TV journalism vs. grownup journalism

Part of my internship with PubliCola involves covering events alongside other, paid reporters. The TV reporters are always the loudest, presumably because when they ‘ask’ their questions they’re also (primarily?) performing for their viewers the role of the Dogged Journalist. When I was at a press conference where the head of Seattle’s utilities pseudo-mea culpa’d for a series of scandals he’d become mired in, there was a wonderful contrast between the local TV guy (from KIRO or KOMO or KREEPO or whatever they call themselves) and the Seattle Times’ Jim Brunner. Brunner’s a no-shit investigative journalist: he was largely responsible for the fact that we were all listening to this overpaid suit wriggle and equivocate in the first place, since he’d broken one of the scandals as a news story. While the TV guy’s questions were uniformly dramatic accusations spit out like bullets from a machine gun, Brunner’s were a study in understatement. He didn’t have to give some ham-fisted imitation of Atticus Finch; he just calmly, conversationally pointed out the obvious non sequitors in the beleaguered administrator’s relentlessly ambiguous evasions.

Probably part of the reason for this contrast is that television is a terrible medium for journalism. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neal Postman compellingly argues that text lends itself to logical thought (exposition, argument, evidence, etc.) while TV lends itself to emotional response (to images + sound). As a result, it’s hard to think clearly using TV as a medium; you’re too marinated in Feelings (and you can’t pause to reread a complicated sentence). How this connects to the KRAMO guy is that he’s responding to the same incentive that’s driving all TV news in the direction of melodramatic infotainment: conflict and drama bring ratings. Which in practice means self-righteous yelling pretends to be grown-up journalism.

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