A former network reporter speaks out

Kudos to former NBC reporter John Hockenberry for sharing his observations about the woeful state of network news reporting in a Technology Review article entitled “You Don’t Understand Our Audience.” Modern “reporting” is worse than a bad joke: it’s an affront to critical thinking and a disgraceful shirking of an important responsibility to the public.

As much as I’m willing to rant against the “mainstream media” (and even worse, the bogus claims of “liberal bias” in said media by the partisan hackery of the likes of Fox News), my perspective carries far less impact than that of someone who’s been on the inside and managed to escape with his integrity and commitment to truth intact.

He even gets a bit theoretical at one point, and comes pretty close to my oft-rehearsed tirade against commercially-driven news programming:

Networks are built on the assumption that audience size is what matters most. Content is secondary; it exists to attract passive viewers who will sit still for advertisements. For a while, that assumption served the industry well. But the TV news business has been blind to the revolution that made the viewer blink: the digital organization of communities that are anything but passive. Traditional market-driven media always attempt to treat devices, audiences, and content as bulk commodities, while users instead view all three as ways of creating and maintaining smaller-scale communities. As users acquire the means of producing and distributing content, the authority and profit potential of large traditional networks are directly challenged.

But the real value of Hockenberry’s perspective comes from his insider experience — a look at the real Jack Donaghys of the world that I only wish was unbelievable:

I knew it was pretty much over for television news when I discovered in 2003 that the heads of NBC’s news division and entertainment division, the president of the network, and the chairman all owned TiVos, which enabled them to zap past the commercials that paid their salaries. “It’s such a great gadget. It changed my life,” one of them said at a corporate affair in the Saturday Night Live studio. It was neither the first nor the last time that a television executive mistook a fundamental technological change for a new gadget.

Yes, this person is an idiot. And he’s one of the people who are deciding what “news” the public receives.

Of course, the network heads cannot accept all of the blame for the current state of affairs, nor is the Internet the panacea of truth and intellectual freedom that it may, at first, seem to be. Consider this: the community-built Wikipedia article on Jack Donaghy is longer and more detailed than that of his real-life counterpart.

On a tangent (not that I wasn’t already on a tangent), I did a Google image search for “dunce executive” in vain hope of finding a copyright-free photo to use with this post, and I was led to a British blogger’s post about Minneapolis’s own James Lileks’s (yes, two in one sentence!) reassignment to beat reporting at the StarTribune. I was momentarily outraged, until I realized that this reassignment took place seven months ago; if I’m just now learning of it, it must not really be that big of a deal to me. Besides, this news pales in comparison to the same blog’s more recent announcement that China has banned reincarnation. So um, yeah… Internet… news… wow, I really feel informed now.

Meanwhile, the story has gotten even more grim at the Strib, where the “reader rep” (known in more perspicacious, if gender-biased, times as an ombudsman) whom Lileks somewhat desperately implored his fans to contact regarding his reassignment, was herself let go (without replacement) five months later. So much for journalistic accountability. And now I’ve somehow managed to come full circle.

I have a “theory” that most people don’t understand what a theory really is…

Wired has published an excellent article on how creationists are exploiting general misunderstanding of the scientific term “theory”. There is copious evidence that the principles of evolution are sound: aside from the fact that dog breeding (not a “natural” process, but evolutionary nonetheless) is something most people, creationist or not, take for granted, we can observe evolution — as an incontrovertible fact — among species like bacteria that undergo rapid reproductive cycles.

The problem, as the article suggests, is not so much one of science as it is of language: the word “theory” means something much different (and much more specific) to a scientist than it does to the average person, and creationist activists are expertly employing this fact to their advantage.

For me the question still remains, for what advantage? There’s nothing about evolutionary theory that denies the existence of a creator. The only thing at risk is wholesale fundamentalist belief in the inerrant truth of the Bible, and if you can live with “inerrant truth” being rife with self-contradictions, you’re going to have a lot of trouble with science anyway. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. But, meh, who needs science anyway? What has science done for the average person, anyway? (Don’t ask that question with your eyes open, unless you happen to be somewhere in the middle of untouched wilderness… completely naked and devoid of tools of any kind… and, uh, without a computer on which to read these words.)