What's news is not news any more

Becky O'Malley
Friday May 26, 2017 - 05:06:00 PM

For the last week I’ve been in a genteel suburb outside of Philly to celebrate my eldest granddaughter’s graduation from college. We stayed, unusually for us, in a relatively conventional on-campus commercial lodging, in what used to be called a fancy motel but is now dignified as an “inn”.

In a universe where in the last hundred+ days we’ve become accustomed to Le Scandale du Jour, having a huge television screen across from the bed was an unaccustomed luxury. We don’t even own a TV any more.

Like many of my peers, I get a lot of my national news from NPR, backed up in print the next day by the New York Times, and occasionally from the Chronicle. Sometimes I even see a bit of color on YouTube, maybe Rachel Maddow for spice or Steven Colbert for drollery. So it was a revelation to experience All Excitement All the Time via MSNBC, CNN or even CSpan.

My goodness, how they do go on! Eventually I got tired of so much Shocked, Shocked, even though what the various talking heads are reporting on continues to be genuinely shocking, even when delivered with solemnity by public broadcasters.  

MSNBC has an interesting technique for filling the bit of space between their many commercials. They have four or five anchors sequentially in prime time, but all of them seem to pick the same three top hits and repeat them several times within each segment. You do get the message. 

A great part of the airtime is the updated version of what used to be called Rip and Read. In the old days TV newscasters would just lift a story from print newspapers without attribution and make believe they’d reported it themselves. The contemporary version of this, much more honest and certainly more fun, is to get the New York Times or Washington Post hotshot to come on the program for an interview by Rachel or Chris or whoever about their latest scoop. Maddow, a well-educated smart cookie, seems to read a lot and report back on what she reads, which is all to the good in this post-literate society, and also she makes it seem twice as exciting.  

The last of the many unbelievable incidents I learned about on this trip was not, like the others, yet another revelation of the Trumpistas’ past trafficking with the Russian oligarchy. It was the one, seen on our last night in the motel, of the Montana oligarch, a Republican candidate for Congress, who body-slammed an eager newsie who got in his face the night before the election. You’d think this might be enough to make that bully lose the election, but you’d be wrong. He won. 

On Thursday my usual sources, the print NYT and the sanctified NPR, seemed to take the election results as confirmation that Trump voters would stand by their man regardless. But what’s interesting about the reporting is that the MSNBC crowd, card-carrying liberals all, had opined accurately the night before that the Republican would win anyhow because of the large number of early vote-by-mail ballots which had already been sent in before the incident. The fact that the assaulted fellow works for The Guardian, a British paper which has been running stories from a lot of U.S. stringers, might have given the on-air reporters timely information on the situation, since it happened after U.S. publications had just about finished for the day. 

Though we get what seems like a lot of news these days, it tends to be the top-down variety. There’s not a whole lot of original reporting going on, but what is reported in depth by the small number of surviving national print publications is echoed down through a variety of channels. The story that starts in the Times or the Post appears online and on MSNBC the night before it’s printed,and again in print in the Chronicle the day after.  

You can just about forget about local news. It’s disheartening, to say the least, that many of the fine people I know from my interest in the arts (and yes, they’re well-educated too) have absolutely no idea of anything going on in Berkeley. Conversational references to information learned from the several respectable local news sources are greeted with blank stares. 

Such people are baffled by references to Berkeleyside or the East Bay Times, let alone to stories in those conscientious publications. Some have heard of the Daily Cal, but dismiss it as “just a student paper”, oblivious of the fact that those students frequently do good reporting. If they say anything about the Chronicle, it’s that “we cancelled our subscription because we never read it.” I myself wasted eight years of my life hoping to get the word out in print but always missed a sizable portion of the citizenry. And yet those same people get upset when things happen within their attention sphere, like the Saturday Farmers’ Market being cancelled, with no clue as to why this might have happened.  

None of these local news sources is perfect or complete, but if you check into them from time to time you can kind of figure out what’s happening. Some of these folks do read the New York Times online, for all the good it does locally. The Times’ coverage of the anti-Milo brouhaha missed the fact that most of the violent brawlers were NOT from Berkeley in any form, either UCB or CoB.  

I’m told that the young don’t read newspapers—I don’t know how true that is. They are reputed to get their news from social media, but the mother of a 15-year-old, a good student at a demanding high school, tells me that “no one looks at Facebook any more”—it’s all InstaGram or SnapChat, she says.(She also tells me that most SnapChats she’s seen are pictures of feet.)  

If you’re a political person, exactly how do you go about changing hearts and minds if what used to be known as “the press” is gradually fading away like the Cheshire Cat? Soon nothing will be left but the grin on Steven Colbert’s face. 

Steve Phillips had a good piece in The Nation not long ago suggesting that the millions campaigns spend on TV ads is wasted, and I think he’s right. TV watchers aren’t news fans in the main. His idea is that the tried and true strategy of ringing doorbells and looking people in the eye as you talked to them is still the best way of persuading them to vote for your candidate, and who knows? He might be right.