Important news you'll never read in a paper or see on TV.
“(I)don’t wanna be an American idiot...” the new single from alternative rock band Green Day declares, and who would want to be one? It’s not a song condemning Americans, but the vast number of us who seem to be informed of world happenings solely through TV and radio news. But, that’s how most of us get our news, right? Through TV and the radio? How does that make us idiots?
I had both the great fortune and grave misfortune to work in live TV news for
eight and a half years as a behind the scenes “techie”. That is, I ran a little audio and set up patches for mikes and lavalieres and live phone-ins, I floor directed using hand cues to alert the news anchors and reporters as to what the director in the control booth wanted next, I did a little directing myself, ran the TelePrompTer which puts the words the anchors read on a screen between them and the camera lens to make sure they’re looking in the right place while they’re speaking, a little video which involves running taped segments during the news program, I operated studio cameras, brought lights up and down, helped set up and take down sets, and spent the bulk of my time creating electronic graphics and putting together fonts for the news, the weather, sports scores, and occasionally even for commercials. You could say I learned a lot in my time there, but what really sank in for me was the fact that the general news media cannot be trusted as a reliable source of nearly any information whatsoever.
The bulk of local news includes some national segments which are usually
pre-taped and occasionally live, local events and happenings, so-called
“breaking news”, mini-series, weather, sports, and fluff pieces. The guy most
of us make fun of and consider the least accurate is the most popular by far. Honestly, your weather and sports reporters are probably the most accurate
news reports out there, but half or more people turn the news off or switch
channels as soon as they’ve finished watching the weather report. This is why
weather is scheduled in the middle of the broadcast, with the more important
stories before it and stories with the least impact coming on afterward.
Ratings drop considerably after weather is done for...which is why so many news broadcasts urge you to stay tuned ‘til the end when they reveal that all-too-crucial five day forecast or some other sort of summary, hoping you’ll stay with them and not seek some celebrity gossip show, old re-run of something or other, or one of the many quick courtroom programs now available.
Sports, after all, really holds interest only for those few fanatics who
haven’t already gotten the final score of their favorite team over the Internet or through the radio or a friend. In my experience, sports anchors
and reporters like to believe the news would be nothing without them, never
acknowledging that half of America turned the set off after weather and just don’t give a darn. Out of the remaining half, maybe half of them are really into sports and the rest are just biding time for that well-teased story about the six legged dog with two butts or wish the weatherman would have his final say so they can go grab dinner or hit the hay or whatever most of us do after the news is finally over.
Your weatherman or meteorologist will generally get his information via
scientific equipment provided by the station combined with local reports from
airports and updates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA). That means, despite your teasing, he or she really is giving you the latest extrapolations based on the most accurate data possible. Your sports
guy or gal often gets their scores and sports news by watching the games on
other channels pretty much like you do if you’re really into sports. They also
grab stories off the Associated Press (AP) feeds which are a part of every
newsroom like ticker-tapes under bell jars in the homes and offices of rich
people in old movies.
Here’s where things start to get tricky. Your local news team ALSO gets their news by watching other stations and pulling stories off the AP. That means if the source is vague or incorrect, the news you’ll get on air will be based on that. For example, an AP feed might state that a bomb just went off in some government building in some country or other. As time passes and more information is accrued, it will be sent over the AP as well...but perhaps your local news team will be on-air when the finalized report comes in, and thus may easily report something inaccurate. Maybe the final story states that it was actually just a smoky backfire from a passing bus that caused a scare at some university eight blocks from a post office (which is a government building, of course), and this explains why it’s not uncommon for something “sensational” to get teased (repeated mentioning beforehand), without anything really ever coming of it later aside from the rather vague statement, “We’ll keep you posted as new information comes in.” Pay more attention to the news, and you’ll begin to notice this phenomenon with some frequency. The worst part is when they persistently tease an upcoming story, then bump it so that it never airs at all.
News stories get “bumped” all the time. Mainly, it’s a time consideration
decision. The news is aired in timed segments to ensure that advertisers get
their expensive little promos in, and occasionally technical difficulties or
long-winded anchors will take too long, causing the producer to rip his or hair out while using a stopwatch to calculate how little time is left in the
broadcast between the necessary commercials. Unfortunately, it’s not always the fluff pieces that get bumped (for example, a story on a local dog show where the dogs dress like cowboys and howl along to music, or a segment on a local woman’s experiments with food coloring while she waters her garden would both be considered “fluff” news, or really not newsworthy stuff at all). Fluff is mainly a time-filler for when the news runs short. It also brings a touch of brevity to what amounts to around 18 minutes of death, violence, sports and weather. Sometimes sports will be cut short and sometimes weather will. The producer and anchors make the final decisions, but it’s a bias that tends to prevail.
The news is biased? Oh, heck yeah! This is the part that sickens me. Democrat
reporters and anchors will trump up Democratic achievements and downplay
Republican ones. They’ll trump up Republican failures and downplay Democratic ones. Obviously, whomever is in charge or doing the reporting at the time will spin the story based upon his or her personal feelings toward whomever is involved. God help you if your news team happens to be concocted of members of just one political party! Richard Republican wants to report on how President ‘publican made a funny joke at some dinner you or I could never afford and now it’s a catch phrase on Saturday Night Live. He’s quick to pounce on Senator Demo’s snafu when he drove off from a gas station with the nozzle still hanging out of the gas tank of his SUV. Donna Democrat shrugs off the gas station incident, but points out how offensive President ‘publican’s joke was to some ethnic group that went extinct ten thousand years ago, and the ancestors of the offended should rise up and speak out heartily against such atrocities. In matters of politics, the news is your all time WORST source of
information. It ranks right down there with political advertising, AKA
Ratings also have tremendous impact on what gets reported. Scientists may have
developed a vaccine for lupus, but that story may get bumped to show you bikini-clad cheerleaders protesting fur in New York City. You’ve heard of ratings. Ratings are when TV stations and programs are ranked according to popularity based mainly upon the rare few households which have Nielson boxes
in their homes to record their viewing choices, and sometimes during telephone
polls where they ask people other than you and anyone you know what shows they
enjoy the most. It’s important to have this grossly inaccurate information to
decide how much to gouge advertisers with during different times of the day or year. Based on what I’ll generously call an “educated guess”, more people
watch the SuperBowl than pretty much else anything on TV unless one of the
Jacksons has gotten into some sort of trouble again. Thus, commercial time
occurring while the SuperBowl airs runs easily into the millions or higher for
national clients, even crossing into six figures for local advertisers. Unless all venereal diseases have been wiped out and it’s safe to have sex with
everyone again, medical science is dull, but half-naked young women are always attention grabbers, especially during a ratings period or “sweeps”.
Weather may be your most accurate source of local information, but your local weatherman may just be one of the studio techs in a nice jacket. Our
weatherdude was out one evening, and one of the reporters, a former airline
stewardess, was asked to fill in for him. We all thought she was joking when
she kept asking us to show her where our state was on a map. When the weather
segment aired and she mentioned conditions in “our area”, her arm swept in a broad arc across the map of the eastern seaboard from Newfoundland to Cuba. The information she read off the TelePrompTer was correct since she’d copied it down from what the weathergirl at the competing station had said at their last broadcast earlier in the day (assuming she knew what SHE was talking about!), but she was simply reading words without any clue as to what they really meant for anybody watching.
This is a common problem among stations that hire people based on their looks
as opposed to their talent. Many of the attractive reporters you see on TV may
have never taken a class even remotely related to journalism in their lives.
It’s common practice for interns (voluntary go-fers) and studio techs like myself to procure another reporter’s footage, get a cameraman you’re buddy-buddy with to film you talking somewhere while dressed nice, then remove the original voice-track from the purloined segment, record your own voice over it, then make copies and submit them to stations all over the country. It’s so easy to lie about your background and schooling, especially if you’re physically attractive or can come across as seemingly intelligent on TV. Is that who you really want to get your news from? Attractive fakes and liars? Many of these so called journalists can barely spell, know little grammar, can’t find their own state on a map, but they know how much spray will hold their hair stiff in a good wind and how far down their necks to spread their pan-cake makeup.
Speaking of making things up, a number of reporters do just that. You’ve heard
people complain that their words on TV were taken “out of context”. It’s just
too easy to ask one question while in person, then edit out your voice and put
another one in back in the studio, making someone look like a liar or fool.
It’s also simple to show footage of someone halfway through a sentence or
thought, leaving out the entire dialogue to create a bigger impact. One
reporter I worked with actually made up whole lines of dialogue when he
reported on what was said at a trial that could not be broadcast. The people
involved called the station immediately and threatened to sue. The reporter
was gently urged to seek employment elsewhere so the station’s mistake would
not be made public.
Words are carefully chosen by producers and reporters to heighten mood, thus
enhancing a story and enticing viewers. I’ll give you an example using a
newspaper story. Last year, a black bear wandered into our neighborhood. It
rooted through a few trashcans and backyards, disturbing only whomever
panicked and called the police about it. It’s a very small town, so the cops
enjoyed the excitement, goading each other to get as close as possible to the
wild animal, and videotaping the complacent beast as he gnawed some stolen garbage in the woods behind our property. I saw the animal myself up close. It looked about three and a half to four feet from nose to butt, maybe 175 to 200lbs. It did no real damage and pretty much kept to itself. A trap was set for it so it could be removed to a less populated area, but it eventually just wandered off on its own. The next day, the local papers reported it was maybe six feet long and probably 600lbs, which I think pushes it a little closer into grizzly range than simple black bear. Why the discrepancy? A quiet, hungry, but otherwise non-invasive large wild animal is dull. A near-grizzly loose in a residential community with children and pets is exciting!
So, if you know they’re lying about the little things for ratings or to try
and sway your reasoning, how on earth can you trust any of these people with
Working in news taught me to never take anything reported at more than face
value. Try and ignore the sensationalistic wording or presentation and seek the basic facts. If something’s really interesting to you, check the facts through more than one source. The people who smile at you and read you the news through a cloud of hair product fumes are almost never the intrepid investigators seeking the truth depicted in popular novels and films. They think you and I are morons who won’t bother learning things for ourselves, checking public record, or visiting the scene of some event ourselves. They know we’re incredibly apathetic, thus gullible and trusting. Their main job and the job of the behind the scenes flunkies like I was is simply to make them look good. Most of them are nowhere near as intelligent as they make themselves out to be and fragile egos are the norm. It’s all about ratings, being a local celebrity and the perks that entails, and using those two items to try and work up bigger pay raises for themselves. It certainly isn’t about news.
I’ve got plenty more stories from my days in TV. Horror stories, hilarious
stories, and a few which fall between. I had a great time there overall
despite the absurdly low pay and dealing with amazing temper tantrums out of the newsroom replete with dangerously airborne objects. You might claim the corruption I experienced there was isolated, and I genuinely wish that was the case. I’m telling you all this because I don’t want any of you to be the American idiots so many news anchors and reporters genuinely believe you to be. As a whole, the general public doesn’t add up to greatness, it’s true , but try and be sure you’re getting your daily dose of local and world information from an unbiased source that states facts alone and not some eye-candy overlit in snazzy designer labels with Vaseline on his or her teeth and a great tan that smudges off on his or her collar. They can give you the basics, but it’s up to you to seek out the truth. But, only if you’re really really interested in that cowboy-singing-dog show or where the state you live in might be located on a map.
There’s just no excuse for being a true American idiot. And that, my friends,
is the way it is.