Confessions of a former news junkie

April 1st, 2011
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I grew up with a kind of reverence for the news. On a car ride there’d be a loud shushing at the beginning of each radio newscast. The daily paper was held sacrosanct until the family elders had had a chance to digest it all.

By university I was listening to or watching perhaps four or five hours of news per day. Quite an achievement, and indicative of the ridiculous amount of free time one often has as a student. The day started, unbelievably, with several hours of “Morningside” (with Don Harron) on CBC, or Canada AM; then the evening news hour on Global TV and finally The National and Journal on CBC.

Then an odd thing happened, and it has nothing to do with politics. Sure you could see there was biased coverage and commentary. The most blatant example were the political panels, on CBC AM the Eric Kierens/Dalton Camp/Stephen Lewis trio, on CTV Gerry Caplan/Michael Kirby/Hugh Segal – all ideologically within about a millimetre of each other on the Left of the spectrum.

No, after literally years of this kind of saturation in news, I began to discern patterns or, more accurately, fashions in news coverage. In any given year, or certainly over a span of many months, there would be intense coverage of a particular story, especially in the international realm.

One year South Africa would be the crisis spot, the next year it might be Northern Ireland or Central America. These would all be covered with the same urgency, the same almost apocalyptic tone. Then, almost as quickly as they arose, these “crisis” stories would disappear.

One year, I don’t know whether it was during the wall-to-wall coverage of South Africa or Ireland, I wondered what had happened to last crisis spot. Were things any better in Central America, or wherever, now than they were last year? The simple answer was no. The media had just moved on, their attention drawn to another, seemingly more urgent trouble spot.

Then came the particularly revealing Gulf War of 1991. All of a sudden there was no other news. The entire 30 minutes of the national news was taken up with coverage of Operation Desert Storm, with Lloyd Robertson standing around a sand box depiction of the war theatre, listening enraptured to the commentary of a retired general. Yes, the war was extremely important, but it underscored perhaps just how trivial the “urgent” “crises” of the past years had been. A regional conflict, admittedly with Canada involved, cast everything else into the shadows.

This illustrates one of the generalizations that can be made about the news – that its importance is relative, and whatever news is “out there” expands to fill the time available for broadcast. The fact that, unlike 30 years ago, there is now a 24-hour news cycle and an almost insatiable appetite for news has caused an ongoing “news creation” dynamic.

Another generalization is the one I started this discussion with; the fact that news content is frequently arbitrary and internally-driven. Another example of this is what occurs every year in the dog days of summer. All the journos are off at their cottages and consequently no news happens. Nothing. Or stories are filed about black flies, trout and the unseasonable weather.

Let’s not kid ourselves. There is a political dimension to this. News outlets have editorial viewpoints and this is reflected not only in the coverage but, perhaps more importantly, in what stories are chosen for coverage. Many of us will have memories of, say the tone the CBC of the 1970s, only to have had our appraisal confirmed by someone like David Frum. He described how his mother, iconic broadcaster Barbara Frum and her colleagues, would choose stories and angles of coverage at their editorial meetings. No surprise.

The news dynamic is particularly pronounced in a place like Ottawa. The beast must be fed. Consequently, there arises a daily “noise” of coverage, usually drive by question period. Break weeks may, ironically, be particularly problematic because news is “slow” and relatively trivial issues can explode into multi-day tempests. Veteran political staffers will know all about this.

So, for me, the result has been predictable. I don’t watch or read much news anymore. I still enjoy intelligent commentary, like the O’Reilly Factor, and pay extra cable costs to see it. The daily noise and seasonal ebb and flow of news – whether real or created – I’ve had enough of it.

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By John Weissenberger