who continue to struggle every day, grieving for loved ones while trying to rebuild lives.”

No matter. The special aired the following night. And Trump, as might be expected, scored big in the ratings. He was huge. Simply yuge. Viewers voted with their clickers.

Trump knows what he knows. Ratings count. He’s suggested that perhaps he should be paid for his media appearances. After all, as he’s said himself, he’s a “ratings machine.”

Trump has suggested that CNN give $10 million to charity, for example, for his deigning to grace them with his presence on Sept. 16 at the next GOP candidates’ debate.

And why not? A $10-million donation to charity would be the biggest, hugest, yuge-est Celebrity Apprentice stunt ever. Top that, Leeza Gibbons.

The other thing that happened caused barely a stir of media recognition. Veteran foreign correspondent Peter Greste, a familiar face to BBC and CNN viewers from his years covering Afghanistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Chile and Somalia, was one of three al-Jazeera English reporters found guilty by an Egyptian court of reporting false news “damaging to national security.”

Greste, a Peabody Award winner for his reporting from Somalia, was found guilty along with Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and news producer Baher Mohamed (top center, Mohamed and Fahmy) of, in the words of presiding judge Hassan Farid, “broadcasting false news” and using a Cairo luxury hotel as a broadcasting base “without permission.”

Greste was convicted in absentia, having been deported to his home country of Australia in February. Fahmy and Mohamed were not so lucky. They’re behind bars in Egypt as you read this, and are not expected to be released any time soon.

Foreign correspondents arrested, charged, and convicted of reporting the news is not news, however — not in a world where Miley Cyrus, Serena Williams, and Wes Craven topped the news trends on Google the following morning.

Also not news: the not-so-subtle shift to infotainment from real news at traditional news outlets that should know better — the news sources we count on to inform us about issues that matter, and help us choose who to vote for on those rare occasions, every four years or so, when political candidates come calling.

In a not-so-brave new world where ratings count for everything, numbers are all that matter.

And so Donald Trump at a podium in Iowa takes precedence over Anderson Cooper’s memorial to New Orleans.

Besides, as Trump himself might say, every day is an anniversary of something, right? Last week it was Hurricane Katrina (Anderson Cooper, left). This week, it’s the anniversary of Japan’s formal surrender in Tokyo Bay aboard the USS Missouri to mark the official end to World War. Sept. 3 is the anniversary of Typhoon Ike. Sept. 4 is the anniversary of the first pictures captured of the wreck of the Titanic. Sept. 5 marks the anniversary of the passing of Mother Teresa. And so on.

If it’s not one thing, it’s another. It’s altogether too much. Who can keep up? What happened 10 years ago in New Orleans happened 10 years ago in New Orleans. Deal with it. Move on.

Just don’t click on moveon.org.

Infotainment vs. real news even has its own meme, now, as I recently discovered.

• What you should know about:

- Why bees are dying by the millions

- Why bird populations are plunging

- How to grow food

- How your rights are being violated

- The realities of war

- Hazards of industrial pollution

- Potential food shortages because of drought, soil depletion

- Polluted and depleted aquifers

- Lies about immigration

- Permaculture and sustainable living

• What the news tells you about:

- Car chases

- Sex scandals

- Kanye West and Kim Kardashian

- The First Lady’s workout routine

- Justin Bieber

- Who’s getting divorced

- Who’s wearing what

- Who’s gay

- Reality TV drama

- Whatever will keep you tuned in

Infotainment masquerading as news isn’t new, of course, nor is it news. For all its promise, the Web is a perfect driver for infotainment.

Clicks may have replaced ratings in a web-driven world, but the effect is the same: What-you-want-to-hear takes precedence over what-you-need-to-know.

And so Kanye West’s decision to run for president in 2020 — perhaps a premeditated publicity stunt for the MTV Video Music Awards, perhaps not — became a leading trend on Google News the following morning, ahead of Europe’s migrant crisis (right), ISIS’s destruction of antiquities in Syria, China’s decision to run a high-speed rail line to North Korea, and Canada’s request to Egypt that Fahmy be deported back to Canada, instead of languishing in an Egyptian prison system for the next three years.

Hard news is getting harder and harder to find. I liked PBS’s Frontline before.

I like it even more now.


"The News"

Jack Johnson

from the album Brushfire Fairytales (2001)

A billion people died on the news tonight

But not so many cried at the terrible sight

Well mama said, "It's just make believe

You can't believe everything you see

So baby close your eyes to the lullabies

On the news tonight"

Who's the one to decide that it would be alright?

To put the music behind the news tonight

Well mama said, "You can't believe everything you hear

The diegetic world is so unclear

So baby close your ears on the news tonight

On the news tonight"

The unobtrusive tones on the news tonight and mama said

"Why don't the newscasters cry when they read about people who die?

At least they could be decent enough to put just a tear in their eyes"

Mama said, "It's just make believe

You can’t believe everything you see

So baby close your eyes to the lullabies

On the news tonight"

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I appreciated the well-structured and easy-to-follow format of this post, making it a valuable read for both beginners and experts alike.
Jan 21, 2023   |  Reply
Tell it, Alex. Tell it. I am so happy to see this point being made. It's not new, but it's important, and I get the feeling these days that way too many TV critics have just given up on taking TV networks (and stations) to task for their ongoing abandonment of journalistic integrity. We may not stop them, but at least we can do our best to remind them and their viewers of what's being betrayed and why it matters.
Sep 2, 2015   |  Reply
There are responsible outlets for news in the non-print media. NPR and its Public Radio brethren, PBS Newshour, BBC News, C-SPAN. Vote with your eyes, ears and tuning dials. If enough smart people do, perhaps it will trickle down to the inhabitants of Stupidland. And even if not, you're staying informed and supporting those who continue to fight the good fight.
Sep 5, 2015
Ben M
Sounds like corruption in the ranks of journalism.
The question:
Who are...overseeing?
Sep 2, 2015   |  Reply
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