Thursday, November 21, 2013
Once upon a time, they called it Tabloid Journalism ...
Of course that was before economics forced many newspapers to down-size their formats to such an extent that an unfolded broadsheet (standard format) newspaper was little larger than the smaller versions that their big brothers denigrated.
While the Tabloid format was easier to read, such newspapers were often known for over-large headlines, racy photography, and stories that were often a rather curious blend of fact and all-but-speculative fiction. From the sleazy grocery store tabloids (most of which are now magazines) to major city commuter alternatives in New York and Chicago, there was always a certain taint to such publications.
Over time, many of these lesser publications established themselves as real players in an ever shrinking market with hard-hitting investigative reporting, award-winning photography, and a willingness to take on issues that their more traditional and staid brethren refused to. Over much of the same period, many weekly newspapers moved from their original broadsheet format to the Tabloid one in order to take advantage of the readability factor and ever-changing postal regulations.
This is not to say that Tabloid journalism didn't eventually make its way from the printed page to the small screen. "Inside Edition" (where Bill O'Reilly spent 5 years) and "A Current Affair" were two early examples of faux news programs that covered red carpet events, new movies, and of celebrity scandals as if they were hard-hitting news. Racy pictures and less content in fact seemed to fit this Tabloid evolution to a "T".
Then of course came the 24-hour news networks with CNN and C-Span on one side and ESPN on the other, taking the place of two traditional newspaper sections. It wasn't long however before we had an alphabet soup of news networks, some attempting to break new ground and others content as mere spin-offs. As each tried to establish its own place in the market, they likewise needed to define themselves by how much "Tabloid Journalism" they would include in their offerings. As each evolved from 'news only' to 'news and commentary', the lines seemed to become even more blurred.
Television after all, is a medium that's defined by its ratings as much as its content. Unable to rely on the support of prime-time scripted television to support those efforts as the Big 3 always did, these new News Networks had to be self sustaining. While certainly the journalism component would establish their credentials, it would be their prime time offerings that would pay the bills.
All this is a roundabout way of say that it should be of little surprise to anyone that many of these news networks have allowed themselves to be seduced by the Dark Side of tabloid journalism. Having taken the worst from their network counterparts and the seamy side of newspapers and magazines, some of these efforts are increasingly becoming the worst of all worlds.
Now their prime time lineups are filled with hosts who titillate with only the most scandalous headlines from around the world. Which politician has a addiction problem (Toronto / Florida)? Which politicians or political party is suffering the biggest drops in popularity? Which government's leaders have been caught literally or figuratively exposing themselves to ridicule? Which of the latest proposals from one party or the other can be twisted into the biggest scandals?
From presidential popularity to the latest Obamacare website scandal, which recent controversy can be turned to a ratings advantage? Which political dishonor by one party or the other can be turned into a dishonest roundtable dialogue of true deliberation? Which guests can be counted on to create a 'Jerry Springer Circus' of interruption, contention, and high volume confrontation to glue the audience to their seats?
This is not to say that all such efforts are completely without merit or that this is the only thing that these networks do; but like so many things in life, this medium lives on a slippery slope. Each of them, having once chosen 'the sizzle rather than the steak', now finds themselves slipping ever farther down the dark path in order to keep up. The never ending battle to compete in the ratings wars has them constantly seeking new ways to ratchet up the repartee to a constant frenzy.
The losers in all of this of course, are we the viewers. Like a movie that keeps you constantly on the edge of your seat, their attempts cause our attention spans to burn out. Regardless of what these efforts seek, no one can maintain such a level of hysteria without finally succumbing to exhaustion.
Little surprise then, that so many viewers turn instead to reality shows, period dramas, and movie escapism. Many of us add insult to injury (including yours truly) by decrying a lack of interest by this audience wearied of world affairs around them, and views this apparent abandonment as a lack of passionate patriotism. The world is a difficult enough place to deal with however, without the manufactured madness and 24 hour-a-day mania that these 'news' programs now cheerfully espouse for no better reason than ratings and corporate profits.
Call this capitalism's practical media's dishonest dissimulation if you will. You can even call it the mass insightment of indifferent insanity (if you want to get fancy). I however, will simply settle for calling this mainstream media masquerade of purporting to be news little more than the latest version of Tabloid reporting, and Scandalous.