CNN’s unexpected success in covering the Gulf War led to an American
love affair with twenty-four-hour-a-day news, but, only a decade later,
a CNN foreign correspondent told Ken Auletta, when he was working on a
biography of Ted Turner, that news editors at the network ” ‘equate
serious with boring.’ ” Executives told him that “there was no big news
overseas,” which Auletta interpreted as another way of saying that “in
order to get ratings, we need wars or some kind of crisis.” Of course,
there are crises all the time, everywhere, but to cover them properly
you have to decide that it’s important to cover them, and damn the
ratings. All the organizations that have cut back their staffs in
recent years are rich enough to cover the world. (Let’s not forget that
the three broadcast networks are able to pay their anchorpersons a
combined forty million dollars a year.) CNN is owned by Time Warner;
though the company’s revenues went down by eight hundred million
dollars between 2007 and 2009, it still managed a profit of nearly five
billion dollars last year, and CNN, despite dreadful prime-time
ratings, had its best year ever.
It’s all there. This is what continues to infuriate me about the way people at the top of the trade behave: All the tools are there to do what everybody agrees needs to be done, and yet here we sit.
The money is there. The expertise is, if not there right now, impossibly easy to find (just take six or seven of any of the cast-off newspaper journalists in every given city and don’t worry so much about if they’re prom queens because people like schlubby news junkies and if they didn’t I wouldn’t get hit on at parties). The stories, God almighty, the stories are there. They’re all out there waiting for you to just dig your claws in and rake them apart. The world is a fucking gorgeous nasty snake pit of glory for the storyteller, always has been always will be, so the stories are there.
Everything is there to get the job done that everyone agrees needs to get done. And yet it doesn’t get done.
And you know, I’m past blaming the audience (stoopit kids reading Perez Hilton), and I’m past blaming the tools (print is dead), and I’m past blaming the economy (ooh, car dealerships aren’t advertising as much) and I’m so far past blaming the Internet I can’t even remember its name. When we look back at this supposed journalism “crisis” we will marvel at how easy it would have been to say fuck the supposedly inevitable, let’s do what we want and cover what we want and let people come or not come as they please. In the history of the world, has passionate, determined pursuit of one’s clearly stated goals in service of decency and truth ever been a losing strategy? Yet we’ll marvel, we will, at how determinedly we did not do that, how we avoided it at every turn and found ways to twist ourselves into rhetorical knots to make out like there was some other path we were bound to, but the right one.
Make the decisions. Look at the positively giganto piles of money you could roll around in like Scrooge McDuck if you wanted to do that, and decide to spend it on what you say matters to you. Just be who you wanted to be when you grew up. It isn’t that hard. Okay, it’s horrendously hard, but on balance it is not harder than making your whole life about why you aren’t the person you wanted to be and why you don’t have the life you wanted to have. That, and believe me I speak from experience, isexhausting. Everyone I know who has had their soul sucked out had it happen as a result of a moment when they knew the right thing to do, and did the opposite. This is the same thing. They’ll make a pile of excuses and every last one of them will be some desperate attempt not to do what they know in their bones needs to be done.
Blaming the audience, the economy, the medium, the Internet … it takes precisely and exactly the same amount of time to just NOT SUCK, so why don’t we do that? The money, the stories, the people are there.
Here we sit.