Kinda Certainly

Edward R MurrowOne thing about an addiction to cable news shows is that the addiction is self-defeating. At least it turns out to be that way for me. After just a few months of paying (way too much) attention to CNN, FNC, and MSNBC, my head has exploded so often that I’m in danger of that not being a metaphor.

What’s so dismaying is the state of “journalism” as reflected by the people running and appearing on these networks. The awful irony is that many of them likely schooled in journalism and revere journalistic heroes such as Edward R. Murrow.

Who is probably spinning in his grave.

“This instrument [television] can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”

The above quote (along with similar ones below) is from the end of a speech Murrow gave to the RTDNA in 1958. It’s known as his “wires and lights in a box” speech, and it’s well worth reading if you care about television or journalism. Or society.

It’s especially worth reading in light of the current election cycle!

“Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or perhaps in color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.”

Full disclosure: this is a Friday rant-dump of head explodes notes and some observations. Think of it as an open letter-slash-complaint to the cable news shows.

One observation is that I was surprised to discover that FNC seems to have the better journalists when it comes to raw news. They seem to cover more stories and get news sooner. (One theory is that so many people hate them that their reporters are forced to work harder.)

MSNBC in public

Noisy & distracting!

The downside is how much you have to ignore all the spin they apply. They never miss, often really reach for, a chance to slam President Obama or Secretary Clinton (they seem to have given up on turning Benghazi into anything, so now they’re focusing on the email server thing.

Another observation: MSNBC, for the most part, is the worst of the three in terms of journalistic and television quality (and they spin just as hard as FNC but in the opposite direction).

I especially dislike the way they apparently don’t think news happens on weekends. That’s when they air prison and video reality shows (which has always given me a serious case of the WTFs).

They’re the only ones this election cycle sticking their on-air hosts in public venues, which I find very distracting. I really don’t get the value of background bystanders mugging the camera.

“One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and, at times, demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles.”

This post’s title comes from a verbal habit people have that’s been grating on my ear for a long time. It’s the tendency to combine strong, definite words — like “certainly” — with weak, indefinite words — like “kinda” or “sort of.”

For example, regarding the coverage of a shooting incident: I know we’ll get the all-clear soon, I hope.” So, do you know or do you hope?

Another that had me shaking my head: I think one thing people certainly think…”

Sometimes it’s just weak words, seeming to indicate the speaker really don’t know what they’re talking about: I guess you might say… blah, blah… sort of… blah, blah.”

breaking news 1

Stuff happened!!


This seems to come from two places: a disconnect between words and their meaning; and a growing lack of confidence in our own knowledge.

Both of those rather greatly dismay me.

Speaking of a disconnect between words and their meaning, CNN has pretty much removed all meaning from the phrase: “Breaking News” (not that the other two are much better).

They applied it to the same storm for three days. (How is something watched and discussed for days beforehand “breaking” news?)

As typically used it translates as: That thing that happened six hours ago… happened.

breaking news 2

…or in this case, 102 years ago!

For many, a lack of confidence in knowledge is apparently justified. At root is our ironically growing ignorance of the world. As it all gets more and more complex, many don’t even try to keep up. Some even disdain knowledge.

Yet the interweb makes the knowledge more accessible than ever.

Just yesterday I watched CNN’s “Aviation Correspondent” demonstrate not knowing the difference between “vertical” and “horizontal” (regarding an airplane’s tail fins).

Seriously, for people whose job is making words come out of their mouths, many of them aren’t very good at it. Some are pretty bad at it despite years in the business. (Will Dana Bash ever learn to speak without stumbling?)

Wolf Blitzer

The lights are on, but is anyone at home?

What’s worse is the emotional loading some use in their language. One of the reasons I can’t abide Wolf Blitzer (more so than any other) is that he fills his language with emotional loading.

He’ll talk about how much something will “concern” a campaign or how “embarrassing” some incident was to someone.

Worse is the lack of content or value in what he says. Many times during Super Tuesday, the camera pulls back from a graphic listing voting returns so he can read us those same results!

Chuck Todd (another host rising on my Can’t Stand That Guy list) recently asked a guest why he “trusted” Sanders and not Clinton regarding financial policy. As opposed to just what the guest thought of their respective positions.

For “journalists” (and I die a little inside each time I have to call them that) they spend a lot of time pushing their own views, which is bad enough, but then failing to hold their subjects to any standards of accuracy or rationality.

And that’s the real problem. That’s a complete abdication of journalism. Not only do they not analyze the news critically — a valuable journalistic service — but they apply their own coat of paint. And if at all possible, that paint contains conflict.

Maddow and Stewart

“Breaking News…”

Years ago, Rachel Maddow spent an entire show interviewing Jon Stewart, who tried to explain to her how the cable news shows push conflict. Rachel deflected and didn’t hear the message (and she’s one of the better ones).

They never do. A number of on-air guests have mentioned problems with cable news shows (thus bravely biting the hand that put them on the air), but the hosts rarely engage on the topic (for some reason they often deflect away from it).

At the same time, they’re so lost at what they do that one on-air CNN host recently apologized to a guest for playing devil’s advocate.

Edward R Murrow 2

Good luck, and good night.

Think about that: A reporter apologized for applying critical analysis to an opinion expressed on their air.

These “journalists” have been full partners in the destruction of language and the rise of Assertion as Fact and Opinion as Validity.

The talking head guests spew opinions, often completely reflecting their own interests, while the host does little to moderate or analyze.

And then they cut to commercial and the whole thing is forgotten.

The truth is it was just filler until those commercials anyway.

That’s the state of television “journalism” today.

“To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.”

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

7 responses to “Kinda Certainly

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I defy an intelligent educated person to read Murrow’s speech without weeping for what might have been.

  • Steve Morris

    Remind us why you continue to watch these news channels? Is it so that you can report back to us, so we don’t have to?
    Are there any good news channels in America, or only bad ones? In Britain we have a choice between “popular” news reporting (cool graphics, showbiz guests) and “authoritative” reporting (long words, difficult subject matter.) We are allowed to choose which style we prefer.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Remind us why you continue to watch these news channels?”


      Yeah, I dunno, either. It really was something of an addiction.

      It started with the San Bernardino shootings last December. They had wall-to-wall coverage, and (as with the Gulf War) I got fascinated switching among the different channels comparing their coverage.

      (Keep in mind I trained in television production and intended it as a career, so my interest is in the process as well as the content. And I have some passing history with journalism, so that interests me, too.)

      Behavior addictions can arise in any system with asynchronous rewards. Gambling is often the canonical example; winning a bet is asynchronous, unpredictable. So is getting a new email or tweet. These interact with the brain’s dopamine system and an addiction is born.

      With the news channels, the asynch reward is new bits of news. Sometimes a major thing happens and you get a flood of new bits.

      Fortunately for me, it turns out that the rewards are meager enough, and the pain level high enough, that eventually my mind rebelled. (Besides, baseball is back!)

      (On some level, it’s a chance to hear educated intelligent people talk. Listening to people who’ve followed politics all their lives discuss it can be very educational. Likewise people from other domains. The signal-noise ratio sometimes sucks, but the signal is, at least sometimes, worth it.)

      “Are there any good news channels in America, or only bad ones?”

      News channels? The Al Jazeera America channel is supposed to be pretty good, but I haven’t gotten too deeply into it (on my cable, they are low-res, so less fun to watch). I’ve heard good things about it and have been meaning to check them out.

      The CSPAN channels (1, 2, and 3) can be very interesting, especially when they televise hearings or discussion panels (some of the latter have been outstanding). But watching the Congressional feed… sometimes just a bunch of people milling around… is really dull!

      PBS has a news hour that’s a little sleep-inducing but good. And the major network’s nightly newscasts aren’t too bad (but only air at one time for 30, or 60, minutes).

      But the big three, CNN, FNC, and MSNBC, are depressing. Part of the problem is having to fill 24 hours every day, but I think that’s just lack of imagination and commitment on their part.

      There are also three financial news networks (CNBC, FNB, and Bloomberg) who will carry major breaking news but otherwise just carry financial news.

      “In Britain we have a choice between ‘popular’ news reporting (cool graphics, showbiz guests) and ‘authoritative’ reporting (long words, difficult subject matter.) We are allowed to choose which style we prefer.”

      That’s pretty much the divide between Al Jazeera, PBS, and CSPAN versus, well, all the rest. CNN even experimented with “holographic” images of field reporters appearing on their stage. (The derision they earned ended that experiment pretty quickly.)

  • rung2diotimasladder

    “I especially dislike the way they apparently don’t think news happens on weekends.”

    So true!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      And to fill it with a prison reality show or that “caught on camera” show…


      I’ve come to realize that MSNBC is definitely the worst (by which I most inept and half-assed) and that — very much to my surprise — Fox News is actually the most able of the three.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        I don’t watch the news much myself, but my husband is about as addicted as you are. He wakes up, reads the NYT virtually cover to cover, complains about it, reads a Nazi book or some other history book, complains that it’s poorly-written, but that he must finish it, goes to the gym, watches the news there (I believe Fox, or whatever happens to be on), comes home, watches more news. He really rails on about BBC America, probably because he expects so much more from it. But on he goes until it’s time to smoke his pipe, and sometimes even then he’ll leave the TV on and peek his head in to listen to more. Then at 8pm we watch something on Netflix together.

        Your post sounds very much like his rants, and my replies are very much like the ones here: “Then don’t watch it. Go on the internet and don’t waste your time watching pill commercials. You’ll get the same info in less than five minutes.”

        To which he replies, “But…I have to.” 🙂

        He usually calls me in for the cute panda or dog-puppy segment at the end. He complains that they put that last, and that it always turns out to be no more than the advertisement for it. And that he gets sucked in and can’t help but watch the show until the end, because of the puppy segment. He can easily skip the feel-good ones with children or people doing nice things, but the animals always suck him in. I tell him he can get a better puppy-panda fix from Facebook. He scoffs.

        He hasn’t mentioned Fox as being the most able…or maybe he has and I just don’t recall it…but anyways, he does complain about “no news on the weekend.” Mostly I hear him yelling, “ANSWER THE QUESTION!” And, “FINISH A SENTENCE!” (That last one aimed mostly at Mark Shields.) This is a very loud, wall shaking yell which causes Geordie to run away.

        I’ve even heard him complain about the little American flag pins that the politicians wear. I reply, “What do you expect?”

        “I expect them to not wear the same stupid pin. All of them! Look at this! They’re all wearing it!”

        It’s a secret source of joy, to find things to hate about TV, especially the news.

        You two could spend hours together talking about your news love-hate relationship. I think you guys’d have fun. There might even be a cheese throwing element (a la “Spanking the Monkey.” Ever see that movie? In in there’s a scene in which the characters start throwing cheese at the TV screen, and it’s the kind of cheese that sticks for a while before sliding down.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It does sound like we’d have a lot of fun shredding the talking heads. XD

        I’m pretty cold-hearted when it comes to the panda and puppy videos (let alone cute kid ones), but it’s more the video aspect than the puppy aspect. (As you know, I adore real puppies.)

        My big complaint is how they use fact checking as a teaser and treat. During their post-debate analysis, for example, they’ll end a segment by checking a fact or two and then tease you with more to come.

        That’s what makes me yell. Fact checking is your damn job, assholes. Not a bowl of candy you can hand out piece by fucking piece.

        The other difference is that, after a few months of this, I’m done. As you said:

        “Then don’t watch it. Go on the internet and don’t waste your time watching pill commercials. You’ll get the same info in less than five minutes.”

        Yes and no. Mostly yes, but…

        Well, it’s not like the interweb is ad-free, and those ads bug me just as much as (in some ways more than) the ads on TV, so that’s kind of a wash. In fact, most of the news websites are so incredibly bloated with all the shit they put on their pages that I can’t stand using those sites.

        The interweb also lacks the back and forth panel discussions that, when they get the right people, are a big reason I watch. I like hearing experts discuss issues, and despite their best efforts at glam and glitz, some of that comes through.

        I think there is a huge disappointment that may be in play with your husband and I… the cable news should be doing a much better job. That should be their manifest destiny, but instead they’re a kind of 24-hour The Daily Show without any of the funny or clever.

        There’s a sense of outrage that we’ve sunk so far, and — perhaps like a traffic accident — it’s hard to look away.

        (And then there’s the whole part about having wannabe career associations with television production and journalism.)

        “I’ve even heard him complain about the little American flag pins that the politicians wear.”

        Heh, yeah. Just imagine the shit storm that would be heaped against any candidate who dared not to wear the pin!

        How about, for a change of pace, if a candidate showed up wearing 50 pins… one for every state? I mean, Republicans are all about state’s rights…

        “It’s a secret source of joy, to find things to hate about TV, especially the news.”

        I dunno… not a lot of joy (secret or otherwise) involved for me. Mostly it pisses me off (and, believe it or not, I don’t like being pissed off).

        I know what you mean, though. There can be a joy in shredding something. There are places where I do experience that, but I take no real pleasure in this. I’d be joyful if they started doing their job.

And what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: