The Personality of News
Last Wednesday Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made a statement of immense profundity and far reaching relevance it is a shame that it didn’t garner more attention than it did.
The comments, made to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, were about the quality and state of media outlets in the United States, specifically in contrast to the Al Jazeera network, and other foreign programming. A small indication of public interest in the subject matter, was the high number of user comments on an article that appeared on the Huffington Post; a whopping 9387 at the time of going to print.
“Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news,” Clinton said. “You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.”
Whatever your opinion of Hilary Clinton, and whatever her exact intentions in making these statements, there are some strong elements of truth in what she said that seriously need to be addressed.
More than just the talking heads which often bring relevant commentary and expertise is the culture of news personality that is more prevalent in the US than in any other country. Some of these personalities are actually reporters who have achieved renown in their fields, such as Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer. Others like Piers Morgan, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are show hosts, while Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly are news commentators. While the difference between these various capacities may be clear to some, the boundaries are increasingly blurring and many don’t make the distinction between what is news, what is analysis, what is opinion or commentary, and what is a spoof on the news.
Increasingly, for young people Comedy Central is a number one source for news. According to a Pew Research Center Poll for the People and the Press 21 percent of people aged between 19 and 29 cited “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live” as places where they regularly learn news.
A widely circulated video clip featuring a Megyn Kelly interview with Rep. Anthony Weiner regarding Justice Thomas and the Health Care Bill aptly demonstrates the blurring of the boundaries between the interviewer and the interviewee, opinion and fact, and between news and a news spoof. The lack of clear labeling and the popularity of television personalities have further significantly contributed to the breakdown in quality informative and sophisticated programming that the Secretary of State referred to.
The extreme relevance of the media’s role in society is twofold: firstly, just as the food one consumes physically becomes a part of us, so the information that is absorbed intimately influences peoples priorities, interests, opinions and actions both as individuals and as a nation. Many are super conscious about the food they eat and entire industries are built around organic, vegan and free range foods, but when it comes to information and media consumption few are selective at all. This point was starkly confirmed last week when I noticed that the front page of an issue of the AM New York newspaper, popular among commuters, was plastered with pictures of Charlie Sheen, while major turmoil in the Middle East, of vast importance to the balance of world power, were tucked away on page six.
Secondly as Clinton also indirectly pointed out, exposure through US media outlets around the world is often the first impression conveyed to foreigners, indicating what America is about, and what is important to Americans. America’s image in the international battleground of ideas is often represented by our news media outlets and opinions about America and Americans are formed based on what people see.
Al Jazeera, Clinton said, is “changing peoples’ minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective.” She added that U.S. news was not keeping up.
Of course, in content Al Jazeera is by no means a model network, and its reporting is riddled with factual misrepresentations and inaccuracies, but the concept of an outlet that focuses on news and happenings whose outcome will affect our future, is highly relevant. As consumers it is our duty to be selective and demand programming that reflects our real priorities.
If America is to present our best foot to media consumers around the world and we believe in the value of our way of life, we should take a page from Al Jazeera’s book, and focus on the personality of our news, and not the news of personalities.