I know that I'm wishing for the improbable here, but perhaps the Brian Williams story will bring some self-reflection to television executives, news anchors and other network correspondents who come into our living rooms to tell us what is going on in America and around the world.
For way too long, especially with the introduction of around-the-clock cable networks, the presentation of news has become more entertainment and less informative.
I understand that each network is competing for viewers and advertising revenue. Years ago, the public had three choices for networks news. Today, the public has multiple choices, not to mention hundreds of Internet sources, to access news from around the world. The competition for limited advertising dollars has each news source trying to outdo the other. The result, I believe, is that the people giving us the news have become, like Williams, the news. In the end, the American public is neither informed nor entertained.
One way the networks try to get as many viewers as possible is through the use of exaggeration and dramatization. Everything on the news these days seems to be presented as high drama, even when it isn't. The Ebola epidemic in Africa is a recent example. While not a problem in U.S., American networks spent days scaring the heck out of the American public to the point that we were willing to lock people up without due process, not because they were infected, but because they had contact with an infected person. With misinformation flying everywhere, the networks failed in their primary mission to keep the public informed.
Meanwhile, real news, such as this winter's serious flu epidemic, which really did threaten the lives of thousands of Americans, received significantly less attention and alarm.
With the exception of PBS, the news presented today is shallow and uninformative. We would all benefit from more depth and unbiased analysis of the news from experts, not talking heads trying to make political points or drum up more viewers.
Too often, television reporters and correspondents serve as each other's guests, switching from an anchor role one hour to analysis role in the next on a different show. These dual roles are a direct conflict of interest if a host hopes to present any resemblance of fairness. Let's face it — many correspondents wear their political affiliation on their sleeves; instead of presenting facts, we get political talking points.
Good reporters, as best they can, remove themselves from the story. But as former ABC News president David Westin stated recently, "I think across the industry now there is a tendency to try to build up our reporters into an important part of the story themselves. Instead of going out in dangerous circumstances and tell us what's happening, they too often put themselves in the middle of the story. I think that is a bad thing."
The Weather Channel is another example of excessive exaggeration and dramatization, especially before big winter storms or hurricanes. Their correspondents frequently act like children excited about an upcoming birthday party. Why do they feel the need to walk outside to demonstrate for us how fast it is snowing or how strong the wind is blowing? Do we really need for them to hold a ruler in the snow to demonstrate what 6 inches of snow looks like?
I seldom watch the evening news or any news program on TV anymore. I'd rather read the news from multiple sources — newspapers and the Internet — at my own pace and not have to deal with the talking heads trying to tell me what I should think.
The same is the case with the weather report. You can keep your bundled up weather people walking outside in the storm. If I want to know what the snow looks like outside, I'll look out my window.
Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at email@example.com.