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The other night, I succumbed to temptation. I lapped up every second of 60 Minutes’ Stormy Daniels interview, just like 20 million Americans and countless others around the world. My only regret was that there wasn’t more, which might explain why the ratings dropped off so precipitously. Once Daniels had made her exit, who needed to keep watching? The show started with a climax, so to speak, and went down from there.
I left the program feeling deflated. But it wasn’t because the interview disappointed. It was because I’d bought into the argument that it mattered in the first place, that everything to do with Daniels is Real News.
Real News is what’s going on in Syria and Yemen and Saudi Arabia and Iran. Real News is the hundreds of thousands of students who demonstrated in favor of gun control. Real News is the horror that 700,000-plus DACA kids may face if the government deports them. Real News is a budget that was just passed, with such token coverage by the broadcast media that I couldn’t even tell you what was in it.
Landing an interview with the porn star was a terrific scoop for Anderson Cooper, but it further lowered an already low bar on broadcast and cable. It was the kind of thing once reserved for the tabloids, until the dividing line between tabloid and mainstream vanished with the Monica Lewinsky scandal that came to light exactly a quarter-century ago.
Twenty-five years since the media indulged in an orgy of Lewinsky coverage, nothing’s changed for the better. The sordid and the squalid are still given priority over anything that might shape actual lives.
Sure, 60 Minutes tricked up its interview with talk of campaign finance and the legal risks to President Trump, just like all the news media that have been breathless in Daniels’ pursuit; but deep down, its producers knew we were looking for smut. We were eager for dirt, anxious to glean any detail of licks and tickles and bites. We wanted the licentious, the kind that Standards and Practices probably would never have permitted on the air.
There’s nothing wrong with that — to a degree. But in giving Daniels and her peers so much attention, TV is leaving no room for anything else. Switch on the evening news and you barely get a glimpse of the important events around the world. Turn on cable and it’s even worse: an endless recycling of the same three or four stories, with nary a sop to Brexit or the UN or the refugee crisis that’s upending nation states and devastating millions of lives.
I search in vain to find out what’s going on with the Rohingya, or the Yazidis, or even some of the hard-hit people here in America. I delve deep for some insight into Congress or the State Department or the CIA, the kind of information I need to know, just as all of us will need to know it when we come to vote. If it weren’t for some great newspapers and online resources, I’d never get any answers at all. There’s a vast iceberg of information hidden beneath the sloshing waves of on-air gossip that never sees the light of day.
Those stories don’t get ratings, whereas anything combining sex and a president always does. And so that’s what television follows, even the networks that are legally obliged to serve the public good.
For a few brief moments, back in the 1980s, things looked like they might be different. When Ted Turner launched his brilliant and brazen creation, CNN, for the first time we had the promise of access to all the news, all the time. This was incredibly important. It opened people’s eyes to injustice and oppression, both domestically and internationally, and did so with none of the sensationalism that now dominates so much coverage. It allowed us to see the world with at least an attempt at objectivity before the punditocracy took over and made subjectivity the order of the day.
That’s long gone now. Today, Real News is hard to find, just when we need it most. Real News breaks down the barriers between people and places, makes us understand and therefore empathize with men and women whose lives are far removed from our own. Real News informs but doesn’t incite. Real News persuades but never panders.
What we’re getting on our TV screens does the exact opposite. It makes things that matter seem like they don’t, and things that don’t matter seem like they do. It removes context. It amplifies argument. It draws on our emotions rather than the rational parts of our being. It lifts Stormy Daniels from a footnote to a headline.
True, there are places on television where Real News survives — PBS and the BBC, among the few. But for the millions and millions who get their news elsewhere on TV, it’s a steady diet of the titillating and the trivial.
I don’t blame 60 Minutes for catering to this. They landed an interview that everyone (myself included) would have been thrilled to get. But in putting it front and center, they’re adding to our distorted view of reality. This isn’t Real News; it’s as fake as the stuff Trump keeps talking about.
Trump’s right when he warns of Fake News; he’s just wrong in his definition.
Fake News is brisk and bellicose. It snaps and crackles and pops. It has no more substance than popcorn, but, sprinkled with butter and salt, it’s just as addictive. Who on earth would want Real News when Fake News tastes so much better?
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