I’m old enough to remember when TV nightly news programs went from fifteen minutes to thirty minutes. When this change happened, the only difference was the use of more v ideo, which reminded people they were watching TV and not listening to the radio. The anchor would read a story and then a film clip would be shown. This process would be repeated several times throughout the show until the anchor said, “Good night.” Then viewers could sit back and watch shows like I Love Lucy or The Ed Sullivan Show, which was the reason for turning on the TV in the first place. Lucy made people laugh and Ed had great acts, like some guy spinning plates on long sticks while riding a unicycle.
People were simply not that interested in watching the news on television; they preferred to get their news from newspapers. Nevertheless, somewhere along the way, someone still thought that television needed a twenty-four-hour news network. Some say this idea was the result of an alignment of Mars and Venus with a TV station in Secaucus, New Jersey. Others cite a prediction from Nostradamus.
Regardless of who or what was responsible, soon networks like CNN, FOX, and MSNBC began to appear. Interestingly enough, the first twenty-four-hour network happened to be ESPN, which was a network devoted to sports. This move made sense because sporting events on TV also got higher ratings than news shows. All programming got higher ratings than the nightly news, even commercials. When the news came on people flipped through the channels hoping to find a commercial.
All of the cable networks—including ESPN—quickly discovered that twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, was a lot of time. Filling that much time was a challenge and led to some unusual programming in attempts to get viewers at times when people weren’t used to watching TV. For example, ESPN hoped that people watching at two o’clock in the morning would prefer mixed doubles blindfolded bowling over the stories on the news networks, which consisted of things like showing trucks unloading at a hardware store in Keokuk, Iowa. As time passed, the programming did become a bit more sophisticated—meaning ESPN started showing mixed doubles blindfolded bocce ball, and the news networks had programs showing trucks unloading at Macy’s in New York City. Since viewers preferred to see some guy spinning plates on long sticks while riding a unicycle, ratings for the twenty-four-hour networks remained low.
To combat the low ratings, the networks made a major format change, which resulted in us ing pundits as an integral part of every show. Since the pundits were to be experts on whatever was being reported, their job was to explain the hidden meanings of the stories. This approach was baffling because viewers never thought any particular news story had “meaning” beyond its face value. If it was reported that President Reagan ate some jelly beans and then took a nap, that simply meant he was hungry and then he was sleepy. No one ever thought anything sinister was going on in the background. Watercooler discussions at work still focused on a question like “Hey, did you see that guy on TV last night spinning plates on long sticks while riding a unicycle?”
While adding pundits to news shows seemed to be a logical move to the networks, the result was that Pandora’s box was about to be opened—even though people who had an acute understanding of Greek mythology were shouting in Greek, “Don’t open that box!” Nevertheless, it happened and suddenly there was an abundance of pundits. Television news shows changed forever. They went from “reporting” the news to “analyzing” the news. If only more people had understood Greek.
The problem for viewers now is that the analysis by pundits on different networks reflects the political leanings of those networks, which leads to charges of bias. This situation makes people think that perhaps news stories do have some sort of hidden meaning after all. Using the Reagan-jelly-bean-nap story as an example, one network’s pundits would say Reagan was eating candy and sleeping while the nation was collapsing. Pundits from another network would say the President continued to support the American candy industry and he realized the importance of rest before important meetings that might affect the future of the nation.
To refute charges of bias, the different networks use slogans as “Most Watched,” “Most Trusted,” or “Facts First.” If I were in charge of slogans, I would go with “We Report What We Like Best, You Know, The Parts Supporting Our Views While Ignoring Any Opposing Information That Brings Into Question The Accuracy Of Our Position.” The truth is that the catchy-slogans approach to refuting charges of bias is like men in various stages of baldness trying to cover their hair loss by employing the comb-over. These attempts to hide the obvious— baldness or bias coverage—don’t work. This observation comes from a man who employed the “comb-over” when there was very little hair left to execute the technique. It was not a pretty picture.
Besides the catchy-slogans thing to deflect charges of bias, the networks also employ what can be described as “ token” pundits. These are pundits who hold differing views from the generally accepted positions of the network. The presence of these people is an attempt to show that since the network allows opposing views, it could not possibly be biased. This approach is similar to people who think they are eating healthy when they drink a diet soda with super-duper burgers and large fries.
The ineffectiveness of this approach is obvious during the roundtable discussions networks love to use. The purpose of these discussions is to let viewers know what their opinions should be on whatever the issue at hand happens to be, and they involve several pundits, including one “token” pundit. It doesn’t take long before whatever the “token” pundit says is mocked and quickly dismissed. Then matters take a downward turn. What starts as a civil discussion quickly morphs into a shouting match highlighted by such intellectual comments as “you’re an idiot” and “yo mamma”.
The discussions cover issues ranging from immigration to health care to Superman versus Batman. Although all of the various pundits used during these discussions are often annoying, the economists are the worst. While these people are supposed to clarify economic matters, they don’t. With all due respect—and I say this from the bottom of my heart with every ounce of sincerity that I can muster—I don’t think economists know anything. Weathermen can predict the weather better than economists can predict the economy. That is a disturbing turn of events. Here is a typical discussion featuring economic pundits.
First economist: Well, the answer is obviously to deflate the exchange to the degree that the cost basis analysis would lower the risk when the residual claimant tried to preference the price mechanism that causes the recessionary gap to recess.
Second economist: I am shocked that your analysis is so flawed; there isn’t any indication that you even took Basic Econ in high school. Your analysis fails to take into consideration that producer surplus is directly affected by the price mechanism of the market capitalization that is determined by the amount of venture capital that influences the monetary account of the credit default swaps used in the exchange rate, which is determined by the gross amount of domestic spending minus the asset turnover ratio plus one.
First economist: You’re an idiot!
Second economist: Yo momma an idiot!
Wait, what? Does any of this discussion mean anything, even to other economists? How are we supposed to trust so-called economic experts who try to make any point without ever—not one single time—mentioning coupons? As a Social Security kind of guy, I do understand coupons, and of course, senior discounts. Those economic terms make sense.
The bottom line here is that I don’t have much interest in the twenty-four-hour cable news networks. To be honest, I preferred those fifteen-minute news shows of my youth. I see great value in the idea that less is better. If I think a particular news story should mean anything, I will figure it, or at least go ask my barber or a bartender someplace. Now those people know stuff.
In the meantime, I’m just happy that there are still TV channels that have reruns of I Love Lucy. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find reruns of The Ed Sullivan Show, which means there are generations of people who will never feel the unbridled joy of seeing some guy spinning plates on long sticks while riding a unicycle. That is a sad state of affairs, my friends, a sad state of affairs.
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