Having a short attention span and a long reading list, I have been avoiding television for the past few years. Oh, I'll still watch Family Guy and South Park and a few other cartoons (my general rule being "okay, fine... if it's animated!"), and that's about it. I will admit that my relative television fast was also inspired by a commercial that was so insipid it made me literally exclaim "Oh, fuck you!" and turn off the set. I say all of this so that I won't sound like too much of a snob when I ask that most snobbish of all questions: how can people watch this shit?
Seriously. I recently heard a news story on the radio that I found interesting. So, when I got home, instead of looking on the news wires like usual, I decided to see what CNN was reporting about it. I will only say that the story was in relation to the War in Iraq and that CNN wasn't interested, apparently. When I turned on the set, they were discussing another news story; here I will only say that it involved a boring radio personality who offended members of the black community with his racist comments, women (less so, apparently) with his sexist comments, and the centuries-old art of comedy with his painfully unfunny jokes.
So, fool that I am, I settled into the couch and decided to wait until they were done with the gossipy non-story, and ready to discuss adult matters. Some of you know the punchline, right? Well, here it is anyway- I gave up after two and a half hours! That's right- they discussed this moronic celebrity gossip for an entire two and a half hours. And the whole time they played up the pseudo-importance of it by roughly dividing the entire country into the 'white team', who are expected to side with the radio personality (and all make exactly the same argument that 'rappers say offensive things too!') and the 'black team' who are expected to argue that 'he needs to get fired!' Could we expect any nuance whatsoever when discussing the issue of race in America? Pffft! Whatever, Dude! And then CNN promised that Larry King- who is so boring that he should be licensed as an anesthesiologist- was going to spend the entire evening discussing a recently-deceased supermodel, may her original parts rest in peace. Seriously, I'm asking- how do people watch this shit?
When I ask liberal-minded folks about this, they tell me that FOX News is the worst. Conservatives claim that CNN, or maybe CNBC are worse than FOX. All of them are supposedly biased towards one political party or the other. Believe me, if you are the sort of 'elitist' who is capable of thinking about the same subject for a full minute without watching a computer graphic, they are all equally biased against you. If your thinking has matured in any way whatsoever since you were a 15 year old, you are not their target audience. Which is truly amazing, since actual 15 year olds are mostly too high to watch the news. Saying that you hate either CNN or FOX News for the way that they report the news, but will watch the other, is like saying that you hate Pepsi for causing cavities, and avoid that problem by drinking nothing but Coke.
As for political bias, I would guess that most media people are basically to the right on social and economic issues and to the left on cultural issues. On most fictional programs, class doesn't exist; everyone is upper middle-class; and everyone has a gay friend. The perfect model of this is MTV, which equally espouses sexual experimentation and endless shopping. Think I'm joking? When asked what would be on MTV India, MTV Chief Executive Tom Freston said: "There isn't a lot of angst, it's just unbridled consumerism." (Quoted in No Logo, by Naomi Klein) The dialectical relationship between angst and shopping, which is clear to Freston, is less so to me.
Journalist Mark Hertsgaard wrote, in his book The Eagle's Shadow, "When I returned to the United States in 1995 after living abroad for five years, the single most striking change I noticed was that the media no longer took anything seriously." Hertsgaard blames this on the corporate nature of American media. It's a tempting thesis, but it's not as if corporations can't be swayed by the public too. The problem with the American viewing public is that they're willing to watch shit for an astonishing seven hours a day, while complaining the whole time that there's nothing on!
But it seems to me that if the viewers can get results in such quixotic and meaningless pursuits as getting a person who openly insults them taken off the air (while sparing those personalities whose contempt is more subtle), or voting for a lousy singer on American Idol, they could similarly ban together and demand just one program that talks to them as if they are intelligent adults, or even better- that talks above their level, instead of beneath it. Can you imagine?
Update: My main question here was why people watch this shit. A second question would be if anyone thinks there could ever be an organized movement, like Americans for Moderately Intelligent Television? (And yes, I realize that there are some intelligent dramas out there. As for news though...)