Most people with at least half a brain realize that “reality TV” is anything but reality. It’s scripted and edited to create the drama and tension producers want — to attract and entertain viewers. But how many people understand the same is true of news?
Newsweek’s Howard Kurtz has a great article this week about how Fox News boss Roger Ailes is making changes at his news channel to tweak its positioning. Although the moves are interesting all by themselves, I was struck by some of the details that emerge in Kurtz’ reporting, because it’s very obvious that the purpose of the producers is to create drama, not to enlighten people.
Because Fox let Kurtz have behind-the-scenes access to meetings between producers preparing for last week’s Fox GOP presidential debate, it’s clear that the network doesn’t mind you knowing this. The unreality of news has become so accepted that it doesn’t cross anybody’s mind to be ashamed of manipulating what should be serious discussion into being a televised melodrama about personalities instead. They might as well be plotting to create chaos between cast members of “Big Brother.” Kurtz reports:
Hours before last week’s presidential debate in Orlando, Ailes’s anchors sat in a cavernous back room, hunched over laptops, and plotted how to trap the candidates. Chris Wallace said he would aim squarely at Rick Perry’s weakness: “How do you feel about being criticized by some of your rivals as being too soft on illegal immigration? Then I go to Rick Santorum: is Perry too soft?”
“That’s going to get some fireworks going,” said managing editor Bill Sammon, grinning.
When showtime arrived, producer Marty Ryan choreographed the action from a crowded trailer outside the convention hall: he called for a two-shot when Wallace invited Mitt Romney to criticize Perry’s immigration stance, so the audience could watch both men’s agitated expressions. But Ryan barked, “Let’s just be on Perry,” as the Texas governor demanded to know whether Santorum had ever been to the Mexican border, capturing the moment. Afterward, Ailes phoned a top lieutenant: “Tell the team we’ve been kicking ass in these debates.”
This isn’t news. This is scripted manipulation of reality to create drama — to create a show to get you to tune it. It leaves you entertained. Maybe angry. Maybe amused. All the networks ultimately care about is that it keeps you watching. It also keeps you terribly ignorant and paying attention to all the wrong things.
I’ve explained before why I don’t watch television and recommend that others don’t, either. This goes to the heart of that issue, but it’s not just the surface-level things that are obvious. It’s the fact that it changes your way of thinking. As you watch the televised shows — and mistake them for serious substance — you think less and less about ideas and more and more about personalities and the hot-button issues that you’re fed. Before you know it, your thinking is so confused that you’re nothing but a mindless consumer of a passive product.
It’s no accident that the guy running Fox News isn’t a journalist. He’s a long-time political consultant. Ailes is someone I have a lot of professional respect for, even though I frequently disagree with him. He’s smart and he understands how to communicate themes. The problem is that he worked for years on communicating simple themes to voters in a dumbed down way — which I’ve done plenty of, too — but how he’s taking the same dumbed-down approach to getting viewers to watch. It’s a great business strategy. It’s great for manipulating people. It’s just a very dangerous way to handle public discourse.
(Just to be clear, this criticism isn’t directed just as Fox. It’s true of all the TV news. Fox is more successful right now simply because Ailes and Co. understand the game very well. The others are doing similar things, just not as effectively. The problem isn’t the people or the approach. The problem is the inherent limitations of the medium itself, which I discussed in my previous article about television.)
If you want to understand the world, turn your television off. I won’t complain if you watch some sports or if you use your television to watch movies on. But don’t get hooked into being a viewer of TV’s regular programming. And whatever you do, please stay away from “TV news,” which is the biggest oxymoron around. You’re being manipulated in order to get you to watch a show. It’s not going to help you think.
Of course, if you’d rather just live a passive consumer existence — and you don’t care that you’re not going to be prepared for the changes coming in our society — go right ahead consuming the garbage being pumped through your TV set by all the channels. Just don’t complain that nobody warned you.
The “reality” you seen on the news isn’t reality. It’s manipulated content to get you to watch. If you’re spending time with that content, it’s ruining your ability to think — and you don’t even realize it.