Thursday, February 24, 2005


As if anyone needed proof that network television news is in an even sorrier state than print journalism, along comes Peter Jennings with a two-hour news special on UFOs, airing tonight.
I know, I know, I shouldn't condemn this report before I've watched it, but when is the last time one of the broadcast networks took two hours of prime time for any sort of relevant or substantive news report? Have I missed the networks' in-depth analyses of Social Security reform, the Iraq war, No Child Left Behind?
I don't believe so.
Instead we get two hours in a "sweeps" week on a trivial topic. I know, I know, what could be more important than the question of whether Earth's population is unique and alone in the universe. But I doubt this program is going to either answer or seriously explore that question and its scientific, social and theological implications.
I fear -- and see my fear already confirmed by the review in The New York Times this morning -- that whatever dignity Peter Jennings has left will be wasted on narration over images of blurry lights in the sky.
Maybe I was spoiled, growing up in the '60s, when the Vietnam war mobilized the population and the networks felt obligated to cover it. I remember first hating -- because they sometimes pre-empted Gilligan's Island and I Dream of Jeannie -- then, in my teens, loving the network specials that reported on and analyzed the war. People today still remember at least the titles of network news specials such as The Selling of the Pentagon.
What's happened to TV journalism? Of course, there are many reasons for its decline. The Fox News factor is certainly one of them, but I think the trivialization of news began far too long ago for Rupert Murdoch to take all of the blame.
No, there has been a conscious effort by the networks to blend news and entertainment since at least the late 1970s, when Good Morning America became the first network morning news show to be produced by a network entertainment division.
The giant corporations -- General Electric, Disney, Viacom -- that run the major networks today evidently feel no obligation to educate and inform the public. Any obligation the FCC might have put on them in the past has been erased by an agency that today seems only to care about Janet Jackson's nipple ring and SpongeBob's sexuality.
So what we get in the name of news is a ridiculous effort to grab ratings with lowest-common-denominator tabloid fare masquerading as news.
Thanks for offering, but I will be reading a book -- after, of course, I get my weekly dose of The OC. I prefer my trash to come honestly packaged and labeled.