Over at The Huffington Post, there is an interesting commentary by Daniel Brook on the many differences between commercial television news and public television news. He compares an identical piece of news (the new life-expectancy numbers in the United States) delivered by two different outlets. He tells it better than I could.
This week, I watched the same piece of information reported on commercial TV and PBS. At 6:30, NBC's Brian Williams went into shocked-and-breathless mode to announce that American life expectancy had hit a whopping 77.9 years. Then at 7:00, I heard Jim Lehrer calmly announce the same fact and put it in context. While this is the highest life expectancy the US has yet achieved, it falls behind 40 other nations. The context changes everything. If you were watching Brian Williams, you'd be popping the champagne corks. If you were watching Jim Lehrer, you'd be contemplating moving to Costa Rica--one of several third world countries with longer life expectancies than the US.
Context, it seems, is everything... Brook goes on to offer a couple of theories for this.
People love fake news. No, I'm not talking about The Daily Show; I'm talking about FOX. Many Americans want to hear good news, and that's what FOX gives them. Tune in to FOX, and you'll hear, for example, that we're winning in Iraq. And as the older commercial networks try to compete with FOX, which has better ratings, many have slipped into an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em strategy where they try to give people just as much fake news.
Self-interested corporate media. This one's a tad conspiratorial for my taste, but here's how it goes. The commercial networks are run by giant corporations which have never been more profitable. They need to keep people feeling either satisfied or powerless so nothing really changes. GE owns NBC. It pays Brian Williams's paycheck. It's also in the healthcare business. I know because I use their dental plan. So if word got out that the US had third world levels of life expectancy while spending far more than even its fellow wealthy countries on healthcare, people might dump the corporate healthcare system that GE's profiting off of (those profit margins are a big reason we pay more than everyone else). So GE's news division's job isn't to keep people informed, but to keep people happy--to "manufacture consent," as Noam Chomsky puts it.
I think it is a combination of the two. I also have my own theories for why the viewing audience seems to "prefer" watered-down, infotainment to real-world news and information, as influenced by Gore's should-be-required-reading-for-all "The Attack on Reason"..
I wonder if part of the reason that people don't respond to real news, or the truth on television news...and seem to crave infotainment...is because we can't respond to television news. It is a one-way communication where we don't get to respond or ask questions or give our own views back. We are removed from it because we aren't allowed to be engaged in it, through the television medium. I think that has a great deal to do with why blogs, etc. have become so indispensable as news sources...because we get to respond to what we hear or read. We get to discuss it with each other and with the "reporters". We get to engage fully in a two-way conversation, as opposed to simply being the object at which bits of information are thrown, as is the case with television news. Just my take on it.