The Media and the Disintegration of Society
I worked in broadcast TV for nearly 20 years. I worked at NBC most of the time, but I also worked at other networks and on many shows. I was not a producer, but either a writer or a member of the crew. I worked on Today, Weekend Today, Dateline, various talk shows and some sports programs also. And, once you are past the security guards in the lobby, you have free reign to go anywhere. I often used to go to the back of Dateline's control room and watch them 'cut' a program together. More about that later.
But the important things I learned were not at the TV network, they came from other sources. And I came to understand that our society has been disintegrating ever since the late 1960s, all because of television and, to some extent, other media.
As you probably are aware, the TV networks account to no one except the advertisers. The news is sanitized, vetted and usually biased; and this has gone on for a long time. As a result, the networks continue to hold vast power and influence among the population. They have the potential to be a force for good, for public debate, to encourage human values. To some extent PBS, Discovery and The History Channel do this. But their numbers are small compared to the big four: ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX.
At its inception, TV was pretty good. The early shows were harmless feel-good shows such as Lucy and some game shows. Some of the earliest game shows (which became infamous) such as "21" and the "64,000 Question" tested people on fairly serious topics. The contestents got questions that only Educated people could answer. The only quiz show now that requires some intelligence is "Jeopardy." You may have seen "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader" with Jeff Foxworthy. This is a program that rewards stupidity, because even the losers get cash. This is where we have come in 50 years. From smart to dumb.
But there is more.
Up to Nixon's presidency, we still had a fairly free press. The networks, the big daily newspapers and other media could report the truth as they saw fit. However, in 1968 a classified document (7,000 pages long) detailed the illegal carpet-bombing of Cambodia, Laos and other targets. Parts of it were leaked to the New York Times - under the title "The Pentagon Papers." This disclosure , in print, embarrassed the administration; and the result was widespread dismay among the public that Nixon, Kissinger and the administration had been lying to the American public.
Nixon, embarrassed, decided to clamp down on the media. High-ranking CIA agents were sent to various news outlets to 'vet' stories. If the media refused to comply then they would be denied 'access.' In short, the White House successfully blackmailed the entire mainstream media: You want White House press credentials? Then play ball.
It didn't happen overnight. The demonstration at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago was widely covered on the news. There were huge riots - students agains the 'pigs' - and TV covered most of it. The kids chanted, "The whole world is watching!" and they were right. But, after that, news of protests took a back page. The Kent State shootings (1970) were covered, but only briefly. The administration continued to twist arms at the networks and the major dailies.
As a result, the media became the lapdogs of the administration and CIA people vetted every story. No one dare challenge or embarrass the president, or else they would be shown the door. (You may recall when Dan Rather went public with George W. Bush's military record, or lack thereof. He was asked to resign. Rather had been at CBS for decades and was the successor to Walter Cronkite. Rather was out. He later threatened to sue, but it never happened).
The press stopped asking tough questions, and often had to submit their questions in advance prior to any press conference. Among the small, independet outlets, there was a vast uproar. Amy Goodman (formerly of Pacifica) attacked the administration relentlessly in her 'Democracy Now' broadcasts. Yet, the administration did not view her as a threat. Moreover, publications on the left and right did a brisk business and the adminstration could rightfully say, "See? We allow free journalism to flourish!" But comparatively few read Mother Jones or The National Review.
The top media people, such as Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, George Stephanopolous, et al., were not only given access to the president, they became members of the Council on Foreign Relations, and also attended Bilderburg meetings. They became 'made' guys because they sold out. The era of Edward R. Murrow - who could make a senator sweat - was over.
Worse, the news was 'doctored' to support the administration's views. Some of you may have seen the Alex Jones' video, where a local NBC news crew videotaped, and reported, unexploded bombs at the Murrah Federal Building immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing. Was this reported on the networks? No. I learned that there were two detonations that morning, a few seconds apart. First, the building blew; then the truck. The seismograph at the University of Oklahoma (Norman) showed two distinct and separate detonations.
I happend to be in the back of the Dateline control room when they were cutting (editing) the Oklahoma City bombing piece. They made it look like Timothy McVeigh did it all by himself. I mentioned to one of the producers that there were two detonations and he turned to me angrily and said, "You sound like one of the Freemen!" (A patriot group in Idaho). I said, you can check with the University of Oklahoma." He glared at me. "Why am I just hearing about this now?" I replied, "What do you do for a living?" Well, that ticked him off. He had his marching orders from 'upstairs:' make McVeigh the centerfold and drop everything else.
Broadcast television is divided into two sections: news and entertainment. (Sports is considered part of news). So, while the news divisions were under the microscope of the administration, the entertainment division began to produce darker, more sinister programming. Programs that showed graphic violence, cruelty, adultery, began to replace the "Happy Days" and "Dean Martin" shows. Movies also picked up on this, but TV was in the home and easily accessible to everyone. Ratings went up. People had never seen such stuff on television before. The new violent shows had, what the networks call, a 'lean forward factor.'
The effect of violent programming, especially on children, was the subject of an important study by Dr. Alberta Segal of Stanford University. Young minds, she reported, are affected by extreme acts of violence and these acts encourage the kids to try them out on their friends, classmates and even parents. We started to get wild, lawless kids as a direct result of violent TV programming. Comedy and variety shows disappeared (only to be later replaced by 'Idol' and 'Dancing with the Stars') and grim reality shows, such as 'Survivor' - where people are encouraged to back-stab the other contestants. Mean was in: whether it was Simon Cowell or an unknown contestant in Borneo.
Boxing, once considered a gentlemanly sport, has all but vanished from televison. Now it's ultimate fighting, crazed tattoed jumbos bashing each other in the WWE, or ladies trying to knock each other senseless. Blood means ratings.
The media people still say - in defence of violent and stupid programming - that they create shows that reflect the reality of the world, and this is what people want to see. In truth, the programmers are whores. They would put on naked people smacking each other with broadswords if the censors would allow it. Nudity is next, since naked breasts and four-letter words have found their way past the censors. I'll bet live executions will appear some day. That would be a ratings coup for some 'lucky' network: watching some guy get the electric chair, live and in Hi-Def.
The programming decisions come from gutless, soul-less people who have no interest in anything other than ratings, making money, and getting to the next pay level. They certainly do not care about you, your kids, your family, your community or the truth. If your kid bashes in a neighbor's skull because he has seen it on TV and thinks it might be 'fun' you can point an accusing finger at the programmers and network executives. They don't care. They have lawyers to protect them, and of course the First Amendment. "If you don't like it, don't watch," they say.
The saddest part of all this is that broadcast television began with a bright future. It had (and still has) the power to inform, to uplift, to engender a community spirit, to make people care about others and what is going on in the world. It can be a rallying point and, most importantly, it can report the truth - and not a doctored, watered-down version of it. Just imagine how informed and compassionate we might be as a nation if the networks had not sold out to the administration and to the ratings. It reminds me of the old line from the sci-fi movie: "Why couldn't this genius be used for good instead of evil?"