The following is a paper that I wrote for a political science class in February 2003. The assignment was to watch, read, or otherwise experience two very different forms of media, and compare and contrast them. I’ve decided to post this here today because this paper discusses the late Mr. Rogers, a children’s television host. Recently, a piece on Fox news discussed how Mr. Rogers was “evil” (yes, they actually used the E-word) for insisting that every child is “special,” even if they “didn’t deserve it.” Here’s my response, written 7 years ago:
Is the Media Cynical, or is it Just Me?
By Jacob Thurman
I, by nature, am a procrastinator, and chronically late. As part of an often-frivolous attempt to remedy this, the clock in my family room runs five minutes fast. On Wednesday, February 26, the clock’s impatient hands struck 5:30, and found me seated in front of my television, miraculously five minutes early for the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. I suffered through the last 5 minutes of yet another asinine production aimed towards the degradation of American minds, and waited for a 30-minute synopsis of the most important events in the world.
As the syncopated cacophony of the trademark xylophone sounded through the television speakers, a faceless voice announced again that the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather was about to begin. A few previews were shown, tantalizing the morbid part of me that yearns to know exactly how the United States will trounce Iraq, or how a 10-Billion dollar supersonic glider simply melted 36 miles above the earth.
Setting my humanity aside, I settled in for my half hour of “important things.”
I continued this pattern at 5:30 each day for a week, though I tried to forgo the five-minute prelude of tastelessness that I experienced that Wednesday. The stories each day were the same: First was the latest non-news about the non-war in Iraq. The first day, we learned the monumentous news that Iraq was positioning its troops in preparation for a possible invasion. The highlight of this sadistic enterprise was a portion of Dan Rather’s interview with Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s internationally embattled dictator. He was quoted as saying “No one destroys his own [oil] wells or dams,” and when asked if he would consider exile, he replied, “I will live in Iraq and die in Iraq, as decided by God almighty.” France called the war that hasn’t happened yet “precipitous,” while another story described how the United States would control Iraq after winning the war. By The following Monday, the last time I watched the news on television, the news had changed little. Again, it was reported that Iraq was moving its forces into strategic defensive positions, and Hussein was being only marginally cooperative with outsiders. France called the war that still hasn’t happened yet “premature.” A later segment described how the United States might handle the situation should troops have to invade Baghdad herself.
Other segments not advertised as “top stories” included some startling revelations: Credit Card fraud is real, and bad. Had NASA known that Columbia was in trouble before attempting to land, they may have been able to do something about it. Icy roads can cause car accidents, and caused 11 fatal ones in New York. An arsonist burned Connecticut nursing home to the ground, killing 10 patients. Security at the country’s most secret laboratory is faulty. Zoo animals are dying in Washington D.C. Consumer spending is down, and the economy is getting worse.
The reader will have to forgive my cynicism. With all of this bad news being thrown rapid-fire in my face, with the accompanying images and graphics to drive “the story” deeper into my soul, it’s a wonder I’ve kept the will to live. Pessimism runs rampant through the news media, especially on television. We can’t blame the journalists though; it’s not their fault. They are whores to the statisticians at Nielsen, willing to do anything, include meet with Saddam Hussein or drive down the same icy highway that killed eleven other human beings, because people will watch. Tucked in between these glamorous tragedies, there is humanity. One story, and perhaps the one that has stuck with me the most, was of a young couple who are both in the army, stationed 45 miles apart in Kuwait, while their son celebrates his second birthday a hemisphere and 12 time zones away in the Midwestern United States. Even the “humanity” is found in the midst of the war and international aggression. Perhaps it’s not so humane after all.
I am bitter. I realize now why I gave up on regular television news programs. They bring out the worst in me, by showing me the worst in the world around me. Somewhere, we became infatuated with things that are terrible. Perhaps they make us feel better about our own lives. Or perhaps they feed the paranoia that we experience as a result of our own deviance. After all, with all of those people killing each other and threatening to remove each other from their positions of power, my own preternatural behaviors don’t seem quite so wicked.
Thursday morning, I secured a copy of the Chicago Tribune, almost afraid to find the same twaddle that had wasted half an hour of my life the night before. I was pleasantly surprised to find a degree of objectivity, and a sense of humanity, even in the more pessimistic stories of the front page. This particular paper’s main story was about an exposed scandal involving guards beating prisoners at a Chicago jail. While depressing, the article told the story from the points of view of both prisoners and guards, and offered enough facts that I was able to form my opinion about what I read, whereas the television was determined to keep the facts from me and tell me what my opinion was. Other stories on the front page were about a new, uplifting design for New York’s World Trade Center, and the Supreme Court’s protection of certain rights of abortion protesters. The next day, the jail beatings ran as the chief headline again, but what attracted my attention was a feature-length story on the life of Fred Rogers, an American Icon known for his optimism and, as one writer put it, “[daring] to be calm.” Humanity may yet have a voice!
While the Chicago Tribune’s selection of stories was much more balanced, the writing was still on the misanthropic side. Writers were skeptical about the possibility of democracy in Iraq, wondering in print if the Iraqi people just might hate America more than they hate Hussein. In a slant untouched by the television broadcast, the monetary cost of an invasion, occupation, and rebuilding of Iraq was discussed. Numbers in excess of $100Billion were printed, and a reporter wondered where the money would come from, when the national budget is already overdrawn, and the economy back home is failing. I get the impression that the Tribune, perhaps echoing the feelings of most Americans, would rather America stay home and solve her own problems, rather than go and solve the problems of a nation that would rather not have our “help.”
Reading the Tribune, I found that the same stories from the television broadcast the night before were covered, but with much more detail. The cynicism seemed intact, but there was balance. There seemed to be just as much “good news,” as bad. In the first section of the newspaper, where the most important things are usually printed, there was equal time given to the prison beatings, and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, a feel-good symbol of America’s resilience and determination to go on after tragedy.
As the week went on, I felt again and again that the television was trying to beat the independence out of me, forcing its opinions on me as if they were my own, all so subtly that I hardly realized it was happening. The newspaper seemed intent on expressing its opinion, but it also calmly acknowledged that I was allowed to have my own opinion too. It even went so far as to provide facts that may counter its own opinion, to assist me in forming mine. This was a pleasant change from what I saw on television.
Because I’m chronically late, I tend to watch the clock with an obsessive eye. One fact that can’t be denied is that reading the newspaper takes longer than watching the evening news. This may be the major difference between the two mediums. In an attempt to present the bare facts, the television news can lose sight of what is actually important. When I sat down to watch 30 minutes of “important things,” I often wondered just how important this information was to me. The newspaper, on the other hand, does not constrain my time. I can read as little or as much as I like. Because my priorities are different than those of the television producers, I find myself wanting information that they do not provide, and not wanting some of the information that they do offer. The newspaper allows me to read at my pace, and absorb only the information that I decide is important. The television never offered the right amount of information; there was either too much, or too little. The newspaper seemed determined to err on the side of “too much,” and because I was reading, and could reread what I read (I did not record the evening news to take advantage of my “rewind” button), until I was satisfied, and then go on. I never felt overwhelmed, or underwhelmed, by the newspaper, and when I was done reading, felt that I was a better person, or at least a better informed person, for having done so. Television made me feel like a deviant and an antipatriot, because I did not agree with its opinions.
A standout among newspapers is USA Today. I enjoyed the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times because their localized nature made them attractive as people-oriented publications; they often focused on how national and global issues affect individuals and groups within their respective areas. USA Today, however, is a national paper, with a refreshingly optimistic sentiment. It was mostly objective, focusing on national issues, and a “just the facts” attitude. It would seem that when we simply look at the facts, the world doesn’t seem to be quite as troubled as CBS would have us believe. It comes as a great surprise that Gannett’s USA Today is the most circulated newspaper in the country, according to a study by GlobalFor Media Services. Its refreshing optimism and objectivity stands in dire contrast to the pessimism and forced-opinion reporting of the most popular television news programs.
The media is a whore. She goes wherever the clients are, and does whatever they want. Demographics are a fascinating science. Why would the television cater to those who want fewer facts, less humanity, and more carnage, while newspapers strive to be complete, objective, and some even a bit optimistic? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I know what I want. I want facts, and I want lots of them. I want to be able to form my own opinion, and discuss it with other people who also form their own opinions from the same facts. I want to know what’s good about my country and my race, as well as what’s bad. I believe that humanity is inherently good, and mankind carries the seeds of something greater than we can realize. I want to see that face of humanity more than the evil of it. I want objectivity, not sensationalism. I want information, not streams of images moving too fast for me to comprehend. Thanks to the Tribune, I realize what it is that I want. I want Mr. Rogers. I want media that’s not afraid to discuss the issues, but discusses them openly, optimistically, and without feeling the need to cater to those who have the attention span of a goldfish. I want a medium that will, like Mr. Rogers, “dare to be calm.”
The professor’s comments at the end of the paper read “You have a great writing style, and I have to admit I laughed out loud a couple of times – a rare event in reading term papers. (Crying is somewhat more common – just kidding). Anyway, good discussion of your media experience.”