Network news as counter-reality

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First, a network news host with something to say, says nothing. And then, a reporter with nothing to say, says something. And in both cases fact and truth went missing.

Certainly, it wasn't what I expected to hear from aCNN news anchor. But there it was — striking honestyabout the news.

Arms waving for emphasis, the host of the CNN morningshow passionately complains about the Bushadministration's unwillingness to accept the scienceof global warming. The host says it is “a fear ofscience. In fact,” the host goes on, “the members ofthe Bush administration are like American Mullahs.”The host thinks for a moment, perhaps amused by thecomparison. “Yes,” the host repeats, “like AmericanMullahs.”

But the criticism doesn't stop there. Leaning forwardon elbows, the host talks about the whole CNN networkand its cowardice to report the honest news aboutglobal warming. “Look,” the host says with disgust,“only now can CNN finally say the science is sound -finally.” Not knowing what else to say, the hostthrows hands up, resigned, then looks down and has abite of salad.

I am sitting at an adjoining table in the BrooklynDiner on 7th avenue in New York City, not far fromCNN's New York offices. I'm eating a $16 plateof short pasta covered in a thick layer of mozzarellacheese. The CNN host is eating a light salad withvinaigrette dressing. I am trying not to listen to theconversation, but the tables are close, and the CNNhost, sitting almost at my shoulder, is not shy aboutsharing opinions with a companion at a good volume.

The companion is a slender woman in her late fortiesor early fifties, attractive, with long grey hair anda warm smile. She is a television producer for whatsounds like a rival network's news show, and she isequally incredulous about the network's unwillingnessto report the news honestly. She doesn't say much, butshe agrees with the CNN host, often nodding andrepeating many of the CNN host's comments betweenbites of salad and vinaigrette dressing.

The next morning in my hotel room, I watch the CNNmorning show and listen to the same host. I amwaiting, with some faint, naive hope, for some of thesame honest reporting I'd heard the day before. But ontelevision the host is both congenial and earnest.There is talk of the space shuttle launch and of KarlRove, but there is no hint of American Mullahs andtheir fear of science, or of CNN's cowardice to reporthonestly about global warming. Nope, just the morningnews as comfort food.

I sip my coffee and watch the CNN weather report. Ifind myself wondering if network news is, perhaps,just a counter-reality, a virtual reality where truthand fact have no place nor purpose. But I let thethought slip from my mind — until a few days later.

On the afternoon following the terrible Londonbombing, I am sitting with my wife and daughter on thefloor of Penn Station in New York City, waiting for along delayed Amtrak train for Providence, RhodeIsland. Keen-eyed television reporters with microphones, and their camera operators moving inlockstep, are prowling, looking for the news.

Or are they?

Twenty feet to my right, six New York City cops have,in a quiet and quick series of movements, created aparameter around an unattended dark blue duffel bag. Acop in a black trench coat enters the parameter,holding the leash of a German Shepherd. The Shepherdsniffs the length of the bag and then looks away. Thecop in the trench coat looks at another cop and shakeshis head then pulls the Shepherd back a few feet. Thesecond cop steps forward with a razor and cuts thebag. He pushes his arm into the bag and roughlysearches the contents.

Meantime, a short man wearingglasses and a black tee-shirt comes forward holding acoffee. He speaks rapidly in Spanish, pointing at thebag, and then at the coffee. He is annoyed that thecop has cut the bag, but the cop admonishes him influent Spanish. I look around. The people walking inthe station have hardly flinched at the scene. Theyjust continue about their business, resigned, as Isuppose I am, to fate.

A few minutes later, just ten feet to my left, acorrespondent for the BBC stands in front of hiscamera operator and camera. He adjusts his hair andfinds the right facial expression. Three times, thereporter practices his “report from New York's Pennstation.” Speaking in a grave tone, he talks about the“fear” felt by New Yorkers, and in particular here atPenn Station.

Again, I look around, amused. There are hundreds ofpeople moving about the train station. Some areannoyed with train delays, and some are frustratedwith grumpy children. Some are travel weary, and someare cheerful. But afraid? Not one that I can see.

After the BBC reporter gets the take he wants, hetries to speak with the officer holding the Shepherd.He wants a picture of the dog sniffing at the bagagain. The cop is annoyed and looks at the reporter.Then he just shakes his head and walks off. Thereporter shrugs and then moves along with hiscameraman in search of other news.

That's when I start thinking again about televisionnews as counter-reality. First, a network news hostwith something to say, says nothing. And then, areporter with nothing to say, says something. And inboth cases fact and truth went missing.

And then I wonder, in this new age of American Mullahsand the cult of fear, if fact and truth in televisionnews would ever be found.

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