David Post wonders how much our news culture distorts the information we consume.
I call it the ESPN Effect – mistaking filtered reality for reality. We do it a lot. All I hear from my left-leaning friends these days is how crazy people on the right are becoming, and all all I hear from my right-leaning friends is how crazy people on the left are becoming, and everyone, on both sides, seems very eager to provide evidence of the utter lunacy of those on the other side. “Look how crazy they’re becoming over there, on the other side!” is becoming something of a dominant trope, on left and right. It is true that we’re seeing more crazy people doing crazy things on the other side (whichever side that may be, for you) coming across our eyeballs these days. But that’s all filtered reality; it bears no more relationship to reality than the Sportscenter highlights bear to the game of baseball.
Back in the 1990’s, the Phoenix Suns drafted this cat named Chris Carr out of Southern Illinois. Because he was athletic and dunked on people pretty ferociously, he regularly made it onto SportsCenter. The thing was, he had a lot of holes in his game and he didn’t actually play that much, and bounced around the League for a few years before going to play overseas. But if you had only watched SportsCenter, you would have sworn dude was a future All-Star instead of a role player,* because television news’s inclination toward spectacle comes at the expense of context.
As egregious as ESPN is, that soul-crushing parade of bloviation is tonally indistinguishable from what you’d see on CNN. It’s the nature of an image-centered medium; it’s harder for a TV reporter to make dry events like city council meetings visually compelling, which is why the local 11 o’clock broadcasts always lead with crime or fire stories. (If they really considered fires and shootings “important” stories, you’d see stations circle back to those stories at some point to cover the aftermath, and yet they never, ever do.)
This is especially problematic when it comes to important, complicated issues like health care reform, which is why we spent all August seeing footage of really, really dumb people yelling nonsense at members of Congress instead of explanations of the various bills being debated. (I guess this is actually marginally better than our usual “rash of shark attacks” or The Annual Missing White Girl Search in that it bears some loose relationship to social consequence.) The most camera-friendly voices on policy issues are usually the ones that are the loudest and most outrageous, but not necessarily the ones those are best-informed. For obvious reasons, this is kinda terrifying. I think the lunacy we’re seeing on the right is real, but our media landscape — which will lead broadcasts with violent crime stories regardless of whether crime rates are falling or dropping — make it hard to figure out how widespread it is or how deep it runs.
Still, none of this really explains why local TV stations or national networks never endeavor to do any original investigative reporting. (As blackink and quadmoniker can attest, local stations just follow-up on the legwork done by dogged print reporters.) Stories that do become national news via TV outlets are almost always pseudo-events, like when prominent politicians say something stupid or wacky in front of a camera or a live mike. It’s almost always an accident; the stories have to fall into their laps. There’s an irony in broadcast journalism making the strongest case for why we need newspapers to survive.
*Meanwhile, Mitch Richmond, a consistent, unflashy player, put in Hall of Fame-caliber work for Sacramento while no one was looking.