Half Past the Month

February 17, 2015

A LONG TIME AGO, even before Madonna was born, post-modern journalism began to take recognizable shape. It featured a spectacularly creative news matrix, one that put a premium on good looks, a dramatic television news set, graphic magic and emotional presentation.

The initial effect was encouraging. The newsrooms filled with good-looking and glib young people. Energy abounded. An attendant flippancy was ignored.

The best-looking and most glib found themselves able to negotiate shockingly favorable contracts, often quite wide-ranging. Hollywoodesque, someone called the terms. And that, too, seemed right.

But there were inklings of trouble. Contracts for post-modern personnel began to absorb news budgets. The hidebound old fogies, who scored low on goodlookingness, looked discouraged.

The consequent on-air flubs, plus a general misreading of events and history, the apparent suspension of grammar and other minor embarrassments were judged temporary and unconnected to the puzzling but steady decline in viewership.

And yet, competition for a shrinking market share only increased an already obscene demand for good-looking, glib presenters. Contract negotiations became tense. There were concerns. The late post-modern novelist Donald Barthelme offered perspective:

“Top management is discouraged and saddened, and middle management is drinking too much. Morale in the newsroom is fair, because of the recent raises, but the shining brows of the copy boys, traditional emblems of energy and hope, have begun to display odd, unattractive lines. At every level, people want management to stop what it is doing before it is too late.”

Most destructive, it turned out, were those prerogatives wrested from ownership by the good-looking and glib, a large number of whom turned out to be woefully unprepared to guide a nationwide information system.

Missing with the hidebound fogies was a sifting, sorting and weighing of facts. In hindsight, one can see that a cavalier attitude had developed regarding the inability to predict events or explain their portent.

Gross misunderstandings of the nation’s philosophical base marred story selection. A sophomoric approach to government policy, both domestic and foreign, was on display nightly. Viewers, internal polling showed, were frightened.

Even so, those on the set were admittedly, even proudly, ignorant of classical knowledge. Nor did they seem concerned about obtaining the depth or breadth of professional experience needed to support the personality-driven political agendas they imposed on viewers.

Hopes lifted when a network news leader, the National Broadcasting Company, commissioned the most advanced, demographically tailored screen tests available. Management was confident of finding the very model of a post-modern news anchor. The selectee failed — suffering hidden personality flaws, it was explained.

The stray critic was emboldened. “It is implausible, and even bizarre, for the higher-ups at NBC News to become so unctuous when the whole industry is infested with myth-makers and tendentious partisans who, in their daily reporting, can often be assumed to be taking liberties with the truth whenever you see their lips move,” wrote the defrocked newspaper publisher Conrad Black.

Nobody is depressed, a network spokesman stressed. The television news set has been redesigned. The digital graphics department is excited. Even more advanced demographically tailored screen tests are in the works.

— Craig Ladwig

Resources

Donald Barthelme. “Pepperoni.” The New Yorker, p. 43, Dec. 1, 1980.

Conrad Black. “Tip of the Iceberg.”  National Review, Feb. 11, 2015.

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