Wednesday, October 3, 2012

“Month of Media” Begins with Presidential Debate (but Also Fox)

•My desk at Fox News during my time there was right next to that of Joe Muto, the notorious “Fox mole” who wrote stealthy dispatches about working at the place, until he was fired.  Muto now has a $100,000 or so book advance for a manuscript with the working title Atheist in a FOX Hole.  And readers everywhere will just have to hope the book contains juicier revelations than his “mole” articles did, since the biggest bombshell in those was probably the leaked video revealing that Romney sometimes talks about horses.

If I were the tell-all turncoat type – which I’m really not, unless you’re, like, plotting to kill someone – I could probably scrape together some kind of shocking tell-all (the things you don’t know about Joe Muto...), or...

•I could more naturally go the Pat Caddell route, warning (quite rightly) about the disturbing power the partisan press has when it decides to be a de facto one-party press, outlier Fox notwithstanding.  If the media have not-so-subtly hinted to each other that it’s OK now to be blatantly in the tank for the Democrats, the whole culture is imperiled in a truly frightening way. 

•And yet: I’ve been saying for years, since I first worked at ABC News, that the real “media bias” story is not political in the usual sense – though it will affect even tonight’s presidential debates (and may even help explain Gary Johnson’s exclusion from them, since he has only belatedly become a punchy, dynamic speaker, if you ask me). 

The truth is that TV, at least, is less left-wing (or right-wing, certainly) than concerned with its own internal aesthetic dynamics.  If a story has striking visuals or a short, clear soundbite, it doesn’t merely become more likely to get aired – it gets talked about by the visuals-oriented media as if it really is more important than the complex or non-visual stories.  And even if you think you’re a hardcore skeptic, you’re probably falling for it.  (I said way back in the 90s that if visuals didn’t matter, the Federal Reserve would probably be on the news all the time, and I suppose by that measure, things have improved.)

The Net has complicated the TV/press dichotomy, but just a few years ago, a good test of the truth of my point in the preceding paragraph was talking to people who got their news mostly from TV vs. people who got it mostly from print.  Sometimes there were “big” ongoing stories largely unknown to one or the other audience based mostly on the dynamics of their preferred medium (“There’s a kid stuck in a well?  When did that happen?”). 

And it’s not as simple as explosions getting more replays.  The very experts you think of as experts are dictated in large part, not so much by whether they are (in the strictly sexual sense) “good-looking,” but certainly by whether they are interesting to look at, by whether they say things in a way that quickly grabs the attention of channel-flippers.  And these people even end up more likely to be touted in print.  And the media get so accustomed to doing this, they don’t even think about it anymore. 

If you’re in a rush and producing something, you may have time to say, “Oh, she’s good!” but you will probably never find the time to say, more accurately, “Oh, she’s good, as a talker and a visual, compared to other physicists, at least given that we need to try to squeeze in another female for gender-balance and because women hold more eyeballs.”  (Shallowness is feminism’s best friend on TV, by the way, and don’t let them guilt-trip you into believing otherwise.)

And, as with so many things (sports, religion), people come genuinely to believe what it’s functionally most useful for them to believe.  So they really do think that guy’s a brilliant scientist, and this other one is an eminent psychologist, and so on.  And you believe it too.

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