Are You Watching Television or is Television Watching You?

This past year has been so crazy! And the TV news channels I think have only added to the confusion and division.

Depending on whether you watch CNN or FOX News you usually get a different take on the same story. One evening I just flipped back and forth between the two and I could not believe as I listened to their coverage that they were talking about the same event.

Reporting both sides of an issue and then letting the listener decide what to believe seems to be a thing of the past.

Reflecting on this I recently was given a book to read called “How to Watch TV News.” Written by Neil Postman and Steve Powers several years ago (published in 1992) it was amazing how much the book speaks to our situation in 2021.

The authors share that America is suffering from an information glut. They ask a good question: “Are you watching television or is television watching you?” They point out that the news channel make their money by selling time for commercials. Their purpose is to make money – not report news. Accordingly, they spend a fortune determining what the public likes and does not like.

The book asks a great question: What is news? What makes an event worthy of prime time coverage? Recently Tiger Woods was in a automobile accident. For several days the accident was discussed at great length. What was the cause? How long would he be in the hospital? Would he be able to play golf again? Over and over pictures of his vehicle were shown.

Now I’m not saying that it was not a terrible thing that he was injured. But how many other people were in accidents that day? How many other lives were changed or made more difficult? What made Tiger Woods’ accidents “news?”

The journalist reporting the news will naturally view what is important and what is not important through their own viewpoint. Also, what they can and must report will be determined most of the time, not by them, but by the executives running the network. They will want to report the things they believe their audience wants to hear so that they will keep watching and the network can keep making profits from the revenue received from commercials.

According to Kelly Main of Fit Small Business:

  • The average TV ad costs $115,000 for a 30-second commercial on a national network.
  • TV advertising spending in North America amounted to 62.9 billion in 2020.
  • AMC’s “The Walking Dead” averaged $400,00 per 30 second spot.

Ask yourself: Why is the news mainly about “bad” things? Murders, fires, rapes, riots, unemployment figures, arguments in Congress. Why are there few news stories about the latest novel that has been written, a new symphony recently composed, research being done to cure cancer or other diseases?

The authors of this book suggest one reason is these events make poor television news because there is little to show about them. People watch television. They want to see active, exciting, intriguing pictures.

News executives have found people say they want the latest news presented by people “I can trust and respect.” Accordingly, they spend a lot of money to make their news anchors come across as good-looking, likable people. They work to build up the reputations of their anchors, spend money on makeup and clothing to give them a pleasing appearance. (When was the last time you saw a news anchor who was overweight, and not good-looking?)

My friends on the right side of the political debate love to watch Tucker Carlson. They believe he has the interests of the working class, patriotic Americans. However, he makes $6 million dollars a year from Fox and is believed to be worth $30 million. Of course, if he can share news from a viewpoint that the right wants to hear, he is assured to keep raking in his big salary. How can he impartially share news when his comfortable lifestyle depends on keeping his ratings up?

My friends on the left side of the political debate love to watch Don Lemon. They believe he speaks for the poor and the minorities in our country. However, he makes $4 million a year from CNN and is believed to be worth $12 million. So he too is going to share news that the left want to hear. How can he be impartial when that big salary is at stake?

The authors end by making some suggestions on what you can do when watching television news. One I loved was:

Reduce by at least one-third the amount of TV news you watch….if you are concerned that cutting down your viewing time will cause you to “miss” important news, keep this in mind: each day’s TV news consists, for the most part, of fifteen or so examples of one or the other of the Seven Deadly Sins, with which you are already quie familiar. There may be a couple of stories exemplifying lust, usually four about murder, occasionally one about gluttony, another about envy, and so on. It cannot possibly do you any harm to excuse yourself each week from acquaintance with thirty or forty of these examples. Remember: TV news does not reflect normal, everyday life.

The second one I loved was:

Reduce by one-third the number of opinions you feel obligated to have….Wouldn’t it be liberating to say…..”I have no opinion on this since I know practically nothing about it?”

I have no idea if this book is still in print, but if you can find it, I would highly recommend it. It is so fitting for today’s world.

Good Advice from the Apostle John

In our devotion today my husband and I read the New Testament epistle 1 John.  Written by one of the disciples of Jesus the letter is, of course, giving advice about spiritual matters.

However, in light of today’s constant barrage of information from cable news, newspaper and magazines, twitter and Facebook accounts, I find his advice very timely and practical for our daily life.

His words:

My dear friends don’t believe everything you hear.  Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you.  

Oh, that we would all be careful and examine what we hear.  I see many people on Facebook sharing something they see that expresses their own view on a subject and they post it on their wall without ever checking to see who the post was from and if it is accurate.

Then, sadly, people begin repeating things they heard or saw as if it were true.

Let us follow St John’s advice and check for facts behind what we see or hear.

Something my husband says a lot applies here too:

Be careful of listening to half-truths.  You may have heard the wrong half.