I spent a good deal of yesterday -- from about 7 a.m. -- within earshot of a TV. Much of my morning was spent in a hotel room working, and after a couple of meetings and some travel I found myself in another hotel room for much of the evening. Even now, as the time approaches 1.30 a.m. Wednesday, the TV is on and tuned -- as it has been every time today -- to a news channel.
Worryingly, after all these hours of exposure to news on the Big Daddy of all media, I can recall only three things that happened in the world today. They are -- in reverse order of how much airtime the story received -- George Bush gave that speech he always gives to a friendly audience (this time to the American Legion), and he didn’t do it very well; the paternity of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby was finally settled (an issue that has been presented in a manner more befitting “American Idol” than a rather sad human-interest story not deserving the airtime it has received); and, taking first place by a very wide margin indeed, Don Imus was belligerently apologizing (not easy, that), while absolutely anyone who was asked -- including every Presidential candidate -- chimed in on Imus’ comments on the Rutgers women's basketball team.
While the Imus story is at least to some extent newsworthy, surely when stacked up against what else is going on in the world (hey, even just in the U.S.), it’s not a story that warrants anything like the coverage it has received. Even a slow news day doesn’t justify all the attention -- as was amply demonstrated by the frequency with which the same footage was shown and the same comments were made.
By the end of yesterday, the only people who had come out of yesterday’s coverage and the issue itself with any kind of credit was Rutgers itself, the coach and the team members, all of whom handled the media brilliantly and with dignity.
But this day of decidedly heavy news consumption put me in mind of the TV Board post a couple of weeks ago by Jack Myers in which he bemoaned the celebrity obsessions of much of today’s news coverage, and another by one of our own Ball State students on Mediapost’s Notes From The Digital Frontier. Naomi posted “How Can The News Be So Different?,” based on her experience of seeing TV news in 22 different countries over the last three months while studying abroad. Together, these posts point up some issues about news in the U.S. -- depth and orientation of content -- that are likely to become only more troubling in the future and may further disenchant the younger audience that increasingly looks beyond the mainstream outlets for its news.
In Naomi’s post, she noted the frequency of news stories about the people of Iraq themselves in non-U.S. media -- relative to the rarity of such stories in U.S TV news. It seems that to find such content we once again have to turn to the Web for what is essentially the relative luxury of unmediated news direct from Baghdad. My colleague Dom Caristi recently introduced me to Hometown Baghdad, a growing collection of videos that document events large and small in the lives of a group of young middle-class Iraqis as they struggle to deal with the mess of life in Baghdad while trying to study, stay safe and plan for the day when most of them will leave the country.
This is not political content, but raw and highly insightful footage -- often produced at significant personal risk -- that is illuminating and moving, but never manipulative or sensational. These videos have the integrity that is born of the realities of having to live within a war zone. Some of their power also comes from the simple fact that not a single Westerner features in any of the videos -- a view we are not remotely familiar with in this country.
Live since March 19, Hometown Baghdad is an example of a kind of news content that gets closer to the reality of the issues, skirting around the pre-packaged, sterilized and trivia-obsessed formats we see across much of our TV news options. Does news really need an anchor or a celebrity journalist to front it?
Similarly, it’s interesting to wonder if Hometown Baghdad represents at least one aspect of the likely future shape of news content. It may draw the YouTube generation, representing as it does a kind of authenticity that could never be created through the conventional news-gathering process. It may be that to reach the largest audience, some sort of arrangement would need to be made for content to appear on TV as well as the Web. In fact, this could be done now (even allowing for image quality issues) -- but I’m not convinced any of the news outlets currently has the guts to do it.
Anyway, take a look. Check out “Symphony of Bullets,” “Brains on Campus,” “Last Resort,” “Abdullah Leaves” and “The Dentist.” The rest are great too, but these are especially powerful.