March 25, 2009

Nude as the news

Legend has it my great aunt Martha used to believe Mike Douglas could see into her living room when she watched his show, and that he was talking to her and could hear her when she talked back to him. He was her TV friend.

Those of you who don’t remember Mike Douglas should know he was a daytime talk show host (“The Mike Douglas Show,” 1963-1977), had had a marginal singing career dating back to a stint with Kay Kiser in the late 1940s, and his greatest achievement (arguably) was featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono as guest hosts for a full week in 1972, a week that included legendary appearances by Chuck Berry, Ralph Nader and Bobby Seale.

I’m sure you will agree that my great aunt Martha could have done worse in choosing her TV friend. Mr. Douglas was an unusually amiable fellow, and his show was maybe a little more engaging than average mind-numbing daytime television.

It seems possible that I am just two generations removed from a curious case of mental illness. Some of my friends might argue that the specter of insanity has actually brushed a little closer to my door than I’d like to admit, but I don’t talk to those people anymore, thank you — at least not when anybody is close enough to hear me, so it’s all good.

Meanwhile, having what might be a higher than normal sensitivity to the idea of ordinary madness, it bothers me when television newscasters say things like, “We’ll see you at 6,” because, as a person of average intelligence, I know that those people can’t see me. If I thought they could, I might clean the place up a bit.

More to the point, I worry about the cultural effect of such an approach. I know the idea is to slyly foment a feeling of intimacy and plant the suggestion that future contact with our television friends is in some way desirable, but really, it just pisses me off to know that the convention among mainstream news outlets is to embrace this idiotic principle because it appeals to the lowest common denominator, those viewers who are susceptible to such a base philosophy.

Worse, it leaves them (us) there; instead of lifting viewers to higher sensibilities, advising reasonable approaches to emerging circumstances, American “news sources” resort to shock and idiotic interpersonal behaviors that do nothing but perpetuate dependence and misery.

I’d like to tune into a station that didn’t use its previous coverage of weather emergencies as evidence of reliability. When local stations rerun emergency alerts in their commercials, it is a tactic designed to deceive viewers who aren’t watching closely enough into believing there is an immediate threat — until they look up and realize it’s just a commercial. I wonder if the stations’ switchboards light up with calls from pissed-off viewers. I don’t want to waste my time and/or encourage them with a response, but I guess it might be time to change my approach; they won’t modify their behavior until it stops working.

But the problems with news reporting are so much more harrowing than this. While local news is designed to give the impression that we are being informed, it becomes more and more obvious that we are merely being targeted for a cycle of emotional manipulation designed to serve the advertisers’ need for compliant consumers by creating a feeling of need for their products — when, really, there isn’t anything advertised on television that anybody needs. They use broadcast time to tell us about new movies opening each week. Is it really news that I can save money using coupons at the grocery store?

Sometimes I fear my disgust with local television news is evidence of an unbalanced mind. Is it right to be so bothered? Probably not, but I’m not infuriated by all of it; I even think I like some of the reporters, but that makes me feel like an even bigger tool. Even the ones I like aren’t really giving me any worthwhile information.

I wish they could see me and hear me, standing there in my kitchen, cussing at them.

For further consideration: Paddy Chayefsky’s script for “Network” won an Academy Award in 1977. The idea that network news could be subverted by entertainment principles and turned into a profit-making behemoth instead of a public service seemed crazy. But it has come true. “Network” is an essential American experience. Watch it at least once a year.