The first television news report I can remember with some clarity was the King’s Cross fire of 1987. Going over old clips for this column, it is the near-Pathé News quaintness of the coverage that stands out. The reporter’s voice (you never see her) is crisp and imparts almost nothing that is not a fact. There is no vox pop or third-party talking head. Bar a glimpse of flowers at the end, the images are there to inform and not simper. All is speed and compression in this time-pressed bulletin: another appears between a Viennetta ice-cream advert and a rerun of Ordinary People.
I know now, as I did not at age five, that an era was ending. Britain would soon get its first round-the-clock news channel, with all the ephemera it takes to fill one. At the same time, the Federal Communications Commission scrapped the “fairness doctrine”, freeing US broadcasters to editorialise. Throw in some cable upstarts and you have the bagginess, the histrionics, of today’s TV, where all news is BREAKING, and each anchor a monologue merchant. It is hard to convince the young how terse and inscrutable these desk-bound enigmas once were.
The debasement of TV has done far more than social media to pollute civic life. I don’t only (or even mainly) mean Fox News, that province of bad faith and interchangeable haircuts. Nor is it right to both-sides this and blame the stupor of liberal self-love on other channels.
What I have in mind is a subtler loss of rigour, a widening of what counts as “news”, even among those with no agenda. Reporting can still be heroically brave. But what used to be a bone-dry recitation of the facts is too often padded out with interpretation, contention and the quest for a story’s “meaning” (leave that nonsense to columnists). Were the phrase not taken by another medium, we might call it Impressionism.
It is hard to sell the public on the sanctity of facts when they account for such a small share of broadcast time. A change in the nature of TV is a change in the mental habits of a nation. According to the Pew Research Center, 18 per cent of US adults cite social media as their main source of political news. Those who name TV, whether network, cable or local, amount to 45 per cent.
Ofcom reports similarly one-sided figures for the UK. Because my trade is part of that minority (Twitter is a big WhatsApp group for journalists) it tends to overrate the psychic hold of these platforms on the masses, even as the masses use them for Neymar clips and side-on gym selfies.
Nor does the chronology of real-world events implicate social media as the problem. If there was an identifiable rupture in public civility, it was the turn of the 1990s. That was when unanimous confirmations of Supreme Court justices (a proxy measure of bipartisanship) disappeared. Newt Gingrich broke through. The best guess is that unipolarity, the fall of communism, cost the US: the absence of an enemy freed Americans to fight themselves. But even if we turn from the geo-structural to mere media for a culprit, it cannot be Facebook or Twitter. Each was still a decade or more from inception.
As Europe’s intra-Christian wars followed the printing press, and fascism trailed radio, perhaps the strife of our day is traceable to a new means of communication. The error is to cite the most modish one. Just as likely, we are still processing an expansion of TV news that is not that much older.
I have spent enough time in and around those studios to be complicit but also to know that no harm is meant. TV producers are bound by the imperative to fill time. The contrived debates, the tendentious guests from campaign groups, the “engagement” with viewers: the aim here is to populate a schedule, not to cretinise or incite. The terminal point of this ravenousness for content is the newspaper review, in which journalists sift through journalism on a journalistic platform. In a world of discrete bulletins at 6pm and 10pm, none of this fluff was viable. In ours, it proliferates. TV news established the idea that what matters about an event is its contested meaning, not its core of facts. Mark Zuckerberg just monetised the contest.
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