The Folly of the Nightly News

For the first time in a long time I watched most of a national network's evening news broadcast last night. What I saw was so bad that it was little more than a parody of itself. I won't soon repeat the experience.

Besides generating income, nightly television news broadcasts seem to serve two primary purposes, neither of which they serve particularly well: description and prediction. In both cases, editors and reporters make choices about what they deem important enough to use a portion of the approximately 20 minutes of airtime of each evening's broadcast. Often they tell us about something that has already happened; the description function. In those instances, in a binary sort of way we are either interested or not. The news broadcaster's job is to convince us that we must be interested. A serious delivery full of ominous language, fast-paced video, and jarring graphics are all brought to bear in the effort. The result is a presentation that at least has the appearance of great import even when the substance of the report falls short. And, of course, to pay the bills, the report is often designed to imply that the story is ongoing and critical to our existence with a goal of convincing us to return for more the next evening. That function, rather than description, is one of prediction. Since prediction is by its nature speculative, it should not be surprising that, in hindsight, it is usually riddled with error. All of our major broadcasters engage in it, this prediction business, and all are bad at it. Whether the predictions are political, social, or economic, they are frequently ridiculously wrong.

As the network news broadcasts are driven by the need to secure current viewers and attract new ones, i.e., the profit motive, the stories that comprise those broadcasts have to be sufficiently sensational to engage our present and future interests. Mild assertions couched in honestly qualifying language simply won't do. The result is a stream of dire descriptions and predictions that, the implication being, one ignores at one's peril, a checklist that those who consider themselves serious thinkers, unlike the rest of us amateurs, are chattering about amongst themselves, a checklist that they'll condescend to summarize for us for a few minutes each evening.

While the broadcast I viewed was surprising enough for its shallow, choreographed sensationalism, even more surprising was that the formula enjoys any success at all. Why anyone would bother watching more than one of these broadcasts more than one night every five years or so out of anything other than a voyeuristic interest escapes me. The fact that millions regularly do is frankly disturbing.