Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The reality of our unreality

From Rabble:

Network news as counter-reality

First, a network news host with something to say, says nothing. And then, a reporter with nothing to say, says something. And in both cases fact and truth went missing.

>by Steven Laffoley
July 26, 2005

Certainly, it wasn't what I expected to hear from a CNN news anchor. But there it was — striking honesty about the news.

Arms waving for emphasis, the host of the CNN morning show passionately complains about the Bush administration's unwillingness to accept the science of global warming. The host says it is “a fear of science. In fact,” the host goes on, “the members of the Bush administration are like American Mullahs.” The host thinks for a moment, perhaps amused by the comparison. “Yes,” the host repeats, “like American Mullahs.”

But the criticism doesn't stop there. Leaning forward on elbows, the host talks about the whole CNN network and its cowardice to report the honest news about global warming. “Look,” the host says with disgust, “only now can CNN finally say the science is sound - finally.” Not knowing what else to say, the host throws hands up, resigned, then looks down and has a bite of salad.

I am sitting at an adjoining table in the Brooklyn Diner on 7th avenue in New York City, not far from CNN's New York offices. I'm eating a $16 plate of short pasta covered in a thick layer of mozzarella cheese. The CNN host is eating a light salad with vinaigrette dressing. I am trying not to listen to the conversation, but the tables are close, and the CNN host, sitting almost at my shoulder, is not shy about sharing opinions with a companion at a good volume.

The companion is a slender woman in her late forties or early fifties, attractive, with long grey hair and a warm smile. She is a television producer for what sounds like a rival network's news show, and she is equally incredulous about the network's unwillingness to report the news honestly. She doesn't say much, but she agrees with the CNN host, often nodding and repeating many of the CNN host's comments between bites of salad and vinaigrette dressing.

The next morning in my hotel room, I watch the CNN morning show and listen to the same host. I am waiting, with some faint, naive hope, for some of the same honest reporting I'd heard the day before. But on television the host is both congenial and earnest. There is talk of the space shuttle launch and of Karl Rove, but there is no hint of American Mullahs and their fear of science, or of CNN's cowardice to report honestly about global warming. Nope, just the morning news as comfort food.

I sip my coffee and watch the CNN weather report. I find myself wondering if network news is, perhaps, just a counter-reality, a virtual reality where truth and fact have no place nor purpose. But I let the thought slip from my mind — until a few days later.

On the afternoon following the terrible London bombing, I am sitting with my wife and daughter on the floor of Penn Station in New York City, waiting for a long delayed Amtrak train for Providence, Rhode Island. Keen-eyed television reporters with microphones, and their camera operators moving in lockstep, are prowling, looking for the news.

Or are they?

Twenty feet to my right, six New York City cops have, in a quiet and quick series of movements, created a parameter around an unattended dark blue duffel bag. A cop in a black trench coat enters the parameter, holding the leash of a German Shepherd. The Shepherd sniffs the length of the bag and then looks away. The cop in the trench coat looks at another cop and shakes his head then pulls the Shepherd back a few feet. The second cop steps forward with a razor and cuts the bag. He pushes his arm into the bag and roughly searches the contents.

Meantime, a short man wearing glasses and a black tee-shirt comes forward holding a coffee. He speaks rapidly in Spanish, pointing at the bag, and then at the coffee. He is annoyed that the cop has cut the bag, but the cop admonishes him in fluent Spanish. I look around. The people walking in the station have hardly flinched at the scene. They just continue about their business, resigned, as I suppose I am, to fate.

A few minutes later, just ten feet to my left, a correspondent for the BBC stands in front of his camera operator and camera. He adjusts his hair and finds the right facial expression. Three times, the reporter practices his “report from New York's Penn station.” Speaking in a grave tone, he talks about the “fear” felt by New Yorkers, and in particular here at Penn Station.

Again, I look around, amused. There are hundreds of people moving about the train station. Some are annoyed with train delays, and some are frustrated with grumpy children. Some are travel weary, and some are cheerful. But afraid? Not one that I can see.

After the BBC reporter gets the take he wants, he tries to speak with the officer holding the Shepherd. He wants a picture of the dog sniffing at the bag again. The cop is annoyed and looks at the reporter. Then he just shakes his head and walks off. The reporter shrugs and then moves along with his cameraman in search of other news.

That's when I start thinking again about television news as counter-reality. First, a network news host with something to say, says nothing. And then, a reporter with nothing to say, says something. And in both cases fact and truth went missing.

And then I wonder, in this new age of American Mullahs and the cult of fear, if fact and truth in television news would ever be found.

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