'Truth' Be Damned: The Fall of Television News

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Robert Redford plays iconic 'CBS Evening News' anchor Dan Rather in 'Truth.'
Robert Redford plays iconic 'CBS Evening News' anchor Dan Rather in 'Truth.'Credit: Courtesy

In this, our best of all impossible worlds, we have got used to being entertained by various forms of “visual art” on a screen – small, medium and big – in front of our eyes. And we have learned not to take the words and views beamed at us at face value: We accept the fact that our emotions and ideas are being manipulated by the people out there behind the screen, for their profit. Our being tuned in means big bucks for them, as they can sell air time (what can be called luftgesheft in the mame loshn) at a price based on us being (or not being) a multitude. The whole procedure was best summed up by that fabulous Hitchhiker to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams: “Television companies are not in the business of delivering television programs to their audience, they’re in the business of delivering audiences to their advertisers.”

Traditionally, the only area of TV fare that is supposed to be above such mean and unworthy motives is the news broadcast. It is meant to be a “public service,” gathering, assessing, editing and delivering “information” about things as they are, and as they happen to happen around the globe. The rest of on-air time in a given night-and-day period, after we have subtracted the accumulated span of news bulletins (assuming there is no “breaking news” to take over and preempt the program schedule) is supposed to pay for “the news,” which we expect to be independent, unbiased, fair and true.

Not the whole truth

But tradition does not mean a lot anymore in this, our best but still imperfect world. Times are changing, and most of us have learned – and accepted – that words like “independent,” “unbiased,” “fair” and “true” have lost a lot of their weight. The most we can say about the news bulletins is that they deliver to us some “truths” – as the anchors and reporters believe them to be at the time of going on-air. But they are far from being the “whole truth” and there is no way they can be “nothing but the truth.”

Some of us regret that this change in the value of “truth” in TV news has taken place. But, well aware that nothing much can be done about it – since a maid who lost her head cannot ever regain her maidenhead – we realize that the only remaining course of action is to eulogize the sacred institution of the TV newscast, along with its credibility-oozing anchor (who can be of either sex and any age, but more often than not is male, white and on the sunny side of elderly).

By Hollywood standards, this is a great story, worth telling again and again – of the disintegration of a lofty idea, wreaking havoc on the lives of the protagonists – courageous reporters, producers and researchers, who find themselves at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control. They perceived themselves as messengers in the service of the public and the truth, only to find that they are dispensable foot soldiers in a losing battle, noble losers all.

Obfuscating the issue

Hollywood has been eulogizing TV news for the last 40 years or so. It gave us the fictional “Network” (1976), about TV news becoming an “infotainment” hybrid meant to bring in ratings at any cost. In 2005 George Clooney produced and directed the “factional” (based on facts and fictionalized to a degree) “Good Night, and Good Luck,” about Edward R. Murrow, who, in the 1950s, together with a band of dedicated reporters and producers, took on Senator Joseph McCarthy. Now comes another factional film, “Truth,” set in 2004, when a TV news program – “60 Minutes” on CBS – tried to shed some light on President George W. Bush’s military career (actually, the lack thereof, or at least a gaping lacuna in it). It ended with the whole issue sidetracked; the show also effectively terminated the careers of a TV icon (Dan Rather, played by Robert Redford) and a respected TV news producer, Mary Mapes (played by Cate Blanchett).

The story is pretty straightforward: A segment on “60 Minutes” questioned the veracity of details about the National Guard service of the incumbent president, who was running for reelection. It implied that it had been his way of dodging the possibility of being sent to fight in the Vietnam War. The story was based on some leaked military memos, whose veracity (they were copies, not originals, and their provenance was unclear) was in some doubt. But what became much more important was the fact that the powers that be managed to obfuscate the issue. The main story – the reputation of the president – was drowned in a deluge of secondary items about verifying documents and stories about the reputation of the news team that broke the story.

The corporation that was supposed to provide a public service with its news broadcasts – CBS – cowered under political and commercial constraints. Instead of sticking by its own story and the ugly truth it contained, the network behaved like a survivor in a boat on a stormy sea, getting rid of embarrassing ballast (its own best people) and the truth be damned.

If you think this is only an American story, think again. In the current Breaking the Silence debacle, information about the behavior of some Israeli soldiers toward Palestinians in the occupied territories has been sidetracked and obfuscated by accusations of “unlawfully obtaining and disseminating secret military information” (later found to be groundless), and even charges of treason by the defense minister (later retracted).

Oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly at all, Louis C.K. had something to say about the subject of news in his e-mail announcing the ninth episode of his exciting new series “Horace & Pete.”

“Whenever a terrible thing happens in the world and you go to a news site to read about it, and they have a video of the terrible thing, there’s this strange experience when (if) you click on the video, which is that before you watch the awful thing, they show you a little advertisement. Just for that little awful video. Sometimes it’s very cheerful. 

“When the news used to be a single broadcast that you would watch on television, with commercial breaks, there was a sense that these companies bought advertising to pay for the news to be brought to you. 

“But now with sponsorship of individual moments of suffering, presented to comfortable gawking consumers, it feels like someone died in a far away place (so you don’t have to!) and now you get to watch. And it’s brought to you by Geico!  

“The thing that’s hard to avoid is that where there is money to be made, money will be made there. When the news is juicy, we buy more Snapple. 

“The truth is that the news, if you’re really paying attention, is complex and boring.”

At the end of the ninth episode of “Horace & Pete,” Louis C.K. pays tribute to Garry Shandling, a comedian who died last week, who was – among other things – one of the first to have shown us, on the TV screen, the underpinning of a TV talk show in his series “The Larry Sanders Show,” in the 1990s. The quote Louis chose to commemorate Shandling with is also oddly – or perhaps not – pertinent here: “The world is too noisy and distracted to probably ultimately survive. Everyone needs to shut the fuck up. The answers are in the silence. Monks set themselves on fire to protest and to make this point. Just consider it.”

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