The problem with television is that when the people on it are telling you one thing, they are not telling you a lot of other things.
Television is what I call a linear medium. It streams information at you one batch at a time. In contrast, a newspaper is a horizontal medium. It presents you with a variety of information in its daily package, spread out so you can pick and choose what you wish to read.
Last week, when television cable news was obsessing over the Paris Hilton non-story, it was, of course, depriving viewers of news about much more important topics, such as the goings-on in Congress, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the economy, the environment and the energy crisis. It’s hard to think of anything that is not more important than a silly heiress doing her time for violating the terms of her probation.
Then, to compound their sin of shallow-minded celebrity worship, some of the cable news people tried to blame it on Miss Hilton. That is obscenely stupid. The young woman goes places, but she has no power over the media, no way to manipulate them, no way to set their agenda. No celebrity commands the thundering herd of paparazzi and certainly does not make assignments for cable news shows.
I once got so disgusted with the pseudo-news on the cable channels than I canceled the service. Alas, I missed the old movies and the baseball games, so I’ve had it reconnected. Cable news is now worse than it ever was. The amount of factual information you can glean from watching cable news 24 hours a day wouldn’t fill a 3-by-5 card.
Most of what passes for cable news is really television talk shows. Some of them interview print journalists, a dead giveaway to the fact that they do virtually no original reporting on their own. They don’t seem to have many reporters. They have on-camera talent, people who stand in front of the camera and tell you in 30 seconds something the government has said. They are mouthpieces for the government.
Watch, for example, something that happens in the morning and note how little the announcers know about it. Then watch that evening and note how little they still know about it. In other words, they do virtually no reporting.
The other sin they commit is mixing trivia with the thin gruel they serve as news. If they get video of a police chase, a random murder, a flash flood, a warehouse fire or a monkey that sleeps with a dog, it goes on the air. Clearly they believe their only duty is to amuse you.
The trouble is, self-government doesn’t work if the people are idiots. It doesn’t work if you don’t know what you need to know while your brain is cluttered up with trivia, tripe and non-sense. Unless you are a parent or a friend of a celebrity, there is zero need to know anything about the person.
Americans desperately need to read more, and to watch and listen less. The Founding Fathers played a dirty trick on people when they gave them a free society. You can coast in a dictatorship, but in a free society you have to work hard to stay informed so that you can make the right decisions at election time.
Newspapers have their faults, but if they vanish in the sea of functional illiteracy, it won’t be long before the last semblance of a free society disappears along with them.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.