News report features what is wrong with news reports

April 27, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More

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I just watched a Fresno local news report regarding a Tea Party protest of William Ayers.  Watching this TV report reminded me of the adage about a tree falling in a forest:  If Bill Ayers simply came to California to give a talk, but there were no Tea Party demonstrators in sight, you wouldn’t hear anything about it on the news.  But when a smattering of Tea Party folks comes out to protest Ayers’ right to say anything, it becomes news.  Once again, we can see that raw, visceral, uninformed conflict is driving our news–not ideas and certainly nothing productive.

The bottom line take-away from this report appears to be a reinforcement of the Manichean world view. This TV display of lots of heat and not much light is standard fare for television news.  Hence, my term, “conflict pornography.”  This type of consciously-injected agon is furthered by flashy banners and the sound effects, as well as terms like “Action News!”  All of these media tricks smoothly tap into that inextricably deep human misconception that “Movement is Progress,” combined with our deeply rooted xenophobic impulses:  Keep moving!  Outsiders are threatening you! Keep fighting!  Pay attention!  Buy this!  Buy that!

But back to this TV news report.  Consider the opening line of the news anchor in the video: “One of the leaders of a radical movement of the 60’s and 70’s . . .”   Note the sarcasm dripping from her voice when she reports that Ayers is claiming that “he has something in common” with the protesters.

I think that it’s time for these reporters to take a deep breath and focus on the bigger picture:  what was the context of the “radical” actions of Ayers?   I would suggest that many (maybe most) modern Americans would agree with most of the principles of his “radical movement” (that “Terrorism was what was being practiced in the countryside of Vietnam by the United States.” And see here).   On the other hand, I would agree that most Americans would disapprove of the use of any sort of bombs, even where the bombs were carefully planned to explode in empty offices, so as not to cause any injuries.  And further consider the failure of this report (and most others about Ayers, especially during the Obama campaign) that Ayers has repeatedly questioned his own tactics.

In order to make this local news television report even more sexy, Gene Haagenson, (the “Live” reporter) tells us that Ayers “set off bombs” without telling the viewers that the bombs were designed to not hurt anyone and without explaining why those bombs were set off.  He failed to remind the viewers that the Vietnam War was needless and mindlessly violent and that it killed 50,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese.  Perhaps the Vietnam video footage in this report should have included napalm-scalded  children instead of American military helicopters in order to put things into more accurate perspective.  “Gene” should also have reminded viewers that after the U.S. “lost” the war in Vietnam, no dominoes fell and that Vietnam is now a valued trading partner of the United States. What does that tell us about our “reasons” for going to war?  Doesn’t it tell us that we should have listened more carefully to Dwight Eisenhower?

Not that local news reports are allocated enough time to tell the full story about much of anything, but given these self-imposed time limits, shouldn’t they at least strive to do no harm“?  It was irresponsible to cartoonishly paint Ayers as a “radical” without even suggesting he was driven by deeply humanitarian impulses back in the 60’s.   No historical fact suggests that Ayers was gratuitously violent.  He wasn’t an anarchist, as one might think when seeing and hearing the anger of the Tea Party demonstrators and seeing the image of a protester sign calling Ayers a “terrorist.”   We can do a lot better than letting any group smear Ayers (or anyone else) as simply “bad” without requiring further evidence and explanation.

It would have brought this TV news report report full circle to subject the Tea Party members to a pop quiz. The reporters should have asked the protesters exactly what Ayers did, and why. Ask them to define “communism” and to distinguish the kind of “communist” Ayers said he once was to Stalinist communism. Ask them to name the five liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment. Ask them how much of the U.S. budget goes to warmongering, and how much of that goes to Afghanistan and Iraq. Ask them what their plan is regarding Afghanistan and Iraq. Ask them what they would do about the fact that large corporations essentially own Congress. Ask them whether they are drawing social security and Medicare, and ask them whether they are willingly acceding to this “socialism.”  In the law we have a term called establishing a “foundation” for a witness’ testimony. In order to earn a chance to testify, a witness should show that he or she understands the situation.  Based upon much of what I’ve seen and heard, most Tea Party members are one or two good questions from being exposed as blow-hard no-nothings.  Maybe the next TV report should be on “Why we cover the Tea Party protests without putting their views under the microscope!”

I do need to acknowledge that the news report did give William Ayers a chance (I counted four sentences) to note that he and the Tea Party protesters actually have a lot in common. Good for them to actually give Ayers a chance to try to dispel the venomous accusations (the protesters were given six sentences to smear Ayers).  Based on his ability to be self-critical, maybe Ayers is exactly the kind of guy we need to hear more from, but that sort of story apparently doesn’t sell as “Action News”–it won’t sell enough commercials.

This TV news story could have been presented as a learning experience, but the main take-away was that there is conflict and anger, the true source of which–ignorant Tea Partiers–was left unexplored. This lapse in reporting is not an accident, in my opinion.  Based on ubiquitous evidence, news outlets love the images and sounds of ignorant, angry people, especially when they hurl accusations at other people, regardless of the merits of the accusations.  It could even be argued that FOX News has been promoting the visibility of the Tea Party in order to generate the kinds of images and sounds that sell lots of commercials.

I wish I could say live and learn, but I don’t think that is in the cards


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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Many people in Vietnam are big free enterprise. What does that tell us about how wrong we were about Vietnam in the 60's and 70's. Shouldn't that make us a little more humble about our current foreign policy judgments, especially when we declare that we need to invade a country with our military?

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