There’s a saying about local TV news: If it bleeds it leads. Car crashes, fires, train derailments, toppled building cranes and, of course, shootings all sell. Most national media aren’t all that different. Maybe that’s why we haven’t heard much lately about Syrian refugees.
Weeks ago, refugees and migrants dominated the media. Drowned bodies—particularly that of a young boy—appeared on TV daily. So did images of squalid camps, blocked border crossings and more fortunate people cramming trains to Germany. But that was then. This is now.
We’ve had another mass killing—this one in Southern Oregon. Floods ravaged South Carolina. Mudslides hit Southern California. And the presidential campaign continues. Donald Trump boasts. Ben Carson dissembles. Republicans point fingers at Hillary Clinton’s server. Still, Tuesday’s Democratic debate focused on issues and pulled outstanding ratings. Israel might again dominate the headlines, but Palestinians haven’t stabbed, shot and run over enough Jews yet to draw sufficient blood and thus major media attention.
Getting back to refugees, you’ll find updated news and commentary on the Internet, but you have to look. Yesterday, Reuters (Yahoo News) reported on talks between the European Union and Turkey to stem the refugee flow to Europe. The New York Times online posted a similar article although you had to scroll. Moreover, the printed San Francisco Chronicle ran a small page-four article (Associated Press) on refugee kids in Berlin schools.
PBS and NPR provide updates and context on key issues, but their well-educated markets are relatively small. Attaining numbers demands violence and tragedy. Cable news eagerly devotes coverage to such matters, repeating clips and comments over and again given much airtime to fill and often scant information. The networks have little time for background and context. For example, the CBS Evening News runs eight-and-a-half minutes of commercials in a 28-minute broadcast, which always concludes with a heartwarming story.
Of course, there’s print media. But most Americans don’t pick up a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist, Weekly Standard, Atlantic or Foreign Affairs. Yes, some read these online. But many don’t read newspapers and magazines at all other than those at supermarket checkout stands.
I mentioned network TV news. Competition from cable news remains intense, so the networks experiment with quasi-sensationalism. Recently, CBS weeknight and 60 Minutes anchor Scott Pelley appeared out of control as he challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin kept cool. Pelley came off as the bully. Charlie Rose, known for his calm, respectful demeanor, seemed almost to leap from his chair when he interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I’m not a fan of Bibi, although this has nothing to do with my support for Israel’s security. Still, Bibi remained tranquil and thoughtful—and looked very good. Not so, Charlie. I suspect that new instructions have come down from CBS HQ: be serious journalists again, not advocates or provocateurs.
The media plays a crucial role in helping Americans make decisions. It doesn’t play it well when it dwells on the latest violent act, often marked by sound bites, inflammatory comments and inane commentary. As the classic TV show The X Files put it: The truth is out there. If Americans look for it, they’ll find it. That is, if they want to.
The blog will take off on October 23 and return on October 30.
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