Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Empty Theatrical Motions of Cable News

I was momentarily perplexed during the holidays watching the alleged news on cable television. Numerous shows - especially those on the CNN which is hemorrhaging viewers - are barely gossip. Their format tends to be A) report some story and then B) get viewers to comment on the story via Twitter or Facebook or email or sometimes by phone. That's news? That's reporting?

An old news axiom says if a reporter goes out "on the street" and gets one person to support something, another to oppose it and a third who has no opinion, then that reporter has submitted nothing as news.

This "what do you think - lets us know" formula has only brought tumbling ratings to CNN, but they continue.

Other cable news outlets - FOX and MSNBC - offer, at best, what I call the Bobblehead Report. An anchor sits at a desk, inserts of two or three other "professional commentators" are added, and you the viewer are left with nothing again. Oh, they argue passionately - one supporting, one opposing, one unsure of anything - offering the viewer another slab of nothing. At best, the anchor then gets a "final word" claiming that "word" finally defines the issue at hand.

At the end of 2010, a report on cable news ratings showed that the O'Reilly Report was the top-rated cable news show, followed by other FOX shows hosted by Hannity and Beck and Sustern, etc etc. But the real story is that the average high ratings of O'Reilly's 3.1 million viewers is pretty low among all cable viewing. The wrestling broadcasts of WWE, for example, tend to be highest, with some 5.7 million viewers, followed by more WWE, NCIS reruns and Spongebob Squarepants.

As I said, I was momentarily perplexed - then I realized that cable news is competing for viewers who watch wrestling (in far higher numbers). So to compete, news has become a verbal wrestling match. Cable news cannot and does not offer information, in the same way that wrestling is not presenting a sport.

Both simply present spectacle as entertainment.

Writer Roland Barthes laid out this scenario - which matches today's cable news business - quite succinctly in 1957:

The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. ... The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.

"Thus the function of the wrestler is not to win: it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.

"Wrestling therefore demands an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings, so that there is no need to connect them. The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result."

See Also: O'Reilly: "I saved Spongebob single-handedly."


  1. Anonymous12:43 AM

    Profoundly, and sadly, true.

  2. Richard Cook10:25 AM

    Hell yes Joe!!!

    Journalism, which in the dreamy past, was to inform the citizens of a vibrant democracy, has certainly turned into spectacle.

    There is a central issue which nobody on cable wants to talk about because it is too damn hard to tackle.

    What is the proper role of government in our lives? This is not a static idea, it changes over time. This is the main issue, I think, of our time. Cable can't deal with such a crucial question.