Ideology and news broadcasts

Caution: what follows is an unmitigated account of my news snobbery. In the morning, my alarm clock plays the local NPR station, which from 9:00 to 10:00 is devoted to BBC News Hour, typically a very un-American roundup of news from a variety of international locales with no particular stress given to what America’s interest in these places might be. It’s insanely boring, and usually irritating enough to make me want to get out of bed rather than listen further. But usually it seems to me what news is supposed to be, dry accounts of unrest and upheaval in the world’s trouble spots along with accounts of political diplomacy and election results and that sort of thing. But this morning, several minutes were devoted to a news item about the first Rolls Royce imported to India since the British colonial rule ended. Whether this is newsworthy in any way is debatable — perhaps it could be seen as symbolic of the return of Raj style economic oppression, since all the fat cats of the colonial ruling class enjoyed driving Rolls Royces back in the day. But that was hardly the emphasis of the reporting, which took on a decidedly celebratory tone, and it certainly wasn’t the point of the interminable interview with the 33-year-old Indian millionaire who made the purchase. Oooh, how much did you pay for it? Do you enjoy its power or its prestige more? Where are you going to drive it, oooh? How fast does it go? It was an extended advertisement for Rolls Royce, a paen to heroic consumerism on an individual level, embedded in the heart of all this internationalist news about nation-states and mass peoples struggling under the yoke of poverty and tyranny and natural disaster, undermining the credibility to a degree of all that preceded and followed (which I, admittedly, didn’t hear from the shower).

Then on the train, while I was trying to open my Wall Street Journal without spilling my coffee or elbowinng the person beside me, I noticed that what he was reading was a page full of crime reporting in one of the tabloids — someone was shot here, someone else was shot there, cops did this or that, a lot of “dog bites man” stories, essentially. And it occurred to me why I’ve been able to continue reading the Journal everyday whereas I could never read a daily paper before — it’s because despite rejection the ideology expressed in virtually all of its content, I agree fundamentally with the paper’s ideology when it comes to its selection of what is newsworthy. There is no crime report in the Wall Street Journal — crime happens everyday and the specifics of it don’t really matter to anyone but its particular victims. There are very few profiles of individuals, but pages and pages of numbers, statisitical analyses, charts, graphs, and brief paragraphs detailing the doings of corporations. This is because individuals aren’t really capable of shaping the course of the world — the world is moved by numbers and corporations and by the host of social forces the Journal keeps tabs on — lobbying groups, coalitions of politicians, boards of directors, regulatory commissions. Nothing is sensationalized; because reading the news is not presumed to be entertainment.

The ideology of other papers, of most TV news broadcasts, is the opposite. The only thing held to be newsworthy is what happens to individuals, which is presented in the most sensationalized way to invite you to imagine it was happening to you or someone you know. It tries to place you at the center of allegedly dramatic events and glamorizes the agency of indiviudals even as it obfuscates causal relatinoships. The Journal always at least posits a possible explanation for events it considers significant — market movements, political pronouncements, etc. TV news, especially local news, usually dispenses with an explanation of cause and effect, reporting news as simply inevitable, encouraging viewers to wallow in fatalism. I believe that there is no worse thing a person can do than watch the local news on television; it distorts reality dangerously, implants destructive ideological tendencies of fatalism, sensationalism, racism, bigotry, insecurity, parochialism, and fear in viewers; and it flatters viewers for their ignorance. A person would be much better off letting her children do nothing but play Grand Theft Auto instead.

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