WWeek this week took a look at the method behind the mayhem of Fox 12 at 10 pm. What they revealed wasn't pretty, nor was it surprising. I stopped watching any type of televised news other than the Daily Show (which is no more faux-news at times than Neil Cavuto) years ago. Like a candy bar, televised news is an unhealthy rush of primal sensations that excites and titilates while subtly injuring the body politic. But that is old news.
No one should be shocked by WWeek's article, though it made for interesting reading. What set my blood boiling was the arrogance of Fox 12's news director, Patrick McCreery. Discussing criticism that his news doesn't reflect reality in Portland, he argues, "If it's not reflective of the community, why are ratings growing? That's what the rating system is there for--to reflect the community. Some stations take the approach that they know what Portland needs and they're going to force-feed it to viewers."
This sort of argument is something the head of TNT should be making to explain why his network likes making their own movies; this is not an honest argument for a journalist to make. Anyone who studies human behavior, even at the layman's level, knows that people don't have a solid grasp of what life is like--how am I supposed to know if my city is safe if I live in a nice secluded neighborhood? How? I turn to the news. And the news, if it is Fox 12, tells me my next door neighbors are meth addicts, my father sells cough medicine from the back of his pickup, my cousin Louie is an online pervert, and the mailboy might be a gangster. If I hear that my life is getting more dangerous, hell yes am I going to turn on the news and watch the only station that tells it as it is.
But what if that isn't how it is? What if Fox 12 is taking the bad seeds and representing them as part of a much larger, nonexistent population that we must fear? M
cCreery has to realize that scandal, crime, and drugs sell--he need only look to Murdoch's first major US conquest, the New York Post. For decades now it has been criticized for feeding off fear, creating divides where there are none, and misrepresenting the truth whenever the truth gets in the way of circulation numbers. I thought Portland was generally safe from the Aussie's type of faux-journalism, but WWeek has done us a nice little duty by showing us that while Fox 12 may "make" good news, their brand of news doesn't represent responsible journalism. And that is what angers me. Not that I didn't know this type of TV news existed, but that a Portland news manager could so blatantly misrepresent his success.
Fox 12 is feeding off our fear. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb explained in the NYTimes today, in a discussion on how we aren't wired to react effectively to terrorism:
"[The] emotional system can be an extremely naïve statistician, because it was built for a primitive environment with simple dangers. That might work for you the next time you run into a snake or a tiger. But because the emotional system is impressionable and prefers shallow, social and anecdotal information to abstract data, it hinders our ability to cope with the more sophisticated risks that afflict modern life.
For example, the death of an acquaintance in a motorcycle accident would be more likely to deter you from riding a motorcycle than would a dispassionate, and undoubtedly far more representative, statistical analysis of motorcycles' dangers. You might avoid Central Park on the basis of a single comment at a cocktail party, rather than bothering to read the freely available crime statistics that provide a more realistic view of the odds that you will be victimized.
This primacy of the emotions can distort our decision-making. Travelers at airports irrationally tend to agree to pay more for terrorism insurance than they would for general insurance, which includes terrorism coverage. No doubt the word "terrorism" can be specific enough to evoke an emotional reaction, while the general insurance offer wouldn't awaken the travelers' anxieties in the same way."
Fox 12 plays on these fears without regard for the larger, more dispassionate, and less ratings-inspiring picture. Good thinking for a TV show, irresponsible thinking for anything that brands itself as new. Fox 12 thinks it provides what Portlanders want? What about what we need? Do they even stop to consider what we'll watch when we place our trust in the media and what they, as journalists, have an obligation to provide, such as truthful framing of issues? Thank you, but I'll change the channel.