You might have heard of Brian Williams show Rock Center, it was a prime-time journalism show that tried to bring back serious journalism to a prime-time audience. You might have also heard it was canceled. While it isn’t a surprise to anyone it is just another reminder of how the sensationalist tide in media has yet to cease and our Democracy is suffering every day because of it.
I was never really home when the show aired, mostly due to work, and when the show aired is kind of a mystery. The networks had no faith in it so they tirelessly bumped it around to the point where you couldn’t find it. However, I did catch it a few times and while it was fairly typical of Network News, it did try to tell serious stories about serious events that effect real people’s lives. It was a far cry from the NBC Network’s other news program: The Unwatchable Sensational Murder/Crimes that Doesn’t Effect You Extravaganza Hour and Variety Show, or Dateline for short. Rock Center was not exactly See it Now, the gold standard in journalism set by Edward R. Murrow, and it isn’t exactly Moyers and Company either, yet it did try to bring a slice of actual reality into our own human experience and for that, it deserves to be noticed.
It’s a pretty safe assumption that it is/was far more intelligent than anything that could possibly replace it. Probably another drama about a team of doctors, lawyers, fire-fighters or policemen… who care. Or perhaps another 30 minute sitcom filled to the brim with disposable sex jokes and endless canned screeching laugh tracks that tell us when to laugh, or when not to. It could even be 30 minute sitcom filled to the brim with disposable sex jokes with, gasp, NO screeching canned laughter so we can laugh whenever we want to, which for some reason is a whole lot less, but I digress.
When we let the lowest common denominator determine an increasing amount of events in our lives in an endless pursuit of maximizing profit by not saying anything offensive, to any one or corporation, this is what we get. Can’t do a story about our crooked Medical system or over-prescribed prescription drugs, no that would offend our insurance and especially our big pharmaceutical advertisers. Can’t do a story about how Tea Party groups are mostly a front organization for billionaires who want to take over the government, because many of them are share holders. Can’t do stories that offend particular interest groups because they can organize boycotts of our advertisers. Can’t do TV that is too intelligent, because dumb people tune out and we want as many people to watch as possible so we can charge more in advertising.
That last one is the real issue because that is the nature of the beast, the more sets of eyeballs, the bigger the profit. It’s just the free market at work. This is used to justify all sorts of nonsense, even if it isn’t true and it often isn’t. Also, since the Nielsen ratings have a monopoly on TV ratings and only really survey a thousand or two households in a nation of 300 million, it’s hard to say conclusively that intelligent programming has no place. Ask HBO, which goes by a non-ratings standard how well airing intelligent programming has worked out for them? That’s right, not only is intelligent programming in demand, people are willing to actually pay for it.
Yet let’s be honest, news will never beat American Idle (misspelled on purpose), Two and a Half Men or other droll and depressingly, brain nullifying programs. People don’t particularly want to be depressed about the realities of life that affect them during prime-time, they would rather be depressed about murder stories and autopsies that are somehow detached from their lives. Add into the mix the 24-hour News talk channels that cover an amazingly little amount of news (with a few exceptions) and you have the recipe for what has lead us to today.
Providing a news service was once the bargain struck between the Networks and Congress in exchange for broadcasting rights. News divisions were not profitable. They weren’t supposed to be. News was a public service. Today, more and more honest journalism is being pushed out by Networks crying about profits. Reporting schlock and entertainment dribble attracts more people overall, so it is therefore more profitable. Human interest nonsense to keep the tone light and stories that “affect you” the viewer, like stories on dieting. Lately the Networks cry about how they are losing ratings to the other 12 cable stations that they each own, ironically. A very small group of corporations dominated by a very small number of people, control nearly every bit of media that touches our lives. Every billboard, every radio show, every TV show and much of the internet. So if they control everything, why do they care so much to let a little profit slide for what should be a public service?
There are many reasons, including that they are required by law to maximize profits, ya gotta love capitalism, but also, because they don’t have to and they don’t want to. Why would Corporate America want smart consumers who don’t believe in advertising, want environmental laws that cost them money or are smart enough to see that this system threw them overboard 30 years ago? They don’t want you to be smart! They are also-remarkably short-sighted because a dumber society means less intelligent workers, which means less pay, which means less disposable income to waste in their fine retail establishments, which means, you guessed it, less profit and even, gasp, loss. Many at the top see this but they can’t control it. Corporate America isn’t really a collective of smart people, it’s a beast of herd mentality and uncontrollable greed that is willing to shoot itself in the leg if it can make a profit by short-selling the self-inflicted wound and running up speculation on the lead. In the end, whatever is honest and intelligent is all rationalized away in the pursuit to show an extra couple tenths of a percentage point in growth on this quarter’s balance sheet as “giving the people what they want.” As long as the profits roll in, the wise prophets are ignored and Wall Street looks the other way.
The problem with that is if you keep giving the people what they want, someday we will all wake up and find that what we need is gone. In this case, journalism is required for a functioning democracy. Without it, this place really is just an oligarchy run by a corrupt aristocracy and populated by a bunch of mindless, drones who are raised not to think and taught not to ask questions, who take what is given to them by their wealthy overlords, including less pay, no unionization and zero benefits. Seems like we are at least half-way there already.
Rock Center itself couldn’t save journalism, nor should it have been expected to, but at this point, can anything?