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The BBC versus We Report, You Decide, or "Tell Me A Story."

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Quick Hit 2 - the BBC versus We Report, You Decide, or "Tell Me A Story."
Additional Comments, June 22, 2003
From the BBC!  On June 20 John Wallis had and interesting piece in The Guardian (UK).  Wallace is the BBC "Director of Factual and Learning" - whatever that might be, and just got back from a stint being Vice President In Charge Of National Programs at WGBH in Boston.  His remarks in the Guardian were extracted from a speech given at the Royal Television Society.  Odd that there is such an organization -- but he had some things to say about the media over here.
"Hours of cloned entertainment jostle with lame comedies and drama-by-numbers. Every hour is crammed full of commercials, encouraging a form of television attention deficit disorder. In this environment, Americans watch anything.  An eating contest, The Chicken Wing Bowl, attracted 20,000 stadium spectators.  Never one to miss a trick, Fox has run a televised food-guzzling contest, The Glutton Bowl.

"But it is on news and current affairs that American TV is shown at its most dispiriting.  No nation needs independent and impartial media more than the US, a sprawling and diverse democracy in which only 16% of people hold passports.

"Yet during the Iraq conflict the problem wasn't just the US flag fluttering in the corner of the screens or the loose language from embedded reporters using "we"; it was also that much of the coverage, particularly on the cable channels, could have been written and produced by the White House.

"When Fox star Bill O'Reilly interviewed retired generals before the attack on Baghdad, he airily dismissed their caution and told his viewers that the US should go in and "splatter" the Iraqis."
Once again we seem to have an outsider thinking that it is wrong that the US news audience wants to feel good and wave flags, that the function of the press in to confirm beliefs no challenge them.  US news outlets are commercial as I said elsewhere.  You don't sell sneakers by making people feel uncomfortable.
And it's not just Fox News.  As Wallis points out,
"The success of Fox has pushed other stations to the right.  MSNBC recently hired Michael Savage, whose radio program Savage Nation makes Fox News look like the Guardian. On radio, Savage gave his solution to the Middle East conflict: "We are the good ones and they, the Arabs, are the evil ones.  They must be snuffed out from the planet and not in a court of law."
This is what folks want.  They stay tuned.  The advertisements run on and on.
Wallis concludes, "The lesson from America is that, if news and public affairs are left purely to the market, it will most likely give the government what it wants."
But the bulk of the essay was on the FFC ruling allowing the big players in US broadcast media to consolidate.  And that is another wholly different issue.
- AP 6/22
In the news this week - whether or not the rescue of Jessica Lynch was staged propaganda (so claimed the BBC and now many others do also).  Or did we shoot our way into an actual battle and grab a girl who had be stabbed and repeatedly shot, videotaping it all - did we bravely overpower the many bad guys and do the right thing?  Perhaps it was something somewhere between the one or the other.  Seems there wasn't a hostile force there and the doctors and nurses were actually trying to return her to us - depending on who you believe.  Objectivity in the reporting?  Or a good story?
There have been lots of folks shouting at each other about this in the last several days.
But it was such good story.  Folks like stories.
This "story" found its own structure.  The official version has the crisis, the tense uncertain conflict, then the dramatic resolution.  The BBC alternative version is more in the nature of farce, not patriotic melodrama.  If "news" as we receive it is part entertainment, then the question is this -- does one's taste run toward drama - here dramatic rescue in the manner of old war movies - or more toward farce in the manner of Joe Orton or Monty Python?  What kind of narratives do you want to pay to see?  What keeps you coming back for more?
As for the BBC, the news site is okay, and the nightly television "World News" fairly general and non-committal.  Short on drama.  On those broadcasts the only lively part is the financial news.  Their guys talk fast and funny.  The rest?  A bit dull.  I suspect, really, they don't get it.  And the "it" they don't get is news as story telling, not the listing of events. 
That seems to me to be the big difference in approach on each side of the pond.  They, the BBC, seem to expect their viewers to make up their own stories from nuggets of news events.  That's a lot of work.  American audiences want to be told "the real story" - with a narrative already provided to make it all fit together from crisis to resolution.  And of course we over here also require a denouement - to be told what the story means to the next election or whatever.  And such a denouement is thus a teaser for the next episode.  Stay tuned.
So perhaps the BBC is (are) not really more objective or anything like that.  They just don't often put things in "story" format.  Hell, they call their news anchors "readers" - implying they just read the events listed on the page in their hands, as if it were a list of ingredients for a cake -- someone just gave them something someone else wrote and they calmly read it.  That makes these "readers" more like clerical staff, not heroic journalists telling the real TRUTH.  Where's the passion, the drama, the hidden plot twist, the irony, the heroism?  Reading a list of events?  That's news?
A friend of mine said some Brits told him a good news "story" should, really, be a scandal - with sex.
Watergate was an exception, I suppose.  Watergate didn't have that sex angle, unless when Nixon asked the quite Jewish Henry Kissinger to get on his knees and pray to Jesus with him there was some subtext there I just didn't see at the time.  As scandals go, with that one we had to make do with deceit and deception and all that odd stuff about secret tape recordings.  Dull.
But Watergate played out over time -- it had that "you can run but you can't hide" kind of narrative flow, and for scandals, a good narrative is probably important.  There wasn't much sex in "The Fugitive" but people kept watching - would the fellow on the run ever find the illusive one-armed man? 
With "Watergate, The Series" the Washington Post kept the thing coming in discreet episodes - and as I recall we all waited for the next installment.  I liked the episode where Nixon shed Halderman and Erlichman and told us all about it in a sad speech.  And the weekend firing of Archibald Cox was another good episode in the series.  The "I am not a crook" speech was a good episode too.  And the series had the resignation at the end, wrapping up it all up.  Like the last episode of M.A.S.H. in a lot of ways.
I suppose there is a reason we refer to some things on CNN and the rest as "news stories" a lot of the time.  So the formula for this is a bit of illicit or at least interesting sex, or a lot of sex, and a narrative flow - teasers for the next installment in the series - stunning revelations and defensive denials, heroes and villains and dupes, interesting characters like a sly country lawyer from North Carolina (Sam Erwin) and an tall, odd Ivy League scholar in a bowtie (Cox), and the two dim-witted loyal royal daughters (think King Lear) and various colorful Cuban patriots and the two kind-of-Germanic henchmen with buzzcuts (Halderman and Erlichman).  That works.
Everyone likes a good story. 
29 May 2003