Bad news about news

What does this poll mean? There are so many obvious things wrong with the fact that 49% of respondents claim to trust Fox News (more than any other TV news source), not the least of which is its untrustworthiness. But this just validates what Fox is doing beyond its profit making business. Nothing will stop them because people trust it. I don’t know what to say other than that.

The most encouraging thing about this is that the majority of Americans don’t actually trust television news. Below is an article I wrote for the late great Culture-Voice.com on the problems of TV and TV news in the US and the UK:

And now for a Word from Durex, the FCC, and the Military Industrial Complex

By Ivan Goddard

I was listening to an American radio program over the internet in January and a discussion came up between the host and guest regarding the writers strike and its effect on television watching.  After discussing the finer points regarding legal matters and unions, the host asked the guest what viewers can do while they wait out the writers strike.  The answer was to watch old TV programs on DVD.  Personally I found that absolutely ludicrous and maybe even diseased in a way.  The right answer to me was “read” or “play board games with your family” or “go to the YMCA for a game of basketball” or “do what people did before TV” or even “listen to the radio”.

I had a similar reaction a few years ago when the news was all about the FCC fining TV stations for showing objectionable material during family viewing hours.  Those people that supported the fines claimed that they were protecting their children from immorality.  Yet no one ever questioned the morality of watching TV with your kids in the first place.  The questions were about censorship and personal freedom or offensive images and language.  Watching TV was just a matter-of-fact part of modern life.  Perhaps someone did talk about this issue but they talked about it on TV and I didn’t see it because I don’t watch TV.  (An interesting twist to this is that social conservatives who probably support the stricter standards of the FCC also likely support abstinence programs to combat STDs and unwanted pregnancies rather than promoting the use of condoms.  They might also support stricter border control and the deportation of illegal aliens rather than amnesty.  Isn’t the FCC kind of like a condom?  Isn’t the FCC granting amnesty to televisuals?  Why does abstinence as a solution to a problem not carry over into other areas?)

I say that I don’t watch TV rather than that I don’t have a TV.  It’s hard to believe how difficult it is not to own a TV.  This is especially the case in the UK where most flats are rented with furnishings.  Included in those furnishings are usually cheap furniture and appliances, which almost always means that a TV will be set up in the living room.  So we have a TV, but I unplugged it from the antenna to keep myself from the temptation of watching the many travel-cooking shows or quiz shows or fake quiz shows (which is a surprisingly popular genre that I was unaware of before I moved here) or Big Brother, a completely depressing show that is so unbelievably popular that on a recent Celebrity Big Brother, more than one of the “celebrities” became celebrities in the first place by being on non-celebrity Big Brother.

Anyway, I don’t watch the TV that came with our flat, but I am still tempted on rainy lazy nights when my wife is out to see what lovely brilliance the British have cooked up for us recently.  So I have disconnected the TV from the antenna and stored the cable in an inconvenient place.  I’ll be clear that I’m not totally opposed to TV watching as a form of winding down.  I went through the trouble of making the television difficult to use because I’m afraid of the TV police, or as I like to call them, the Boob-Tube Bobbies.  These “enforcement officers” perform stakeouts outside of people’s homes in television “detector vans”.  Of course this raises the question of why anyone might need to detect my television in the first place.  And the answer is that they want to make sure I am not watching television without a TV license.

The idea of a television watching license was a foreign concept to me before I moved to Britain but it is actually quite simple and, in a way, makes more sense than the broadcast models in North America.  In the UK, one pays the TV stations, through the licensing agency, to watch their programming.  In the US and Canada, the advertisers pay the stations to let the viewer watch.  There is advertising on TV here, but not as much and it doesn’t generally interrupt the flow of the show.  So a 30 minute show is actually a 30 minute show rather than a 22 minute show with commercial breaks.

And yet as much sense as that makes, I still find it odd to have to pay to watch TV.  So I don’t.  And the result is suspicion by the TV police and a potential invasion of my privacy.  And though I live in a fairly isolated spot, I have been warned through an official letter that my address is “under investigation by the TV Licensing National Enforcement Division.”  If I do not pay the fee of £135 then I am subject to a penalty of £1000, “not to mention the embarrassment and hassle of a court appearance.”  Despite my normally law-abiding ways, I couldn’t help but think that this seems like an unenforceable law.  However, their website assures me that they are such a formidable entity that they “catch on average over 1000 people watching TV without a licence every day.”  Honestly?  How much does it cost to run this agency just to catch the freeloaders?

Let us take this opportunity to break from the regularly scheduled essay to look a little more closely at this agency.  We can learn a bit about it from their website, much of which makes one suspicious of the possibility that the editor of it went to the Rudy Giuliani School of Fear Mongering.  Although the following quote makes me think that the editor may have learned a thing or two from Dick Cheney as well:

We have a range of detection tools at our disposal in our vans. Some aspects of the equipment have been developed in such secrecy that engineers working on specific detection methods work in isolation – so not even they know how the other detection methods work. This gives us the best chance of catching licence evaders.

We can surmise, but they are also secretive on the logic behind the necessity of such clandestine methods.  Not that the website designer is all furrowed brows and waving fingers.  There is a bit of humour on the site as well.  There is a whole page dedicated to the various excuses the agency has received when houses under surveillance have been pursued by the officers.  The first anecdote reads thusly:

An Enforcement Officer could see the TV in use from the road. The householder said he did not have a TV. The officer said he saw the TV, to which, the householder said that what he saw was not a TV but a fishtank. The officer then asked if the fish was called Michael. The man was mildly amused and relented.

I am mildly amused too.  If I understood this joke I would, perhaps, be extremely amused.  Is there something culturally bound to which I have yet to be exposed?  Is Michael a popular character on TV?  Is it an entirely inappropriate name for a fish?  Fortunately, this is not the only example of humour on the page.  Another example:

An Enforcement Officer knocked on the door of a suspected evader and asked if he had a TV, to which, the owner said he did not.

The observant officer then asked “Well why have you got a satellite dish on the outside of your house then?”

The man looked down and said with a grin “I have 2 pints of milk on my doorstep Son, but I don’t have a cow in the garden!”

Now that’s pretty funny.  However, I’m not sure what this accomplishes.  Did the man have to pay?  It seems like a witty and valid excuse to me.  Perhaps I feel this way because our roof has an antenna that is not attached to a TV and I also do not have a cow in the garden.

There are a few other examples, but none which made me laugh except, perhaps, ironically.  One of the excuses is entitled “Supersonic Detection” but contains nothing that suggests anything is going faster than the speed of sound, but does contain the exclamation “flippin’ heck”.  Hard to believe, really.  However much I like the phrase “flippin’ heck” I wonder how many people actually use it when caught by the Boob Tube Bobbies.

Let us now return to the essay at hand.  In the end, the great accomplishment that has come from this TV licensing enforcement has been to keep me from watching TV.  And yet, one of my major issues with TV is not the medium per se, but the way that it is instituted in North America.  Though the FCC has problems with the occasional “flippin’ heck” or butt crack, I find the commercial breaks to be the most offensive things on television.  The peddling of useless products strikes me as so demeaning and the method of presenting news on television is an out-and-out sham.  Brian Williams seems like a nice guy, but he’s really nothing more than an entertainer window-dressed to look like an important contributor to society.

The TV license is a great way to restrain that problem.  The news doesn’t have to pander for commercial dollars and is free to present the news.  By operating on tax dollars, the producers don’t have to satisfy the corporations that want to advertise on their space, especially those corporations that might actually be in the news itself.  There have been cases of investigative reporters on American TV news stations censured by their employers because the stations they are reporting for were sponsored by the companies they were investigating.  And then there is war profiteer Boeing paying war profiteer GE for advertising space on MSNBC’s “Countdown” with Keith Olbermann, a show that is blatantly opposed to the war that Boeing and GE are profiting from.

But because of this British way to operate the medium I have been given a way to opt out.  The British system has empowered me the most and allowed me the most opportunity to choose something for myself.  What have I chosen?  Nothing.

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