Saturday, May 7, 2016

That's Infotainment!

Notable & Quotable, Part 2

I'm so old that when I was a young callowyute I only had access to four TV stations. My city (Pittsburgh) had two rival newspapers of consequence. One published a morning edition, the other came out in the late afternoon.

At one point in my life, I found myself working as a newspaper boy person for both. This provided a relatively generous income for a callowyute. Unlike Warren Buffett, who was also a newspaper boy person when he was a kid, I spent my money as fast as I made it, sometimes faster. Mr. Buffett, we're told, used his profits to expand into other businesses. I strongly suspect this may explain the disparity in our incomes. Curiously enough I don't resent/envy/begrudge him. Nor do I believe that The Gubmint should take some of his money and give it to me after deducting a finders fee. However, I do have a great idea for a business that would generate profit margins that are as healthy as Dairy Queen's (which, Mr. B. owns). Warren, call me.

Where was I... Oh, yeah, a callowyute growing up in Pittsburgh, a callowburgher. Like many of my fellow baby boomers, I was raised in front of a TV set. If you're a member of one of the three generations that have come along since I was a kid (dang I'm old) the answer to your obvious question is, yes. Yes, our parents were quite concerned that this idiot box, this talking lamp that always seemed to be on if the kids were home, was going to turn us all into, well, idiots. There's some ammunition for callowyutes to use when you're arguing with the old farts in your life about your smartphone addiction (you're welcome).

While newspapers were still quite popular, particularly among our clueless grups, those hoopleheads that thought they were cool just because they survived the Great Depression, won WW 2, and saved the world, we boomers (and many of our parents) tended to get our news from the tube. "Now your daddy's in the den shootin' up the evening news." Jackson Browne, from the song "Red Neck Friend."

The four TV channels referenced above were the local outlets of PBS, NBC, ABC, and CBS. PBS didn't begin directly competing with the three commercial networks via a nightly news format, the one I and many of my fellow boomers relied on, until 1975. By then I was going through my hippie with a job phase and preferred to get my news from Rolling Stone and "underground" news sources. You don't want to know. Suffice it to say, the PBS version of the news had little impact on my yute. The big three traditional broadcast networks, however, were a different story.

Back in the dark ages everyone that watched TV watched the local affiliate of the big three networks mentioned above. Newspapers aside, the evening news, local and national, was a cultural touchstone. When I was 10 years old, in 1963, the national news broadcasts were dramatically expanded -- from 15 minutes to 30. While there was less time back then given over to commercials, obviously this was not a lot of time. News anchors, paragons of gravitas one and all, were limited to covering what were regarded as the most important news stories of the day. If a nationally known celebrity were to drop dead or be indicted, this would dutifully be mentioned. Whom they were currently dating and/or their problems with drugs and alcohol, would not.

With the exception of the rare earth shaking event or crisis that generated a, "We interrupt this broadcast..." you might not hear any additional national news for 24 hours. There were exceptions of course. Your town might have a decent newspaper that came out the next morning. You might listen to a local radio station that provided some (usually quite limited) national news.

The news anchors referenced above professed to subscribe to mainstream journalistic ethics. In practice, this meant, among other things, that they were supposed to try and draw strict lines between fact and opinion. Though we're now told that they allowed their biases to shape the news more than we ever knew, or they acknowledged (books have been written), that's how it was supposed to work.

"Information turnover is often more important than information content." Robert Greenberg. I've taken Mr. Greenberg's quote completely out of context. He was referring to a change in philosophy by composers of classical music in the early twentieth century. I told you I was your dilettante about town. However, the moment I heard it I knew I was going to use it in reference to how the news media operates in the new millennium.

Permit me to deploy some pseudo-journalistic ethics at this point and mention that Dr. Greenberg's quote is from a Teaching Company (you should Google that name) course he put together called, "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music." Full disclosure: Lest I sound even nerdier than I am my main take away from his efforts is to now understand why I don't actually care for most classical music, particularly opera.

"Information turnover is often more important than information content."

A seemingly endless commercial break (SECB), then, CLANG! Fox News Alert: The recording artist Prince, formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince is dead at 57! Blah, blah. Another SECB. CLANG! Fox News Alert: Donald Trump just said something really ignorant in a really ignorant way! Blah, blah. Another SECB. CLANG! The Gubmint has threatened to stop giving the gubmint of North Carolina its fair share of the money they take from people that don't work for The Gubmint and who actually create value (profits) if North Carolina won't permit men who think they are women (and vice versa) to poop where they please and shower where they feel safe...

You pick up the clicker and go to CNN. You arrive in the middle of an SECB. "Welcome back, we will now continue the discussion between two party hacks, CNN contributors, whom we pay to promote the people and positions they are paid to promote by their respective political parties.

"You suck sweaty socks!"
"No, you suck sweaty socks!"

Back to 1963. Not only was the nation somehow able to get by with a half an hour of nationally broadcast national news, TV stations usually went off the air after The Tonight Show, it's current competitor or an old movie the third local station picked up on the cheap. It was standard practice to play the Star Spangled Banner while showing patriotically themed footage and then saying goodnight.

[Aside: The Tonight Show regularly featured interviews with the authors of actual books who were witty, intelligent and often controversial, thought-provoking figures. Occasionally, famous classical musicians performed. Most people took Sunday off, some of them actually read the books they heard about on the Tonight Show. Just sayin'.]

I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal (online version only) because I'm cheap frugal and a man of modest means at the moment. When I'm a wildly successful writer, and entrepreneur (part 2), I'll pay the extra dough and have the dead trees version delivered. See, if it weren't for the fact that I rigorously apply a system I've developed, that includes strict time limits, wherein I only read certain sections of the online version, in a certain order, I might drown in all of the available information. The WSJ has some very deep resources. I look forward to the day I'll only be using the online version for research.

I'll read the dead trees version every morning, the one that I might pick up again later in the day knowing that none of the content has vanished or been updated. I'll absolutely revel in the delicious delusion that I have a clue  as to what's going on in the world.

Have an OK day.

©Mark Mehlmauer 2016

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