Monday, April 23, 2007

It Gets Ratings, But Is It News?

Sunday papers don't ask no questions
Sunday papers don't get no lies
Sunday papers don't raise objection
Sunday papers don't got no eyes
- Joe Jackson's "Sunday Papers" from his 1979 debut album "Look Sharp!"

I recently discovered a use for my TiVo that undoubtedly was not intended by its creators. My TiVo can help me separate real news stories from media-fueled nonsense. No, there is not a macro you can program into your remote to do this. It is way simpler than that.

When I watch something I've recorded on TiVo and use the fast-forward button to skip through the commercials, invariably the last two or three seconds of the break will be visible before the show starts. And, quite often, that time period is filled by a news teaser (e.g., "Dinosaurs at Michael Jackson's house? Find out at eleven."). When a week or so has gone by between the recording of the show and the day I watch it, the news cycle has had a chance to churn a few times, usually leaving the item teased by the breathless newscaster quite out-of-date.

That's the mechanism of the unintended TiVo feature. If the breathlessness of the anchor seems justified, the story was worthy of being covered with such ardor. If not? Well, then the nonsense detector goes off, loud and clear.

I was watching a show over the weekend on TiVo when I caught a newscaster tease, "Will Imus survive? Find out at eleven." Since Imus's suddenly-memory-impaired employers ushered the mean-spirited geezer off the plank, a madman has gone nuts on a Virginia college campus, hundreds of Iraqis have been blown up, Alberto Gonzales revealed himself to be useless to both the Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary committee, and President Bush continued on in a self-deluded, deity-assured haze, expressing confidence in the universally derided Attorney General while failing to admit what is going on in Iraq. In retrospect, the volume and duration of the Imus coverage seems even more ridiculous than it did at the time.

Or, put another way, the Imus story failed the TiVo retroactive breathlessness test. Clearly the Virginia Tech massacre will pass this standard, while Anna Nicole Smith's death will fail it. In 20 years, people will still be talking about the tragedy in Blacksburg, but will anyone care about the overdose of a minor reality television star?

As time passes, how much of the Viriginia Tech coverage will pass the TiVo test? Certainly, the massacre itself will be a news story for years to come. Forty years after the fact, the tower shootings at the University of Texas are a part of our history. And, in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, networks correctly sought to explain the details of the tragedy: Did the gunman know the first victim? What about the professor in the first class he went to? Why was there a break between the two sets of shootings? But now? The networks stepped on their first landmine when they repeatedly aired the video made by the killer. With classes resuming today, it would seem to be a natural end to the actual news story. Will that stop the networks to stop the massive coverage of the murders? Probably not. The coverage in the days to come is likely to fail the TiVo test.

The problem, of course, is that what gets ratings today has nothing to do with what is important or what will resonate in years to come.

So, does it matter? Should we care what the media covers? Absolutely. The media makes decisions all the time that has important, lasting effects. They aired the gunman's rambling rant on the air almost exclusively for a day, but a soldier's flag-draped casket is verboten from the American airwaves. Why? Because it humanizes the soldiers that are dying in Iraq. It's easier for the administration if Americans think of the casualties as nameless, faceless, bodyless, familyless statistics, instead of the living, breathing human lives that were ended.

The Virginia Tech massacre was certainly a profound tragedy and a legitimate news story. But, it was not the only news story. As I listed above, there are some major things going on in this country that strike at the heart of what kind of future we can expect. If 33 deaths in one day in Virginia is a catastrophe (and it is), what about the deaths, usually far more than 33, that happen every day in Iraq? But, like the American soldiers, these Iraqi casualties are nameless and faceless. They are only statistics, just the way the administration wants it.

While the media furiously tries to figure out the "why" of the Blacksburg shootings, we know why Iraqis are dying. A president bursting with arrogance, hubris, a lack of understanding of the world, and the words of the lord in his ear decided to start a foolish, catastrophic war in Iraq, a pit of quicksand that is slowly inching its way above the country's collar line.

The Virginia Tech tragedy is sad, but Iraq is a problem that will plague this country for the foreseeable future. Congress is supposed to provide Bush with a bill this week to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that includes a timetable for troop withdrawals. Bush says he will veto it. The media needs to cover the story so that the White House sound bites and talking points don't throw up smoke and mirrors to divert the story from the truth of what the American people have voted for, and what is really happening in Iraq.

If the media turns into Joe Jackson's Sunday papers and buries the story behind the next Imus or Anna Nicole in waiting, more Americans will die in Iraq. And while we won't see their caskets, the deaths will be every bit as real as the ones in Virginia last week. Iraq is a story that will pass the TiVo test with flying colors. Now if only the networks will treat it that way.