Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 3.26.09

Feeding Our Need
Media help us understand our world
by Todd Huffman, M.D.

Since the early days of television, Americans have relied on the national networks to provide them with 30 minutes of evening news, telling the day laborer all the marvelous and terrible things they missed that happened last night and today all over this world.

For those with the time, the morning newspaper has always been invaluable, and before television its news was exclusive. But since the advent of television its value has come more from its in-depth analysis of the stories already caught on the television news last evening.

However, as we are daily reminded, newspaper readership is sadly on the decline in America. In this age of frenetic mornings leading off overlong workdays sandwiched by lengthy drive times and followed by overbooked evenings, fewer of us have time to read the instructions on our microwaveable meals, let alone the newspaper.

In this age of new media, we want our information the same as we want our food: fast, and already prepared for our quick consumption.

For more and more of us, television news is the only way we get news, assuming we get any at all. Sure, some of us find our fill of news by browsing through the ubiquitous Internet news and opinion sites. But more likely is that if we’re logging on, we’re only just catching up with our cyber-societies of like-minded folk joined in manic Internet blab accomplishing little more than reinforcing each other’s indignation. 

With such an awesome responsibility as often the sole harbinger of news good and bad, we should expect much from our television media. Instead, we get the titillation of the trivial.

We get breathless blondes reporting on missing blondes. We get entirely uncritical fascination with unreal celebrities. We get insipid “conversations” between shouting talking heads.

And worst of all, we get utterly spineless reporting with no edge, no slash and bite, no grabbing on and not letting go.  

Television news no longer provides genuine news about the world. Instead it mostly settles for brief and superficial words and images. It serves only to draw in the highest viewership to generate the highest advertising dollar for the most shareholder profit. And it does so by competing in the business of hype and fear.

Truthfulness and accuracy have little pull at all anymore; only the most fantastical, the most horrible, and the most simplified are served up for public consumption. And we eat it, and eat it greedily, until we’ve become obese in mind and scared in spirit.

There’s so much newsworthy going on in this vast and wonderful world of ours every day. Good news and bad pours forth day after day, much of it trite and dull and boring, but so much more so necessary and fascinating that we require computers and newspapers, radios and televisions to grab at it all for bits and pieces for which to keep in hopes of one day understanding some part of how the larger world works.

So when broadcast media, the only source of news for many of us, is more interested in pursuing audience share and turning a profit, it fails in its basic journalistic responsibilities to serve as witness to injustice and as watchdog over the powerful, and we’re all the poorer for it.

When television “journalists” want always to pitch a fight between polarized views rather than convening public discussions to find serious answers, we’re all the poorer for it.

When television news substitutes emotion for fact, feel-good human interest stories for hard-nosed reporting, and sound bites for political discourse, we’re all the poorer for it.

Which is why we need, and will always need newspapers. Their death will be the death of democracy. It won’t be obvious at first, for there’ll be no papers in which to print the obituary.

 Todd Huffman, M.D., is a Eugene pediatrician.