Cognitive Dissidents

In psychology, cognitive dissonance refers to the fact that people holding two different inconsistent views or those being confronted with information contrary to their beliefs suffer discomfort and try to find some kind of internal consistency. “Cognitive dissidents,” a phrase used by one Facebook savant, has an unknown meaning. I’d dub it the ranks of those like myself who stubbornly oppose the prevailing ideas of the power elites no matter how tarted up and widespread they are.

Like those much younger than I, I cannot bear to watch TV news and so perhaps I have built up immunity to the pap the media elites spout.

TV (and, of course, cable) news is not well suited to cover topics more complicated than weather, sports, and traffic. More complicated stories -- which is to say the really important things we need to know -- cannot easily be reported in pictures. So they aren’t covered at all well in that medium or they are misreported often by employing phony theatrics to entertain their viewers and engage them in the selected narrative.

At best, we have a decades-old formulaic kabuki where attractive, well coiffed and garbed, exceedingly overpaid readers with very good teeth chatter on, giving the same amount of attention to the trivial as they do to the significant news of the day. That’s not just my opinion -- statistic examination bears this out. It’s largely frivolous tidbits rounded out by interviews which fluff up the mostly leftwing types the press likes or are outrageously rude and dismissive of those they do not. It’s breadcrumbs (of news) and circuses.

According to State of the Media:

Interview segments are now as prominent in daytime cable as they are in prime time. Coverage of live events and live reports dropped in daytime programming by about one-third -- from 33% of the newshole in 2007 to 23% in 2012. And the airtime devoted to interviews rose from 39% to 51%, equaling the percentage of airtime they fill on cable at night, when partisan talk and debate drive the programming.

In 2007, CNN spent far less time airing interviews and far more time running edited packages than either Fox or MSNBC on prime time. But that had changed markedly by 2012. The percentage of CNN evening programming filled with interviews jumped from 30% in 2007 to 57% in 2012. At the same time, the airtime for edited packages plunged from 50% to 24%

A separate analysis of cable in late 2012 finds that, over all, commentary and opinion are far more prevalent on the air throughout the day (63% of the airtime) than straight news reporting (37%).

[SNIP]The average story length on local television news decreased substantially over time. In a separate Pew Research Center analysis of local news content from 1998 to 2002, some 31% of the stories were more than a minute long and 42% were under 30 seconds. In 2012, only 20% of the local television stories exceeded a minute while 50% lasted less than 30 seconds.

The already considerable amount of time devoted to sports, weather and traffic on local newscasts rose even higher in the snapshot of stations studied, from 32% 2005 to 40% in 2012. The biggest increase came in the airtime devoted to sports, to 12% from 7%. The traffic and weather components of the newscast increased by a smaller percentage (to 29% from 25%), but four in ten of the newscasts examined here led with a weather story.

One measure of the unchanging nature of the broadcast network news format, particularly in the evening, is the story length. The average evening news story package lasted 141 seconds in 2007 and 142 seconds in 2012. The average interview was nearly identical as well: 110 seconds in 2007 and 108 in 2012. And the time allotted to the average stand-up report decreased only slightly, from 91 seconds to 88 seconds, in that five-year interval.

At the moment one would think foreign affairs would be grabbing the largest percentage of airtime. The world has not in my view been at such risk since just before world War II .We are in perilous times, but as we learned when Saddam Hussein fell, the tyrants who control the Middle East deny access to those news agencies who don’t provide cover for them. And as we learned years ago in Lebanon, most of our reporting  in the hotspots was from local  partisans or outside reporters whose lives were in jeopardy if they gave honest accounts of the distortion and manipulation of events on the ground. So we don’t get much that we need to know on TV news except from government handouts and unreliable reporters who play ball with the malfeasants and an administration increasingly vindictive to those few who do their jobs,.

Coverage of national news is hardly different. In part this is because so little is spent gathering and analyzing it. At the same time that anchor newsmen and women have seen huge increases in salary, comparatively little money has been spent on news gathering. 

The high salaries of news anchors is justified by the ad revenues they can bring in.

Indeed, anchors are increasingly one-person brands, and the bigger that brand's star power, the more likely they are to land big interviews and specials, which can be syndicated and rake in huge profits above and beyond their regular programs. "Look at Matt Lauer -- is he worth it?” says Stephen Battaglio, the TV Guide business editor who edits the annual salary issue for the magazine. “Matt is central to [Today] -- if he left, ratings would plummet and NBC would lose at least $100-125 million in ad revenue. His salary generates the ratings and audience that will keep advertisers paying what they do."

Same with a guy like Brian Williams, who “brings stature, and physically represents NBC,” says Battaglio. “There are some intangibles there as well. People who deliver the news for you, the personalities you’ve developed over the years, they become your brand and there is a value that can’t always be quantified…This is built up over time -- stature, connection, relationship with the audience. It’s an investment.”

Brian Williams was exposed this week as a serial fabulist. His days as an anchor seem to be at an end. True, his lies seem to have been designed to advance his career and salary, but can NBC deny with a straight face that those engaged in the production of the accounts which now prove false were duped into going along with the farces? That doesn’t appear possible or likely.

Unfortunately, in a visual medium and with an increasingly less informed and querulous audience what draws eyes and ad revenue is sensationalism: reporters being twirled around light poles in hurricanes; fantastic tales of cannibalism in New Orleans, phony heroic war stories like Williams’. This clip of a reporter paddling in flood waters which turned out to be only inches deep is a classic of the genre:


Or this of a CNN reporter revealing how fake his own broadcast from the front was:


My friend Professor Charles Lipson reminds us what real war reporting looks like: 


TV news hasn’t been this compelling or accurate for decades. The networks should either pull the plug on their news departments and concentrate on sports and weather, which they seem to simply pull off the newswires in any event, or spend more on news gatherers and less on production.

Until they do, people who still watch this stuff in the belief they are learning something of value instead of wasting time are guilty of cognitive dissonance. These days you simply must pick which events are most significant, read accounts from various sources and bring to bear the same critical eye you bring to your other daily affairs. If you think you can learn something of value of the day’s happenings by passively consuming TV news accounts you are delusional. You know you’re being played for fools. Why do you allow yourself to keep on doing it?

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