Jon Stewart ripped CNN a new one recently (relevant segment of the show here). As host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, he regularly takes on the purveyors of serious news, doling out everything from a light punch on the arm to total decimation as he sees fit. He likes to poo-poo himself as “just a comedian,” but despite that, he’s recognized by many as someone worth listening to, whether the goal is laughing away the day’s tension or looking at news from a perspective that is simultaneously wacky, insightful, and thought-provoking.
The CNN rippage mentioned above is titled “Good/Badfellas,” and it deals with the fact that CNN (and most cable news outlets) have recently found a way to dumb down the news to a hitherto unprecedented extent. As Stewart puts it:
The news networks serve the important purpose of clarifying the day’s events. We rely on them to provide context and substance. The news networks are there to let you know that whether you look at an issue from the right or from the left… those are the only two ways that you can look at it. But CNN has moved beyond this simplistic, partisan worldview to a “simplisticier” one.
Stewart then launches a series of quick sound bites, showing clip after clip of news anchors and reporterettes asking viewers if whatever story they’ve just delivered is a good thing or a bad thing. He plays a cut of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewing a news analyst making “a nuanced argument about the balance between liberty and security.” Blitzer summarily dismisses him in mid-sentence with the interjection “Good or bad?” as though that is all that matters.
How did we get here? How did we arrive at the place where pre-cooked, prepackaged news is accepted as not merely the standard way to dispense the important events of the day but a desirable way to consume it? I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing (pun unintended). There isn’t anything wrong with making such an info stream one of a variety of news channels you tap. Gum drops aren’t bad either, but making them your only source of nutrition probably is. My personal theory of how this approach to news came to be is that media organizations have been caught up in our species’ natural inclination to take the easy way. To illustrate:
One way to sum up the history of food production, nicely encapsulated in this timeline, is to view it as the march toward ever-greater convenience. Here’s one example of many. In the 1790s, the French offered a cash prize for any idea that would help preserve food for their army. Result? The invention of canning, a major boon to anyone who cooks or eats. Suddenly food could be stored for months right on a shelf in the home. Meals with out-of-season dishes almost as nutritious as those fresh from the garden could be put on the table with minimal effort.
What followed was inventions for opening cans, each one offering quicker, easier access to the contents than the previous. In the mid-twentieth century, the can opener was bypassed altogether with the introduction of the pull-tab. Thanks to this little invention, the number of seconds from picking up your can of beer to guzzling it has been cut in half and half again.
Now imagine a time-compressed video clip highlighting changes in twentieth-century food packaging as major producers and manufacturers took up the marketing mantra of “faster is easier, and easier is better.” Watch with me as TV dinners transform into Lean Cuisines, ovens are eschewed for microwaves, Betty Crocker pummels fresh strawberries into Fruit Roll-Ups, and whoever runs Yoplait purées and pours them into tubes of Go-Gurt. Watch General Mills successfully sell the idea that food is more than sustenance; it’s also fun (click the Fruit Roll-Ups and Go-Gurt links above for just a few of a multitude of examples.)
Think about that for a moment. Food as fun. Not only that, there is a not-too-subtle implication in the marketing that it should be fun.
Like any organization, news corporations must either grow or die. They grow by capturing an increasing number of eyeballs, and the best way to do that is to give those eyeballs what they want, which is—what else? Ever-greater convenience.
The newest innovation in news convenience comes from Slate, an “online magazine of news, politics, and culture that combines humor and insight in thoughtful analyses of current events and political news” (pulled from the site’s self description). Now you don’t have to waste your time clicking a link to find out whether the article behind it is long or short.
Because who can afford to give a story more than five minutes?
Where does this lead? It’s all too obvious isn’t it? Want clicks? Make it short. Don’t trouble the reader clicker with “nuanced arguments.” It’s not a very big hop, skip, and jump from this to the idea that shorter is more is better.
“I read seventeen news articles on Slate in twenty-one minutes!” —Ms. Pablum Slurper, Atlanta, GA
Cable news, and increasingly, broadcast news, already employ this principle via the “good thing/bad thing” technique. The subtext is clear:
Why take time to think about the day’s events and what they mean? We have a line of thirty-minute meals chock full of complex issues and events reduced to simple words and black-and-white concepts illustrated with colorful, spinning, holographic animations and accompanied by MOR rock tracks that get your blood pumping. Nothing tough to chew on here. They’re easy to consume, and most of all, they’re fun to watch.
Stewart ends his “Good/Badfellas” segment with this word of advice to CNN.
I don’t want to say that by reducing complex stories to their mood-ring essence you think we’re children. I’m just saying that, if this is the direction you’re going, I can save you a lot of money on correspondents. There’s this woman I used to watch named Penny. She’d be perfect for CNN.
Recess is good. Hamsters are good.
Birthday parties are real good.
Drugs are bad. I don’t do drugs.
This is what the news is either rapidly becoming or already is.
And now, dear reader, I’m ready to share why I’ve brought all of this to your attention. (What? You read this far? My, my….)
Whether you think the growth trajectory media groups are adopting is a good thing or a bad thing, there is one group that takes a different approach: those of us who write fiction. We listen to a different drum. It leads us down a different path. It is a growth trajectory of sorts, though to us the term means something besides and beyond increases in financial gain.
One of the fundamentals of a good story is that people are complex, and exploring that complexity is what makes it interesting. Well-written fiction reveals people as anything but either/or propositions. We humans cannot be reduced to on or off, black or white, left or right, good or bad—or rather, when we are, the falseness is smellable from miles away. Personality is a seething sea of contradictions that requires us to make constant course corrections to successfully navigate it. Relationships form, become strained, and break apart on the shoals of unexpected events and unseen motivations. Only the rarest of us perceive ourselves clearly and impartially through the murk of what we call life.
A good story takes us into the world of another person. We see things as they do, experience their pain, participate in their joy. And yet we are not them. We make our own judgments of their actions and motivations. We are at turns delighted, shocked, saddened, and humbled by their responses. If we are wise, we learn from the experience.
In short, we grow.
This is something our fast-paced consumer lifestyles cannot give us, and yet it’s something we need, and need desperately. That need is what draws us back to good fiction over and over again.
Not all fiction does this, but this is what thoughtful authors strive to achieve. Here’s how Ernest Hemingway puts it (far better than I can) in an excerpt from Poetry Foundation’s online biography of him.
“The writer’s job is to tell the truth,” Ernest Hemingway once said. When he was having difficulty writing he reminded himself of this, as he explained in his memoirs, A Moveable Feast. “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”
One true sentence. It starts there. That true sentence calls us on, leads us into the thoughts of others, of ourselves, and we learn, love, laugh, and cry. We become.
This is why we read. This is why we write. And that dear reader, is a Very Good Thing.