I rarely watch television news, with good reason. I think if you rounded up a hundred people with IQs above room temperature who had learned to breath without opening their mouths and asked them what word came to mind when they thought of the evening news, the most common printable response would be “stinks.”
The reason for this is obvious, when you think about it. (Okay, maybe only if you think about things the way I do, which is not recommended for the faint of heart.) The major networks (and Fox, too), take their most promising correspondents and groom them to be the centerpieces of the network. These golden children get the prime assignments, lots of air time, and occasional guest anchor gigs when El Numero Uno goes on vacation or is abducted by space aliens. (That space alien thing didn’t really happen, but Dan Rather would have been sooner or later.)
The fledgling correspondents build their resumes, braving war, riots, pestilence, and getting blown down the street by hurricanes on national television. Upon reaching the top of the pyramid, having outlasted and out-achieved all of their former peers, what happens to them? They become anchors and do nothing but read the news, which George W. Bush or a parrot could do, given some training. (Bush may need somewhat more training than the parrot; that’s not germane here.)
What other occupation does that? Where else can you become the best in your business and be relegated to talking about what people not fit to tie your shoes send up to you for reporting? Did GE put Jack Welch in charge of the company newsletter instead of making him CEO? Is Bill Gates Microsoft’s blogger-in-chief? Did WorldCom put Bernie Ebbers in charge of corporate communications? (Bad example; maybe they should have.)
In newspapers the best guy often gets to be the editor and essentially run the joint, if he wants to. Many don’t. You know why? Because editors don’t get to report anymore, they just mark up what’s written by the people down in the trenches where they used to be. At least newspapers put the best men in positions of authority. TV news departments aren’t even run by newsmen, they’re run by empty suits with “MBA” tattooed on their coin-flipping—er, decision making—hands.
As for local news, the only printable word that comes to mind is “execrable.” When’s the last time you saw a key local reporter “promoted” to anchor, except for weekends or as a vacation or rehab fill-in? Roughly never. Hair is what gets you promoted to local anchor, even in the big markets, that and a high Q rating. (Not IQ; some of these people couldn’t spell “IQ,” let alone tell you what it means.)
In England they call the person who reads the news the “newsreader.” It is not the highest-paid or most widely sought after position at the BBC. They pay the people who actually do the work. And they get better work because of it. Listen to the BBC sometime. (It’s easy in Washington; the local public radio station doesn’t play classical music anymore, the bastards.) See how many times you hear a reporter walk up to someone who just saw his house, possessions, family, and both cows swept out to sea by a tsunami and ask him how he feels.
People sometimes look at me like I’ve grown a third ear when I say I don’t watch television news. “How can you not watch the news?” they ask.
I have a better question: “How can you?”