IN HIS SOBERING BOOK “Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All,” retired CBS News correspondent Tom Fenton contends that history will view the current era as “a time when deceit and delusion so addled the public faculties that we became unable to locate reality.”
Yet for all the justifiable concern about political spin, waning media credibility and ideologues nullifying inconvenient facts for more comforting opinion, TV has only exacerbated these problems by largely abandoning the search for reality to embrace fluff and fantasy.
Concurrent streams of this tide include news-free newsmagazines and document-free documentaries, closer to electronic-press kits and Aesop’s Fables than Edward R. Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame,” though that’s at least an appropriate title.
Recent offenders ABC News, the Discovery Networks and “Entertainment Tonight,” with those broadcast bookends diving in for short-term sweeps glory. The cable giant’s orbit, meanwhile, keeps drifting further away from discovering much of anything, apparently preferring to make stuff up.
At Discovery, the result has been a string of peculiar productions like “Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real” and this week’s “Alien Planet” and “Animal Icons: Star Wars Creatures,” driven by the conclusion that life on this planet is no longer sufficiently interesting. “Alien Planet” speculates about encounters with CGI beasts, then seeks to legitimize its flight of fancy by having real scientists discuss them.
Not to be outdone, National Geographic Channel weighs in later this month with the similarly themed “Extraterrestrial.” “Bizarre” barely describes these attempts to clothe science fiction in science, which isn’t a reference to the pointy-headed species on “Darwin 4,” the Discovery project’s made-up planet.
Speaking of pointy heads, ABC — faced with the possibility of needing to replace Peter Jennings as he undergoes treatment for lung cancer — has chosen a strange time to make its existing on-air talent look so, well, un-anchorlike.
“Primetime’s” John Quinones won’t soon recover from the Paula Abdul/Corey Clark/”American Idol” story, which he treated like an episode of “America’s Most Wanted,” down to the funky leather jacket. Elizabeth Vargas, meanwhile, boldly demonstrated her journalistic willingness to pull her hair back in a warm climate to expose the shocking truth that ABC’s “Lost” is a big hit.
Such lapses would be less irritating if world events didn’t cry out for a little more attention and sobriety. And while the “Aren’t we at war?” lament only goes so far — OK, not every piece can emanate from Jerusalem — there’s cause to wonder how the next generation can develop their predecessors’ credentials and gravitas in the current environment.
“The talent coming up through the ranks simply may not have any real notion of hard-news standards as they used to be,” Fenton writes. “Raised on the entertainment news of the 1990s … how can they possibly accrue the authority and worldwide experience the job used to require?”
Mentioning “ET” in the same breath as news might sound like a reach, but the combination of its Mary Kay Letourneau interview and its gloves-off treatment of contributor Abdul contribute to the sense that standards have spun out of control. Indeed, the footwork necessary to feature Abdul on the show and still sidestep questions swirling around her about the overhyped “scandal” represented the kind of deft choreography that brought her fame.
The common thread on all this is that “reality” is just a state of mind with fungible boundaries, easily blurred, fantasized or fabricated for expediency’s sake. It’s the same mind-set that emboldens documentary filmmakers or producers of unscripted TV to take liberties in constructing their productions — occasionally shuffling the facts to augment a good story.
An explosion of choices, of course, has traditionally been cited as the marketplace solution to this dilemma. Former Federal Communications Commission chief Michael Powell was fond of saying that as long as there’s ample competition, viewers will be well served.
Increasingly, though, the abundance of choice merely heightens fears that less-upbeat news or more serious documentaries will be zapped away or, worse, ignored. “The profit motive can distort the news as surely as state control does,” Fenton argues, meaning “information flows more freely, but certainly not more impartially or accurately.”
It’s often said people get the news and entertainment they deserve, and if the public tunes out real news, an electorate more knowledgeable about Ewoks than Afghanistan is the unavoidable consequence. What’s worrisome, though, is that fewer outlets appear to even try selling genuine news and information, skipping directly to escapism.
Mythical planets and album-peddling would-be idols is a fine garnish to the infotainment smorgasbord. When that becomes the entire feast, however, trouble lies ahead, with the good-or-bad news proviso being that when it gets here, we won’t even know what hit us.