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MAN BITES TOWN

THE OBJECTIVITY DIET : TV Feeds Us Bits of Bland Info. What We Need Is News With a View.

December 08, 1991|Harry Shearer

Are the media liberal or conservative? To fit in with current usage, I should probably ask, " Is the media liberal or conservative?" but, unfortunately, I prefer to use English. And by "the media," I mean, as does everybody else who raises that question, the single medium through which most people are foolish enough to try to get their information--television.

Many critics do raise that question these days. There is a newsletter that specializes in ferreting out liberal bias in network news judgment. There is another dedicated to pointing out the conservative faces that predominate among the usual suspects hauled in as experts.

The trouble is that the evidence either way is so good. Owners of media conglomerates tend to be on the rich, powerful and conservative side. People who work for them, strangely enough, share a different tendency. And ever since William Safire was a gag writer for Spiro Agnew, Republicans in power have been trying, with some success, to make the public dislike the media more than politicians. Meanwhile, activists from the left zero in on how many reporters live and eat dinner in the same parts of town as the powerful people they cover.

The "kill the messenger" syndrome--my current favorite syndrome, aside from the Stockholm--explains to some extent why both sides are so ready to flash "Tilt." The last couple of decades have brought us more than our share of bad news. Even our military victories have had a way of souring faster than yesterday's scallops. Arrested drug dealers are actually getting a pay hike thanks to all the money the feds are giving them as part of the massive effort to convict Noriega. And, of course, somebody "worse than Hitler" is still running a little nuclear research and Kurd-control operation out of Baghdad. World leadership, which seemed like such a crappy job when we had it, is slipping from our grasp. America is No. 1 only in the export of food and entertainment. We don't like hearing that, and we don't like the people who tell it to us.

Increasingly, they don't like telling it to us either. They'd rather tell us about random killing sprees or Bruce Willis' new movie. A man who runs one of the network newscasts told me two weeks before the invasion of Kuwait that "all that geopolitical stuff we used to cover is over." But what the networks do, and the way they do it, actually helps feed the public's cynicism.

Having sold themselves on the one about our decreasing attention span, news executives have made stories shorter and edited them more heavily, in the shot-a-second style of commercials. The more editing, the more decisions to leave things out--and the more obvious that process becomes. Their attempts at manipulation are so blatant that they encourage suspicions of manipulation.

But these same companies handled the news quite differently when they ran national radio networks half a century ago. The airwaves were filled with the "news and comment" programs of men whose voices, at least, said they were people of erudition and inside knowledge. Each would summarize the news and then, based on his known opinion of the world, tell you what to think about the day's events (Paul Harvey's program is the sole survivor of that period). From among Ed Murrow, Lowell Thomas, Fulton Lewis Jr., Edward P. Morgan, Chet Huntley, Gabriel Heatter and many more, Americans could choose the shade of liberalism or conservatism with which they wanted their news painted.

The network companies had not yet embraced the illusion that they were presenting one "objective" account of daily events. They were presenting a number of competing views. Opinions were clearly labeled, so nobody needed to go hunting for hidden biases.

Now that the networks have lost their privileged positions as the nation's foremost money machines and are scrambling to make a living, maybe they should turn the job of narrating the news video they purchase from free-lancers over to a group of commentators. Not matched pairs of opponents, squaring off stiffly in mini-debates more fake than Hulk Hogan vs. Roddy Piper, but opinionated individuals allowed to slant the world for us. What we'd lose in comprehensiveness we'd more than make up for in comprehension.

Of course, the networks will never revert to their radio ways. While the public views their reputation for objectivity as a pathetic or sinister myth, the only thing the networks value more than that reputation is their ability to move operations to right-to-work states.

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