From my Northern perch, I’ve been following the US election rather obsessively. From a partisan angle? Of course. If the orange monster gets elected, he will not just wreck his own country. His environmental policies alone would be a complete disaster for the entire planet.
But I don’t want to say anything about why Trump is such an extraordinarily awful candidate, or just how much the media is helping him. The point I want to make about US TV news is not inherently partisan at all. And it’s a point specifically about TV. I’ll hold NPR blameless. And even the print media, for all their flaws, and despite their weird reluctance to call a lie a lie (rather than a “falsehood”), aren’t my target here. What I want to talk about is reporting as such.
There was a time, I think, when what TV news channels (and certainly TV news programs) did was journalism: reporters, often teams of reporters would research a story, and then tell it. On camera. Sometimes in pre-recorded, edited form, sometimes live. Sometimes both. They would speak to people on both sides of an issue, but they wouldn’t hand over the airwaves to them: they’d interview them, and then they’d edit those interviews, and contextualize the claims made. Sort of like what print journalists do, except with sound and pictures.
What does TV news look like now? It’s an endless string of talking heads; endless shouting matches between “surrogates.” It’s live feeds from campaign rallies and faux “news conferences” (as in Trump’s stunt at his new DC hotel today). Sure: quite frequently those live feeds are then followed up with “fact checks.” And if people stick around for both, they might learn that the candidate just sold them a bill of goods. But do they?
What is the news value of any of this? The fact check part, I understand. That’s reporting. That’s journalism. But the other stuff? How is that anything but free advertising?
And those surrogates? What is the value of those “interviews”? What exactly does the public gain from hearing mouthpieces trained to spout the same talking points over and over, even if they are challenged by anchors, and even if two mouthpieces get to yell at each other? The surrogate interview — now a complete mainstay of TV news coverage — is nothing more than the extension of the logic of candidates’ debates into the entire campaign cycle. And who ever thought anything of substance could be learned from a debate?
What are debates, after all? They’re exercises in point scoring. In making yourself look good, and your opponent look bad. I can see how they serve a purpose, as a special-occasion sort of format. But as a means of reporting a story, of establishing facts, of explaining and critiquing policies and plans — as a means of doing journalism, in other words? For that, they’re completely pointless. And yet, all our news networks now turn to the debate format, all the time, all day long, as if it were a form of TV journalism. It’s not. It’s a form of partisan entertainment.
Of course this isn’t true for every show and every channel, all day long. But even in my own partisan corner of the TV universe, I see it happening all the time. I have a lot of respect, say, for Chris Hayes. I think Rachel Maddow does serious reporting. And yet, both of them also regularly do these talking heads interviews with partisan commentators or surrogates, to no readily apparent end. What, after all, could be their journalistic purpose? Hayes “debates” a Trump surrogate and — what? “Wins”? How? And what would be the value of that “win”? What would we learn? That Chris knows more than the surrogate? That the surrogate lied? That a campaign campaigns? A show like “Hardball” is little more than Chris Matthews yelling at surrogates — again, to what end?
Surrogatism is a debilitating blight on our TV news channels. And the problem is not that it’s a form of “gotcha journalism.” There’s nothing wrong with “gotcha” interviewing. But what’s the point of catching some third-rate Clinton or Trump mouthpiece in a lie? You’ve still let them utter the lie — and if it’s an embarrassment, it’s the mouthpiece’s, not the candidate’s. Why not let reporters interview the mouthpieces, on tape, do background, and then talk to the reporters? It may be less exciting as live TV, but it would actually be a form of journalism — rather than a form of debating.
What gets lost in the now dominant debate culture of US TV news is anything of substance. If it’s not mouthpieces screaming at each other, it’s unceasing discussions of polls and of strategy. Over and again, we’re told that candidate X has a problem reaching voter group Y, that X’s campaign isn’t resonating with Y, and so on. But what we don’t hear is what X’s campaign actually offers, or fails to offer, those voters. Instead of even superficial accounts of policies, plans, and ideas, we get stories about how policies, plans, and ideas land or don’t land. But since so little reporting is done on those things, I wonder how any voter is actually expected to find out about what the candidates have to offer, let alone find out in a way that approaches a degree of objectivity.
Sure: with a campaign like Trump’s, it’s hard to do that kind of reporting. How, after all, is “I’ll create 25 million jobs” a policy? But if that’s all you’ve got, then that’s what you have to report. Doing anything else is pretending that there is substance when there isn’t.
But in the world of surrogatism, that doesn’t matter. Because it’s not up to journalists on TV to study, present, and analyze policies. Instead, an anchor gets to ask a surrogate a bunch of questions. And if the surrogate evades, or answers in platitudes, or lies, or simply doesn’t answer at all, then he or she may look bad, but nothing has in fact been done to elucidate, detail, or investigate the policy. Worse, the surrogate probably manages to push a few talking points. The news value of all of this? Zero. But a time slot has been filled. Noise has been made. And that noise contributes to making two campaigns feel alike, even if one of them has in fact published over ten times more concrete information on plans and policies than the other.
What should TV news shows do instead? It’s hardly rocket science. Once a policy or a plan has been announced, it’s there, on paper or screen, and can be presented, analysed, dissected, critiqued. Ideally by talking to experts, not to members of campaigns. If there are evident problems or gaps or contradictions — well, do an interview then. Present the problems. Ask questions. But why does it have to be a live interview? Why give campaign mouthpieces the freedom to turn a question-and-answer session into a debate? Tape the interview. Edit out the irrelevant stuff. Do what print journalists do every day.
Stop debating. Start reporting.
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- Theatres and Cell Phones: A Generational Perspective
- Trump, Surrogatism, and the Death of TV Journalism
- The Plough and the Stars (O’Casey; dir. Sean Holmes) Abbey Theatre Dublin, at Canadian Stage, Toronto, Sept 2016
- Young Chekhov (trans. David Hare; dir. Jonathan Kent) National Theatre, London; Aug. 2016 (and also some The Plough and the the Stars)
- Prose and Verse in the 1608 King Lear Quarto: An Alternative Explanation
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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