TV News in a Postmodern World

News As A Sporting Event

by Terry L. Heaton
There's an old psychology exercise that people use from time-to-time when they're trying to figure things out. It's called "why-because." A current conundrum is expressed, which is followed by the question, "Why?" The answer must begin with the word "because," and that answer must be followed by another "why?" The resulting tail chasing is designed to focus the patient on the uselessness of such thinking in addressing their feelings and their reaction to life.

Asking the question "why" is an important part of every reporter's job, but the extent to which it has grown to dominate the day-to-day operation of newsrooms has subtly turned the business into one that emphasizes blame over facts.

Every news consultant who says our viewers, listeners or readers want to "make sense" of the events of the day — and advises us to provide such perspective — is perpetuating the myth that we actually understand those events ourselves. This is an underlying assumption in Modernist newsrooms that must be challenged, for it leads to the self-destructive notion that all news can (and should) be covered as if it was a series of sporting events.

In the world of news as a sporting event, journalists posing as color commentators jump into the stream and give us context that helps us understand. We don't end up understanding, of course, because normalcy in such a culture is defined by winning. Right and wrong are classified with winning and losing, but who's defining right and wrong? For all the talk about campaign reporting being the equivalent of a horse race, it is amazing that observers don't see this equally reflected in crime, business, government and other reporting.

Since the days of Walter Lippmann and his "professional" cronies, we've tried hard to present ourselves to the public as an elite group of knowledgeable experts who can ferret out the truth about anything. Walter Cronkite's "That's the way it is" was more than a simple salutation. We've also tried to sell the idea that we do this, because we represent their best interests. Internally, we've fallen victim to our own hyperbole, and, in so doing, we've alienated our audiences, because people know it's just not true.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism released their inaugural and impressive "State of the News Media" earlier this year and noted that journalism "is in the midst of an epochal transformation, as momentous probably as the invention of the telegraph or television." From what-to-what is the essential question, and that understanding begins with the important changes taking place in our society.

We've entered a massive cultural shift in the west, from a time when the Modernist lordship of science and logic built the institutions that currently serve humankind (or do we serve them?) to a time when creations of the Modern era, especially technology, have empowered individuals in such a way that Modernism is no longer relevant. It's the Age of Participation, and the credo "I think, therefore I understand" has been replaced by "I experience, therefore I understand."

Of all the Modernist myths that currently dominate our culture, the most prevalent and, therefore, threatened is that everything in life is based on cause and effect. This is the pinnacle of logical thinking, and it's accepted as reality, sweeping aside in the process the unmanageable notions of time and chance. This myth is perpetuated daily by the news media, who've become accustomed to presenting stories as if they have endings similar to sporting events and can be analyzed as such.

 The Lakers lost, because Kobe didn't perform up to par.

 Howard Dean lost, because the Internet didn't perform the way he hoped it would.

 The people in the home died, because the smoke detector didn't go off.

 Police suspect the truck driver had been drinking before the crash.

The idea is that if we can just know the cause of everything, we can then prepare, so that it won't happen to us. This is the heaven promised by the gods of cause and effect and served by news-as-a-sporting-event. People don't want bad things to happen to them or their loved ones. We're content to travel down life's unpredictable road as long as we know when to duck. This is core human nature stuff, and it's the target of sporting event news.

Nowhere is this type of news more prevalent than in the coverage of our political world. An election is a natural sporting event, albeit one that lasts for months or even years. A Presidential election is like the NCAA basketball tournament on steroids. We have an elimination tournament in the form of primaries that culminates in the championship game in November. The sidebar political stories contribute to the overall story. For example, a New York Times piece on the recent 9/11 hearings carried this headline, "Evaluating the 9/11 Hearings' Winners and Losers."

Most that we classify as news begins with an event. I was taught long ago that the event was the first day lead and that reaction was the second. Attempts at understanding were reserved for later, but today, the "perspective" stories often shove aside the others as news organizations compete for "king of the know-it-all-mountain" status and the coveted marketing niche of "they help me make sense of the news." Who, what, why, where and when have become the servants of how and how come. Blame is now the first day lead. Technology and speed have enabled this occurrence, but it is our marketing that has provided the mandate to turn curiosity into conclusion in the name of cause and effect.

Our day-to-day behavior in obsessing over the "big story" concept has backed us into a terribly uncomfortable place, and as Stephen Covey wrote, "You can't talk your way out of something you've behaved your way into." We no more understand what's really going on than our audiences, so we either fake it or come off sounding like morons through content manipulation in the name of branding. Such efforts don't take place in a vacuum, however, and the audience is hip to what we're doing. Yet we express amazement that we have a credibility problem. We mistakenly believe we're providing meat for them to digest, when in fact, we're serving them Jell-O.

Consultants will argue that this is exactly what audiences and readers want. Life is complicated, the argument goes, and people want and appreciate help in making sense of what's going on around them. This again makes the false assumption that this is part of a news organization's mission and that we are capable of doing so. We have no special right to make this claim.

Howard Stern versus the FCC is a great example of a sports story in news clothing. Good versus evil. Big versus small. Winners, losers, good guys and bad. It's perfect. We're all clinging to our radios, TVs, newspapers and Websites to find out who's going to come out on top. This has special intrigue, for it's one of those cases where the winner can actually wind up being the loser and vice versa.

People are addicted to the sense of participating in history by watching on-going events unfold, and isn't that the same principal appeal of, say, the Super Bowl?

All of this, of course, creates wonderful diversions that the logical status quo uses. Non-important sidebars actually become the story, because of their ability to produce winners and losers. Meanwhile, the real issues of life go unreported. They don't have the same zing as sporting event news, and we're content with being a mile wide and an inch deep.

A case in point is the coverage of the biggest event of them all — war. Aside from the main event with its winner and loser, there are tons of side events with similar story lines. It makes for a marvelous and bottomless pit from which news organizations can pick and choose and put on their color commentary suits.

Lawyers have helped turn any kind of accident or mishap into a sporting event, because their lifeblood is cause and effect. Lawyers write the laws for our culture that they then use for their own benefit. This is one of those important and ongoing issues of life that is swept aside or overlooked by our lust for news as a sporting event. After all, why would we take on the group that provides us with the stories we really seek? So we end up serving the best interests of those who dine at the table of cause and effect.

The problem is that — at a very deep level — people know this is all bull. There is such a thing as chance. There is such a thing as the wrong place at the wrong time. Shit happens. Accidents happen. We can't live forever. Not everything is cause and effect. And it's so easy to root for any good guy until you've spent some time with somebody you thought was on the other side. Suddenly, you're left with sporting event confusion — rooting for both teams at the same time. What you thought was white is actually black and vice-versa.

Speaking of black and white, is there a more perfect bad guy in our world today than the Caucasian male? He's the cause of everything evil, right? The effects his villainous actions have perpetrated upon the world are nothing short of catastrophic. Yet, in an attempt to find victory in the middle of a losing effort, he actually admits he's the villain in the hope that people will ultimately forgive him and eventually like him. Penalty flag! This poor Dagwood is always on the losing team, but he sure wishes it could be otherwise.

We perpetuate other stereotypes and myths — the very things Lippmann sought to overcome through a professional press — in the name of cause and effect. Another black man in handcuffs. Another Asian math whiz. An athlete on drugs. Another corrupt politician. Another deadbeat dad. Another welfare cheat. Another victim who brought it on him or herself. Life is filled with pigeon holes that the media identifies and advances through the gods of cause and effect.

So along comes Postmodernism, which elevates experience and participation — because everything isn't black and white. Time and chance do play a role in life. There is order in chaos, and not everything is as it first seems. Deconstructing the misfortune of a friend can tell a story other than that which the culture deems true. The lure of cause and effect are, at best, demonic, because they produce a world that Pomos see as rigid, boring, predictable, confining and most importantly, unfulfilling.

The Internet plays a huge role in all of this, because its structure allows and encourages Postmodern inquiry. Pomos discover themselves in this environment and, more importantly, they find others of similar thought. They share their lives and experiences and uncover something profound — that the black and white, winners and losers, hierarchical world around them is self-centered and obnoxious. So they build their own worlds — their tribes.

Doing the news in such a world requires new definitions and a serious attempt to climb down from the pedestals we've created for ourselves. News is not a lecture; it's a conversation, and one that begins with a willingness to believe that the person with whom one is conversing might actually be more knowledgeable than ourselves. This is already taking place — and with great success — in a place known as the blogosphere.

For traditional media types, the biggest threat with bloggers is not the power grab, criticism or citizen reporting offered by those who work the blogosphere; it's this notion that the reader has a role in the discussion. This threat stems from a basic insecurity built on the assumption that the journalist has done the necessary homework and, therefore, ought not to be challenged. Moreover, he doesn't have time to be challenged, because he's off to the next event. These people live and work in a world seemingly beyond that in which their audiences live — untouchable professionals on a mission, the source of which no one can identify, because it wasn't commissioned by anyone.

People today are demanding to be heard, and the tools of the Internet are making that possible in growing numbers. Absent regulation or other obstruction, they'll ultimately win this sporting event story.

Why? Because.