Economic and political analysis-Window on culture-Media criticism

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Self-destructing media pulls us closer together

In a follow-up to last week's media critique, CBS stations are downsizing their news division, according to The New York Times. I'd been talking precisely about the profit imperative forced upon news divisions. Also, the content of news has been going down. It seems the ads are run more often as well.

While the CBS network isn't in itself cutting news personnel, its member stations are, which may be more of an indicator of broader trend towards curtailing local news coverage. In a profit oriented environment, minimizing the amount of localized content allows lower overhead, reduces a drain of cash flow. Localizing is a less financially viable strategy.

The flip side is that content suffers, and people notice. Ratings drop. This is the downside to consolidation, especially if the short-term profit motive rules. Over the long-term, however, the dumbing down, conversion to more entertainment news, depletes the attractiveness of the MSM stream. Advertisers are thus drawn away, reducing revenues, and spurring yet more reductions in overhead and degradation of content.

According to the New York Times, CBS is denying that it is in talks to outsource news gathering to CNN or other networks. This should be the ultimate concession to consolidation but in reality for CBS' national news to be suffering hints at some more severe problem than seeking out economies of scale or more fiscal efficiency.

It could well be that the weakened content is both a product and ongoing cause of shifting priorities determined by executive management. The weaker the news, the less appeal it has and in that way lowered viewership/readership actually justifies the additional cuts, etc..

Maybe the media moguls have an agenda to so weaken the news channels (control of which increasingly in the hands of fewer and fewer decision-makers) that viewers are driven away from news entirely. More likely, the corporate strategy of dumbing down content has back-fired and people have gone to the web. Reacting, the MSM companies race to the web, only to find the bloggers there already, dispensing more accurate content on a tiny fraction of their budget. The catch: they have to tell the truth there--sound bytes and creative majesty aren't enough to satisfy.

News is clearly more expensive to produce, but localization is clearly necessary. These are uncertain times we live in, and the general feeling I get is that something could happen at every given moment. While national news networks might focus in on a local news story, it will do so only under exceptional circumstances. Likewise, national sports might not cover local events, and the idea of cutting sports coverage would be counterproductive. I know many readers wouldn't subscribe to their newspapers were it not for the local sports content.

Media conglomerates must be attempting to forge a media environment that transcends geography, much in the same way transnational chains create the same ugly sprawl which makes one town indistinguishable from the next. On TV, such a monoculture should be easier and cheaper to manage as less localized content is needed.

It's unclear if the de-localization of news content will appeal to the local TV markets who collectively comprise a national audience, but one with little regional differences that might not respond favorably to monoculturalization.

Eroding local content might reduces competition with national networks that the MSM controls. The profitability of local stations might also seem secondary to the profitability of the whole entity. Clearly the advertising machine that are the MSM channels today is built towards a national audience. It may be easier to produce ads for a national audience, but people do identify with people who are near them perhaps more than they do with people who are like them. We've all seen those sports networks on our local TVs from a town that just isn't part of the general area that we live in. Why watch if you don't care? For the love of the sport? Perhaps. Yet for most locals the idea that we're just supposed to become amiable little fans for that distant city is ridiculous, as if we could switch allegiances as easily as we could change where we lived.

Socialization: From TV to the Internet

TV has long chaperoned the individualism of American society; TV allows a vast range of content. Yet it's worth remembering the TV began as inherently social gesture, a modern day equivalent of the radio or, to go farther back, the family hearth where some family member would tell a story.

A trend towards cocooning and atomization exists in our society. So much Internet-based entertainment now is instantaneous and anti-social to a degree. Yes, we can do many things online with our friends, but for the most part we are alone when we are on the internet. But even then we interact with people on the other end in instantaneous exchanges of digital communications, in chat rooms and forums. So there is no escaping the social relations element of media delivery, called peer networking in technobabble.

One would think the atomization means people enjoy the separation that comes with selfishly pursuing one's own interests in the media, to the exclusion of all other. Over time, people grow out of tune with one another, tuned out of what goes on in their communities.

People yearn for that other person on the other end. The internet does allow for unprecedented levels of anonymity, which can offer ample opportunity to disguise misdeeds as well as provide near total privacy. Yet the anonymity is really for the strangers, the people with whom we associate with no intent of wanting to make them into our friends.

On the other hand, the charm of the internet is really in the way it brings people who share common interests closer together. A doll collector, for instance, may only know a few who share their passion in their town. Given the internet, the doll collector is but a few clicks away from tens of thousands who share her interest all over the world--geography is not a limiting factor.

Also the web does not sleep, so people are limited more in their association with other by their daily schedules than they ever are by physical location. Not only is the communication ongoing and instantaneous, it's worldwide. There's a real power in talking to someone who share your beliefs despite the differences in culture.

Over time, web relationships can grow in ways that quickly outgrown whatever shared interest brought the web communicators together initially. Whether it's a political forum or a game of online gaming, people do get closer. I've played hundreds of hours with a Canadian named Greg and know more about him than I do some not-so distant relatives.

Enjoying the company of friends on the Web greatly improves the Web's stickiness. The Web does a better job of uniting strangers, but we shouldn't forget the power of localization. People who live together do in fact need interactions that build on their shared sense of identity. When the local team wins the Superbowl, you want to be part of the excitement. When a tragic event occurs, you want to know about it, and your neighbors too, so you can grieve or complain (a classic American pastime) together. TV--particularly local TV--has filled that gap between people. We are brought together through sharing the experience, even if it is delivered to us separately. Even when we confront some tragedy, the world is better off for having brought us closer to one another, in an age when we seem so separated.

Maybe it's this clinging to a primordial sense of family togetherness that has me wondering if the death of local news is really even possible. Perhaps I'm simply sentimental for the days when interacting with fellow humans was a deserving goal in itslef, and we perhaps did not need to share some common interest in order to associate with one another. For those who've ever been in network sales, simple conversation with a stranger or neighbor becomes a sales lead. Exploitive, perhaps, but isn't communicating with one another inherently valuable, if not crucial in the weaving the fabric of a society? We clearly don't do enough.

We Americans may well have lost our ability to small talk. It may be no coincidence that we also seem to be grievously lacking in our appreciation of the simpler pleasures and a slower life. Every technological advancement seems to bring with it more attention deficit disorder, more urgency to move on to the next greatest thing, to shop and to consume. The media has gravitated to commericalism over time, and as the number of channels has exploded so too has the quantity of commercial messages that bombard us every day. I wonder if it's not the intent of the media in general to fan our every little want into a immediate need--I must have it now!

Even as we drive ourselves to ever greater feats of consumption, we're forced to confront the massive resource depletion that accompanies a society that worships such a lifestyle. To this collective groan we Americans--creative problem-solvers that we are--answer "Go Green!" And we do, shifting gradually towards a more sustainable lifestyle. As our country greens, it does so more in reaction to the distances that have grown between us, in response not just to environmental challenges but the dearth of connectivity that we yearn for in a society that is high on consumerism and dead on more wholesome values.

Miniaturizing one's world to just exist withing one small realm on the Internet isn't practical beyond some freaks in Tokyo, who dwell in near perpetuity obsessed with some teenage idol or bizarre cult-like fixation on manga characters, etc.. Friends don't matter to these people, they do not however describe the mainstream in Japan or anywhere else. They'd rather not face the outside world, escape in their compulsive behavior. Society tolerates them, assuming their fixation involves no innocents, and the phenomena goes on.

Sustaining Myth

The media networks want us to consume the news much like we'd consume any other product. This theory would have us buy into media brands over the long-term, instilling personal loyalty into the brand. Obviously to stimulate a more captive audience, feel-good news and human interest stories appeal more than addressing hard facts and hardcore international events about which most Americans really know very little. We Americans do feel compelled to safeguard emotions, because we tend to value happiness over realism, given the choice.

Now as Iraq unfolds into the fiasco it's always been, many average Americans will turn to the story. The more they learn about what really goes on there, the more they are likely to be antiwar. It's the people who don't care to know that are suspicious because they carry their ignorance with pride. Unfortunately, in many parts of American, dissent has been equated with disloyalty to the point that many are skeptical of the mass media's "liberal agenda" and simply dismiss negative news.

The MSM has greatly reduced Iraq coverage in recent months. Perhaps John McCain best summarized the opinions of millions of Americans when he said Iraq is returning to normal. What's expected is for a Republican to back the war, perhaps what's a surprise is the truly astounding depths of McCain's ignorance concerning the situation. Americans who get their news from the MSM, which effectively censors negative news from Iraq simply by not covering the war, are more likely not to know the extent of the tragedy that unfolds there, and are thus more likely to nurture the impression of progess.

McCain, who on his previous visit to Iraq toured a Baghdad market with attack helicopter hovering behind him, makes no effort whatsoever to explain his opinions. It's as is he says, come with me my children, to the wonderful world of make-believe where we are the good guys and we always win (but for lack of faith.) That world, and the Great Lie that nurtures it, has become a new religion for the stalwart defenders on the Right, who persist in the belief that for every problem in the world, the US military has a solution that is right, just, and inevitably successful.

The impunity with which McCain is willing to violate the public trust, and persist in the Great Lie, is a great indicator of character. He's essentially broadcasting the idea that the US will set victory terms unconditionally, on its terms, regardless. This is logically perverse, as one would thing that "returning to normal" would be indicative of progress towards victory, which can be the only way out for McCain, defined in whatever way he chooses (yet he, like Bush, consistently refuses to define the conditions under any circumstances.)

The domestic political message McCain wants sent is that no matter how long it takes, he will support the ongoing use of military force. Results are really secondary. His likely supporters in the fall identify with this position, even if they know the position isn't supported by the facts, or that 100 years in Iraq isn't such a good idea. It's simply the butchness factor, the idea that by equating commitment level to the probability of success. Not so easily done, Vietnam proved. Unfortunately McCain and his headstrong cadre want to push their loyalty ever father should he be elected. Under this philosophy, we might still be in Vietnam, if we hadn't been bankrupted or our society ripped apart by our differences of opinion on the war.



  • At 1:13 AM, Blogger jbpeebles said…

    I just posted this on smirkingchimp. The original article is by Robert Parry. Here is my post:

    "WaPo alligators surface"

    Post editorialists have a way of popping back up on the oped pages of countless millions via syndication. Just when you think it's safe to go back in the water...

    Talking heads dominate the MSM. It's not a coincidence that readership is way down--corporate consolidation has sacrificed content. The dumbing down doesn't pay and the MSM is losing to the web, where truth and objectivity are still values, or at least can be found.

    I just blogged on this topic. Media consolidation is a trend, it's impact on news media has been very self-destructive, to the point the conglomerates are losing too much. The root cause is the dumbing down of content--converting original hard news content into infotainment garbage.

    I also don't know if advance of right wing causes in the media is the designed intent of corporate consolidation. Clearly the more liberal ABC/NBC/CBS news anchor days are a casualty...



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