Review: The More You Watch ...
Community College Journalist -- Summer 2001
Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2001
The More You Watch, The Less You Know: News Wars (Sub)Merged Hopes / Media Adventures
By Danny Schechter
Seven Stories Press, 483 pages
Cal State University, Fullerton
"The More You Watch, The Less You Know: News Wars / (Sub)Merged Hopes / Media Adventures" (Seven Stories Press) is an indictment of TV news and its negative influence on Americans. The book, first published in hardback in 1997, has been reissued in paperback,
Schechter, who worked in broadcasting for more than 30 years, says broadcast news is turning people away from politics and away from the news itself. Americans tuned out the 1996 presidential-campaign coverage with its orchestrated campaigns and infomercial conventions in part because the news media, particularly television, reported on the election and politics in general in terms that many Americans couldn't relate to. While Americans talked about education and crime, TV anchors talked about spinmeisters and tracking polls. Schechter says this disconnect between the media and voters resulted in the lowest voter turnout since 1926.
Schechter's indictment of TV journalism has credibility. "The More You Watch, The Less You Know" offers a well-documented and well-written argument for what is wrong with television news today. Schechter knows what he is talking about; during his career he has been both part of the problem as well as part of the solution. He started his career during the Vietnam War providing alternative news for a Boston rock 'n' roll radio station and later worked as a segment producer for CNN and ABC's "20/20." He left "20/20" in the late '80s to form his own independent documentary-film company, Globalvision.
The book mixes Schechter's criticism of broadcast news with a somewhat self-serving narration of his professional career and concludes with what he sees as preferable alternatives to today's monolithic media.
Schechter himself may be a threat to some of his book's credibility. He is an unabashed progressive liberal who considers himself as a "social change-oriented journalist." He says that when he first entered broadcast journalism he saw himself more as a megaphone for his causes than as a journalist. He describes his tenure at CNN and ABC as that of an infiltrator and saboteur who managed to avoid being co-opted by the system.
His work at Globalvision has included a biography of '60s drug guru Timothy Leary, an account of human-rights abuses in Bosnia, an examination of the John F. Kennedy assassination, and films about the end of apartheid in South Africa. He produced or co-produced the television documentary series "Right & Wrongs," about human-right issues around the world, and "South Africa Now," about the struggle for freedom in South Africa.
The book's cover claims the new edition has been revised and updated, but the only change appears to be a new forward. Schechter's anecdotes about media transgressions and his experiences and accomplishments end in late 1996. Being a few years out of date doesn't seriously discredit the book, however; the mergers and pending mergers as well as some of the corporate ethical lapses of the last year or so give Schechter's assessment a prophetic tone. His criticisms of the 1996 presidential campaign coverage could be easily applied to the 2000 coverage.
The book's title is taken from a line in the Jackson Browne song, "Information Wars," which also has the line, "The more you watch, the less you do." The title also borrows from University of Massachusetts Professor Michael Morgan's study that found that people who relied on television for news about the Gulf War knew little about its roots and were more likely to support U.S. intervention.
Schechter argues that participatory democracy isn't the only victim of network TV news. Any dissenting voice to the overall interests of the media oligarchs has all but been eliminated by the major networks, which include CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN and Fox. All five are international conglomerates with business interests that conflict with balanced news reporting. Schechter speculates that NBC doesn't aggressively report on human-right abuses in China because its parent company, General Electric Corp., is involved in a controversial dam project there. The other networks are also courting China: Fox and ABC's parent company, Disney, are actively trying to sell their entertainment products, and all the networks are competing for satellite access there.
Schechter explains that there are no conspiracies to control news or to micromanage news coverage from the corporate office. The networks don't need subterfuge, he says, because they hire gatekeepers who share the same world views, rely on the same institutional sources and tend to frame their stories in the same way. In addition, TV reporters have been coopted by government sources and are often in lockstep with them, especially in foreign-policy issues. Schechter describes what media critics Martin Lee and Norman Solomon call the "we-we" phenomenon, in which TV anchors refer to the U.S. government as "we."
The nature of television news also contributes to its sameness. News executives want video illustrating a conflict rather than a talking heads explaining why the conflict is taking place. The news rarely offers a context for what is going on. Viewers must rely on the Sunday morning ta]k shows and news-network commentators to explain the significance what they saw on the 6 o'clock news and how they should think about it. The problem here, Schechter says, is that the two biggest sponsors of these programs are General Electric and Archer Daniels Midland, and both are international corporations that have benefited from government contracts, tax breaks and subsidies. They wouldn't be sponsoring programs that conflicted with their corporate self-interests.
The Public Broadcasting System, created as an alternative to the market-driven networks, is also stifled by corporate interests. Cuts in federal funding have forced PBS producers to seek funding from corporate sources, and while major companies are happy to underwrite quality British entertainment programming, they are reluctant to sponsor programs on environmental issues, human-rights abuses or even media criticism.
The solution to all of this, according to Schechter, is more world views in television news. He also calls for greater regulation and tougher anti-monopoly laws; greater public awareness of media conglomerates' power and irresponsibility; greater coverage of groups now excluded from TV coverage, including minorities, unions and issue-oriented groups; and a new media model to replace today's market-driven media system.
"We need vision, ideas and plans," he says. "... what is needed even more is an informed citizenry that ... demands a different type of news."
Schechter's criticism of the broadcast news doesn't cover any new ground, but his personal experiences helps the reader understand what is wrong with the networks today. His solutions, which may seem radical to some, are certainly worth discussing.