President Joe Biden has said that he wants to lower the temperature in America. The press could help by being a little less breathless.
I made the mistake, as I do too often, of watching NBC’s “Today Show” this morning. It’s an irritating way to start the day. Even the most mundane development is “Breaking Overnight!” When some actor from a 1980’s sitcom that you had long forgotten about passes away, “tributes are pouring in!” Every common car accident that happened to be caught on a GoPro gets national coverage. I get on edge just listening to the headlines. Who needs coffee?
This morning Today led with the run-of-the-mill winter storm making its way through the Midwest. They made it sound like Armageddon. At one point it was reported that, “massive cleanup efforts have already begun!” Well, yeah. If you mean that snow plows are clearing the streets in every city and town that got some snow I suppose it’s technically correct to say that. But really? It’s just a regular old snowstorm in the Midwest in January. It happens with some frequency. It snows. We plow it.
Some doctors suggest that people are more depressed when they consume more news. Small wonder.
It would be a good thing for America if the press would just tone it down a few notches to match the mood sought by the president. But good luck with that. News shows, especially television news shows outside of PBS, are run mostly by entertainment divisions. They’re not really news programs so much as they are reality TV shows. It used to be that you could tell the serious news outlets from tabloids. Now it’s all tabloids.
Let me pause here and say that I hesitate to be too critical of the press right now. We’ve just gotten off four years of a president who called the press “the enemy of the people” and encouraged physical violence and online vitriol against reporters who were just doing their jobs. The Wisconsin State Journal reported over the weekend that it had out-fitted its reporters in riot gear to cover any protests that might have happened at the state Capitol during the inaugural.
It’s also true that none of this is new. The press has always been a business as well as a vital institution of democracy. They always had to sell some newspapers or attract some eyeballs to sell ads so that they could pay reporters a pittance and make a lot of money for the owners of the papers and stations.
But from time to time (maybe especially in mid-20th century America) the news business has been more sober and dignified. It’s impossible to imagine Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley hosting any of today’s nightly news shows not to mention “Today.”
Since it is a business, it comes down to what consumers demand. Maybe President Biden will set a tone of calmness that is so pervasive as to make thoughtfulness profitable.
Still, I’m not holding my breath that the breathlessness will go away anytime soon. In the meantime, there’s always Judy Woodruff.