Category Archives: media

The irrelevancy of the nightly news

Caitlin Flanagan has a nice essay in the latest Atlantic about Katie Couric, the Today Show, and Couric’s failure as the CBS Evening News anchor. Flanagan does a good job of explaining why the fluffy-unwatchable morning shows actually mean a lot to a lot of people, and why Couric was so perfect for that role (the piece is ostensibly a review of a part-hit-job Couric biography). But the best part is Flanagan’s tidy put-down of the evening news:

That Katie has bombed at CBS is a testament, not to the existence of a glass ceiling, but to the fact that real revolutions are so thoroughgoing that they don’t just provide a new answer, they change the very questions being asked. … No woman needs to storm the Bastille of nightly news, because the form has become irrelevant: Oprah has immeasurably more cultural, commercial, and political clout than Charles Gibson and Brian Williams, and no young person is ever going to make appointment TV out of a sober-minded 6:30 wrap-up of stories he or she already read online in the afternoon.

That CBS and Couric didn’t realize this — and that newspapers have wasted so much ink (also see: Dan Rather’s fall from grace, Tom Brokaw’s retirement, etc.) discussing an irrelevant institution that few under age, say 58, care about — is as devastating an indictment of the news media as any stock-price or circulation drop.

David Simon as journalism’s Rip Van Winkle

I’ll have more to say about this season of The Wire, its misdiagnoses of journalism’s problems, and David Simon’s recent nostalgic column in the Washington Post. But for now I wanted to give my general response to Season 5’s Baltimore Sun storyline.

At Slate’s TV Club conversation about Season 5, David Plotz annoyed David Simon by referencing brief conversations they’d had at parties in which Simon bitched about the Baltimore Sun. Simon criticized Plotz’s post, concluding: “The Wire’s depiction of the multitude of problems facing newspapers and high-end journalism will either stand or fall on what happens on screen, not on the back-hallway debate over the past histories, opinions passions or peculiarities of those who create it.” This is what I wrote to Plotz in a solidarity e-mail after Episode 2 or 3:

Fair enough. But so far his “multitude of problems” are a) Too many Stephen Glasses, b) Pompous idiot editors too dim to see the clearly telegraphed Stephen Glasses and disinterested in getting at the root of social problems, and at a distant third c) Corporate cost-cutting. That is all.

Forget that a plague of fabulists isn’t (to my knowledge) currently destroying journalism from within, and that the problem with real fabulists is they aren’t usually transparent fakers right from the start. This is his grand diagnosis of the ills of modern journalism?

How about, I don’t know, the Internet? Or hemorrhaging ad sales and circulation (partly or largely because of the Internet). Or figuring out how newspapers can appeal to readers and stay relevant in this new competitive-media world. Newspapers are going through their most dire period of upheaval in decades and he thinks the issue is too many fabulists?

The problem with his portrayal isn’t just that Simon’s fictional newsroom seems like a caricature of a mid-90s newsroom. It’s that, despite his response to Plotz’s TV Club post, he so clearly framed his fictional view based on his “past histories, opinions passions or peculiarities.” What a coincidence that his grand statement, via The Wire, on modern journalism’s failures happens to exactly coincide with his oftstated feelings about his former editors and how they dealt with (or didn’t deal with) a fabulist and stories about social issues at the Baltimore Sun 15 years ago.

Jeffrey Goldberg voices similar frustrations in his TV Club post today:

We were meant to be getting a sophisticated look at the demise of daily journalism, besieged by the Internet and by venal media companies. Well, what we’ve got is a newspaper edited by a pair of impossibly shmucky editors who seem, in 2008, unaware of the existence of the World Wide Web and who have in their employ a reporter who is doing something no fabricator, to the best of my knowledge, has ever done: manufacturing information about an ongoing homicide investigation. Put aside, please, the fact that said investigation is a sham as well; the reporter, Templeton, doesn’t know that. Is this what David Simon really wants his viewers to believe happens at major newspapers? Is he that blinded by hate for the Baltimore Sun?

For such a supposedly brilliant guy and show, it’s depressing that the answers to the last two questions seem to be yes, and yes.

Enough with the Super Bowl ads

Maybe it’s because I always have to work on Super Bowl night so don’t seen many of the ads, but I really wish we could do something to suffocate the manufactured hype about the commercials.

It’s not the ridiculous cost that bugs me, or the fact that Saatchi, Saatchi, and the Other Advertising Bigshots Whose Names Nobody Knows try so hard to make such an impression. It’s not even that newspeople recycle the same stories every year (Hey, look how much the ads cost this year! And hey, remember that 1984 Mac ad? And hey hey — the ads just ain’t what they used to be. Etc.), or that they’re giving loads of free advertising to a bunch of advertisements.

What’s really frustrating is this whole tradition/charade continues as though ads mean anything anymore. Not that ads can’t boost sales and drive traffic and eyeballs to desired places (not like that, you dirty devil). But in terms of cultural impact, commercials haven’t been more than a blip for a long time.

What’s the last ad campaign that became a cultural touchstone, inspired a widely used catch phrase, or that had any kind of cultural effect beyond a bunch of one-off chuckles? The Budweiser “Wassup” campaign comes to mind (I still semi-ironically try to revive that one). Ipod and iTunes ads, maybe, but that kind of impact is hardly what people are talking about when they imagine the “water-cooler” possibilities of Super Bowl ads (and please note the quote marks; I hate the “water-cooler” cliche even more than I hate Super Bowl ad hype).

I’m not anti-adverts. If it were up to me, American schoolkids would have to say “Set it — and forget it!” at the end of the morning Pledge of Allegiance. I like to add a whispered “From Calvin Klein” to half of my spoken sentences. But the idea that this would actually happen — that advertising is still so powerful in the Ironic Age that once a year it can shape the culture by multiple-$2.7 million fiat (fiats?) — doesn’t hold up.

UPDATE: Dan Hopper makes a similar point at Best Week Ever. My favorite part (though mostly unrelated to his main point):

This isn’t to say that this year’s ads weren’t garbage. Those parodies of “The Godfather” and “Rocky” were pretty topical, weren’t they? Why don’t we spoof “Duck Soup” while we’re at it? What about “The Great Train Robbery”? Or some of Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder recordings? And why stop at references to “Dick in a Box” and “Night At The Roxbury” when we could have the Church Lady hocking Dr. Pepper or Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford impression talking about Careerbuilder.com? Tons of untapped potential here, execs.