Saturday, November 27, 2010

Forget 911...

...the media is a bloody joke.

Yesterday, checking up on my Twitter feed (which is basically an endless 'wire' of news and information set up a la the good ol' Telex days), I ran across this wonderful juxtaposition of headlines tweeted back to back by CNN: "North Korea Warns Region is on Brink of War" / "Shoppers Crowd Malls All Night Long."

This absurd pairing of news came rat-tat-tat-ing on my Tweetdeck literally within two seconds, and it efficiently introduced my coffee to my keyboard, via my nose. The latter piece of information was then basically regurgitated and repeated throughout the entire day and evening and into this morning by virtually every American news outlet I can think of, accompanied by the usual B-roll of herds of people pressed against glass doors, waiting for someone to open the malls, so they can trample one another for the iPad or the newest generation iPhone.

I worked in "the media" for nearly 7 years, from 1993 to 2000 (television), and before that for almost two years, just out of college from 1991-1993-ish (USIA-radio/Voice of America). My experience in the television field was quite interesting. I was a freelancer working for a brand new cable network run by the insufferable Roger Ailes (now president of Fox) named "America's Talking." Soon after my position there, the network folded and its airways were taken over by Bill Gates and Microsoft, who created MSNBC. I stayed on, and within a short period of time became one of the directors of Chris Matthews' show, which went through several incarnations before settling on "Hardball." Ailes went on to helm the newly-created Fox News for Murdoch. We all know how that has turned out.

But being there, at the inception of the 24-hr news cycle networks (aside from CNN and Bloomberg, this was a revolutionary concept, and at the very least it provided competition for CNN; Bloomberg was and is an all-business TV outlet) was savage and weird. Gone were the standards of journalism I had learned and practised while working in the VOA newsroom. People no longer needed to check sources, they just ran with whatever stories surfaced--whether inaccurate or not.

Being on for 24 hours meant there was a huge need for content. Any kind of content. Controversial content. Ridiculously mundane content. Even made up content.

I remember being called in to direct a live shot out of Washington during the "breaking news" that president Clinton's plane (Air Force One) was temporarily stuck in the mud at the airport in Memphis. We had aviation experts and chattering talking heads go on for literally two hours, speculating what might have gone wrong, what could be done right, and whether or not this was some sort of conspiracy by the Right Wing (imagine the off-air jokes containing right/left wings and airplanes--this was happening during Clinton's impeachment process).

"Producers" of these types of shows were literally 21-year-olds, straight out of university with poli-sci degrees, not seasoned veterans of journalism with ethics and standards. These kids were busting into our studios looking to put on the air anything that might carry some controversy. They had taken their cue from the daytime Jerry Springer shows and were implementing the strategy into this sacred field of journalism, which was systematically being eviscerated and fucked proper by their doing.

Chris Matthews took to literally muttering at all times off air: "...numbers, we need numbers tonight, anything to get the numbers..." (referring to the ratings of his show).

Anything to get the numbers. This was in 1995! I quit the business five years later, but scanning the airwaves just this morning, the same gang of usual suspects is making the rounds on these insufferable all-day and night outlets.

You name the talking head, I've worked with him/her. I remember hanging out on K-Street and 18th, just outside the entrance to the MS/CNBC studios, smoking stogeys with the fellows on the crew, when a then unknown Ann Coulter joined us, clad in a puffy Chinchilla coat, talking all kinds of nonsense about how much better clubs in New York City are than in Washington. We smiled and nodded politely at the emaciated Valley Girl holding court on a subject neither of us had any interest in. We all know what's become of her now.

I lost an acquaintance and a professional friend in the attacks of 9/11. Barbara Olson was the wife of the then-Solicitor General Ted Olson. She was a frequent contributor and guest, and a lovely person-despite her GOP leanings and ideas. She had concise, cerebral arguments that counter-balanced the madness and screaming among the other guests. She and I often went on to digest these issues in the Green Room, after the segment or show. She was a good person.

I got into conversation several times with Chris Hitchens--another frequent guest--who would usually show up in the late afternoons dis-shevelled and somewhat inebriated, yet lucid and sharp as hell. Most of the time, the issues he discussed with me went above and beyond my head, and I was always intimidated, but he took an interest in me and in the fact that my mother had been a translator in Romania for Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, when they visited in the '70s. We all know the scathing books Hitch has written on Kissinger and Nixon.

There were a handful of good people that walked the guest beat, but even they were prodded and pushed (off air) to say something ridiculous, to create some sort of fight within the segment.

"Numbers, we need numbers tonight...anything to get the numbers."

And so, now almost 11 years removed from an ever-rotting field, I make sure I perform my due diligence when it comes to digesting news and information. I literally don't trust any one single outlet. Even Wikileaks has come under my scrutiny. Stories in which I have interest get cross-checked and cross-referenced at least five times, from different angles.

The truth always lives somewhere in between the barriers and distractors and smoke and fog and mirrors and layers of information. If it exists at all.


Alan said...

Sadly this all rings too true. The number of times that I have read/watched so called "news" where I have been involved or close to the "story" only to see it misrepresented, inaccurately portrayed or the facts just plain made up are many and numerous.

Therefore I take most "news" items with a healthy dose of sceptisism, and look for the cracks.

Deni said...

Nice post, love to hear about the behind the scenes workings of such an insufferable industry.

Anonymous said...

Someone once suggested a book come out of all this. After all, secrets were told in the Green Room and beyond...and I never professed to be a priest. But then again, I feel I'd waste my time recounting stories, when I could just make some up and put them on the other site...the fiction one.

Alan, I can't speak for the media in the UK, but I imagine they're just as bad; they just SOUND better delivering the..."news."

anna said...

I haven't seen sight one of anything related to North Korea on my local news. I'm getting a fairly decent online feed of info about elections in Haiti, and now local coverage has been hijacked by a thwarted terrorist attack in Portland, with dashes of Black Friday talk here and there. I guess we have our priorities in order.