My cousin thought I must be having anger management issues.
She and her husband Paul had flipped through the satellite dials and settled on the McLaughlin Group on the European edition of CNBC. And there on screen sat four weighty U.S. news commentators, two on the right, two on the left, screaming at each other over the underlying social causes of the tragic, but largely inexplicable Virginia Tech slaughter. In the middle sat the wrinkled and ever-earnest John McLaughlin, the "moderator," interjecting occasionally to throw another log on the fire.
After four months in the tranquility of Provence, France, where passionate discourse virtually never crosses the line into vitriol, this TV food fight, billed as a "public affairs" journalism, ratcheted up my blood pressure.
"How can you watch this crap?" I snapped at my cousin Stephanie. "It's made-for-TV muck -- soap opera, not news." And with that I stormed out to separate the trash from the recyclables.
By the next morning, we could both laugh about my meltdown. But I was left to wonder just what had pushed my button so hard. It isn't Steph that I was mad at; it is how far my profession, the news business, has fallen in this era of all-noise, all-the-time. Because no one should mistake 24-7 television with all-news, all-the-time. The McLaughlin Group, after all, is considered relatively refined as food fight journalism goes. It takes on serious issues. Most of its regular and guest commentators are well-established journalists.
Yet it's format -- you scream at me and I'll scream back -- wouldn't be carried on European news channels, not on the BBC, not on France's TV5 or even, from what I can tell, on local commercial French television. Television news in Europe may be a bit dull, but content still seems to count. From what I can tell through the barrier of language, political talk shows -- and there's a presidential election going on here today -- are lively but still leave the speaker time to finish a sentence. Stories on the news tell not just about France, Iraq and the United States, but also about such places as Albania, Nigeria and Vietnam.
As it turns out, lots is happening in those places. But I doubt that half of my students in Boston could find them on a map, let alone discuss developments there. And with good reason. The U.S. media spends so much time examining America's navel that it neither has the time nor inclination to look at the global body politic. (Nor, of course, in this era of profits and consolidation, does it much want to spend the money to do so.)
Ironically, in fact, all-news, all-the-time seems to have brought Americans less content and less knowledge of all serious topics, American and foreign, not more. It fills the airwaves and print websites with endless redundancy of information and endless opinion with little context. Consider the findings of a recent report from the Pew Center for the People and the Press. Released in mid-April, it found that, "on average, today's citizens are about as able to name their leaders, and are about as aware of major news events, as was the public nearly 20 years ago."
Before, that is, the advent of the Internet and all-noise, all-the-time. A second look suggest that the words "about as able" paper over hints of a decline in knowledge. In 1989, the report notes, 74 percent of Americans were able to identify Dan Quayle, as lightweight a vice-president as has held the office in modern times. Today, just 69 percent of those polled could name Dick Cheney, arguably the most powerful vice-president in American history and a man, civil libertarians would argue, who has consistently consolidated power in the executive branch, often at the expense of constitutionally guaranteed checks and balances. In 1989, some 47 percent could identify the president of Russia. Today 36 percent can.
Are Americans, faced with an unending assault of screaming pundits, simply checking out?
Or are they so consumed by wall-to-wall news coverage of exploitative stories such as the death of Anna Nicole Smith that they haven't looked up from their screens long enough to notice the rights of our democracy eroding around them?
In either case, the news media must shoulder a significant portion of the blame: The evidence suggests to me that all-noise, all-the-time helps undermine America's security and democracy.
* When cable and network news ignore most of the world and sanitize much of the death and mayhem in Iraq, Americans lose the capacity to understand why and how deeply the rest of the world, including our allies, doesn't like us. And that's dangerous. (The topic was explored this morning here as part of a documentary -- on the BBC.)
* When the cable and broadcast networks salivate endlessly over the sensational, whether it is the sad but trivial such as Smith's death or the serious, devastating but ultimately distracting, such as the Virginia Tech mayhem, Americans lose sight of the myriad ways the Bush administration has eroded civil liberties, from the politicized firings of its own appointees in the Justice Department to the elimination of habeas corpus for foreign nationals picked up under the Military Commissions Act. (Or, as Jonathan Evans, a conservative British member of parliament, said on that same BBC special, it is essential in hunting terrorists that we "maintain our belief in democracy and human rights.")
* And when journalists compensate for lack of original reporting by simply putting on loud-talking representatives of opposing viewpoints, they obscure the facts and blur the truth.
There is considerable evidence that Karl Rove and the Bush Administration have long known how to exploit this. One of my favorite examples, reported by Ron Susskind in the October 2004 New York Times magazine, is of an exchange he had with a "senior adviser" to the president. That adviser sneered at what he called the "reality-based community" represented by Susskind and his questions.
''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he reportedly told Susskind. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."
Yet instead of pointing out just how illusory this "reality" continues to be, the media even today give the administration and its representatives ample and equal time to voice it. One repeated example is the platform that Dick Cheney still gets with regularity to assert that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda had close ties before the Iraq War. Never mind that top-level government reports, from that of the 9/11 Commission to leaked CIA documents, have consistently discredited this repeated assertion.
We live in a world of point-counterpoint, shout-countershout. It's the format in which all-noise, all-the-time feels most comfortable. And like the Bush Administration, it creates its own reality, a world of talking heads and wagging fingers, too often, I fear, to quote the great bard, "Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing."
Jerry Lanson is a professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.