Watching Counter News


In the daily scheme of things, I'm pretty good at avoiding commercials. Commercials are the reason I own a remote control. Commercials are the reason I support public television. If God had wanted us to watch commercials, He wouldn't have created the VCR.

So as a devout news junkie, I usually tape the news for the express purpose of zapping the ads. I take a perverse pride in evading the admeisters.

But frankly, I think this is a mistake. Lately, I have put my fast-forward into neutral and found what I was missing: the other side of the story. The real "other" point of view.

When you actually, unhappily, pay attention, it's clear that commercials aren't a break in the news, they're counter-news, an alternative media of their own. Commercials these days, especially the ones targeted for the network news, carry on a running debate with the anchors and with the stories.

In the anchor news this week, Sarajevo is under siege, one ethnic group is bombing and starving another in the heart of Europe. In the ad news, the only worry in postcard pretty Olde World is that someone gave away the secret recipe for Mueslix.

In the anchor news, Dan Quayle is preaching about the loss of traditional values. In the ad news, a traditional grandpa drops into the 1990s for a breakfast and discovers that nothing much has changed: "What was great back then is Great Grains now."

In the anchor news, 2,500 unemployed Americans are lining up for one of 350 minimum-wage jobs at a remodeled hotel. In the ad news, five well-dressed Americans with credit cards are getting drenched by interest charges. "It pays to Discover."

Of course, the most blatant of these news-ad debates takes place over the environment. One minute we get information from Rio that the United States is labeled the bad boy and the president called a captive of corporations. The next minute or 15 seconds, we get something close to disinformation from the corporations.

Porpoises, penguins and assorted friends from the deep blue sea are applauding Dupont. A young idealistic man has decided to work for Dow because it "lets you do great things" for the environment. The automobile, archenemy of the air, turns "green" before our very eyes as the makers place their Jeep in the pristine countryside. Flash cards around the Jeep read: Running Water. Solar Heating.

Even those who regularly stay glued to the tube rarely notice this bizarre contract. We have become immune to the message of the ad medium and too sophisticated to admit the impact of commercials. I don't think we recognize that there is a debate going on.

At its deepest level, the conflict between anchor news and ad news is not just about issues but about attitudes. It's a face-off between complexity and simplicity. What the journalists increasingly say in stories is that our problems are complicated, their origins are murky, the solutions elusive.

They tell us that the latest truce in Sarajevo probably won't last. The Greenhouse Effect is part of an interlocking directorate of woes. And when a PLO member is assassinated, even Peter Jennings throws up his hands: "Many people are blaming many other people for his death."

The ad world, on the other hand, says that for every problem you see, there is a fix -- and it's quick. Its woes are, by and large, freezer burn, static cling, hemorrhoids, diarrhea, slipping dentures and morning breath. All thoroughly curable by the end of the spot.

Putting aside hemorrhoids, and the possibility that you might get stuck on a Carnival cruise ship with the hyperactive hostess, it's much easier to live in the ad world than the anchor world. The ad news offers the seductive possibility that there is a Fixodent right around the corner for every loose denture. It emphasizes the gap between personal woes which we can control and world worries so immense that it's easier to focus on foot fungus.

I won't blame advertising alone for our passion for simple, immediate solutions. It comes naturally. Only on the news shows does this point-counterpoint between simplicity and complexity stand out in such a stark, often ludicrous form.

But when you consider our current impatience, our longing for any answer and our discomfort with the ambiguous and the uncertain, pause for a word or two from our sponsors. We are being trained and reinforced in impatience. Day by day. One 15-second lesson at a time.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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