Wednesday, November 22, 2006

TV news: a headline, a snippet

Would you believe that as late as the late '70s, we were still getting live coverage of global news only as short special events projects by local television stations? Today's Filipinos--even those already in their twenties--will probably find the information unbelievable, familiar as they are now with nonstop 24-hour news stations beaming live streams all over the world via cable.

But do watch these stations and you will note the surface treatment, the repetitive news and videos, the labored interviews by news anchors attempting to prove themselves instant experts in an inexpert industry. Television may have found some way of satisfying the world's hunger for continuing live global news, but that way is barely adequate and certainly superficial.

"Impressions," TV Times, 22-28 January 1978


Many people--even some friends--scoffed at the sight of the brightly lit scenes. Indeed, there was a quality of theatricality to both stages: the dramatic landing at Lod Airport in Jerusalem, and the return Christmas visit near the Giza pyramids at Ismailia. The toothpaste smiles were much too wide, aimed obviously at the television cameras. The speeches were much too emphatic and practised, with the whole world very obviously the target audience. And the flashes of supposed spontaneity, described by television commentators in all major capitals, had a studied air about them, faint but nagging.

Admittedly, television helped bring about the dramatic event. Was it not first aired over the now legendary Walter Cronkite's evening newscast? But as television covered the most historic happening of last year's dying months, the gap between print and television became more apparent and regrettable.

While The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the wire services, the news bureaus of major newspapers and magazines--yes, even Time and Newsweek--bled the story to death, releasing ream after ream of newsprint filled with continuing and sometimes contradicting analyses of every conceivable facet of the event, television could only give Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin no more than five minutes of each day's newscast. And each minute devoted by television to the Egyptian-Israeli handshake barely scratched the surface of the story.

I believe that the fault does not lie somewhere, or at some desk, in the television newsrooms. The fault, dear televiewers, lies right at the very soul of the television tube. Paraphrasing Pauline Kael, who reels with the big screen and dismisses the small one: Television as we have it isn't a thinking form; it's only a piece of headline and a few minutes of a cameo performance.

Yes, even for such a dramatic event as the heralded beginning of Arab-Israeli understanding and the start of a possible end to more than a quarter century of war. And yes again, even if the whole effort fails and Anwar Sadat turns out to be both fool and simpleton.

The British, who have developed the art of public affairs to a point where even the much-acclaimed Public Broadcasting System in the United States must count on BBC productions as staples in its programming fare, are less elegant in their criticism of television than Pauline Kael. As early as the '60s and up to this day, they fault TV for its trivialization of life.

One moment, the medium shows an actuality of starvation and poverty; the next moment, televiewers are persuaded to buy luxuries; and the next moment, it shows somebody being shot in cold blood in New York or Africa. "TV-summarized news can reduce events to unreal snippets less arresting than the ads and the thrillers," said an eminent British MP. "Brevity always limits depth," seconded a British television critic.

That television failed to discuss the Sadat-Begin efforts at diplomatic groundbreaking in the Middle East is not, however, the major reason for my friends' refusal to give any value to the story. There will always be skeptics and cynics among us, men and women who rate an event with less enthusiasm than the rest of the world.

But that television has failed to satisfy the more enthusiastic and the less cynical among us is surely the medium's failing. That failure, we hate to admit, seems irremediable--now and in the future.

-- NBT

No title in original published column

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