TV Timeout


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When Justin Timberlake brought sexy back, the collective cultural response was something similar to “Did it ever leave in the first place?” 

It strikes me as odd, then, that when Jon Stewart declared recently that it was time to restore sanity to the TV news landscape, few people chimed in to ask him whether a sane TV newscast had ever existed.

Let’s just say I have my doubts.

There are two components of the rallying cry “Restore sanity!” that I take issue with.
First, the aforementioned assertion that sanity has been lost and can — must! — be somehow regained. Second is the implication that a “sane” newscast is one which inexplicably knows and is capable of delineating a “correct” view of events.

We have a storied history in this country of praising journalists, especially television journalists, for their impartiality and commitment to getting the story right.

Their names still echo in the studios of the major networks: Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and Peter Jennings, to name a few.

Let me be clear: I think the names I mentioned above are worthy of the recognition and praise for being great television journalists. They did their jobs admirably and were often calming, thoughtful, stoic presences on television during times of crisis.

What I take issue with is our idolization of them, as though they were some sort of Atlas holding up the world exactly the right way so all their viewers could see exactly what the problem was.

But what qualifies as news has changed drastically over time. In fact, since television saturated American homes in the 1950s, news has shifted from a radio report of local events that directly impacted area listeners to a list of events from around the world — with accompanying images and video — that have no direct impact on the viewer.

This shift from what media scholars call contextual to contextless information was one of the factors which lead to the integration of sports and entertainment news with the local, national, weather and world events portions of newscasts, a shift that has typically been scapegoated as the end of quality television news. 

The point is that television news is constantly evolving as the definition of newsworthiness continues to be culturally constructed. 

Jon Stewart is asking for a redefinition of newsworthiness. He believes that the current definition, which holds the opinionated hosts and programs of FOX News and MSNBC equal with milquetoast CNN and the floundering network newscasts, is the opposite of sanity.

I think he’s living in a bit of a fantasy world. News is not merely facts laid out for viewers to absorb, and viewers will not absorb these facts in the same way; news is a narrative, a cause-and-effect linkage of events that privileges certain details over others.

All narratives by definition have viewpoints — and therefore a bias — based on which details are included and which are excluded.

A bias is not a lie, nor is it misinformation. It’s just a bias, and every person and the news organization they happen to work for has one.

Insanity isn’t the presence of multiple biases — it’s the idea that an unbiased viewpoint even exists. In fact, I don’t know what’s more sane than the presence of multiple biases.

The real trouble is that too many people only consume one narrative. What Jon Stewart usually does — and is far more successful at doing — is educating viewers on how to interpret multiple narratives to form a more complete picture of events. 

Educating viewers — that’s a movement I can get behind.

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