All the (non) News that’s Unfit to Print

February 13, 2009

All the news that’s fit to print… online? Newspaper editors are bemoaning the fact that people don’t read the physical paper anymore – mostly because content is free online. So now Hearst-esque folks are suggesting online readers should pay to read the news online. I have no problem with this. I read the Times, although only selected articles, online Monday through Friday. I would pay a few dollars a month for this service; I understand that in order for me to be able to read the news someone has to report it and while any chain-smoker in a mumu (a la Lemon Lyman) can post her thoughts online and call herself a journalist, respectable and credible journalists, the ones I am inclined to read, won’t work for free. I support their work and therefore would not oppose to paying for an online subscription to the Times.

But in his editorial about micro-paying for the news, Slate founding editor Michael Kinsley touches on a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: Over-saturation. He says, “Just a few years ago, there was no sweeter perch in American capitalism than ownership of the only newspaper in town. Now, every English-language newspaper is in direct competition with every other. …When the recession ends, advertising will come back, with fewer places to go.” [Emphasis mine] The news market is oversaturated with “news outlets.”

I had the same thought when watching two recent PBS specials, Make ‘Em Laugh and the telecast of the Mark Twain Award for Humor, presented posthumously to George Carlin. Both specials focused on comedians and the evolution of comedy, but the point taken from them is easily applied to musical acts as well, a timely comparison given the Grammy celebration which took place Sunday night, but more on that in a moment. The specials highlighted the role of The Ed Sullivan Show or The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in launching so many of these comedians’ careers. I thought to myself, “Why was going on Johnny Caron such a big deal?” Because he was the only game in town. You hear your parents and others of their generation and before talk about watching Elvis or The Beatles on Ed Sullivan – how watching The Ed Sullivan Show was a family-wide Sunday evening ritual. And that’s how stars were made.

The Beatles’ arrival in America was largely announced on The Ed Sullivan Show – and everyone, everyone, saw it. I cannot think of any program on television these days that everyone watches. Yes, we think everyone watches the Super Bowl and a great number do – maybe that’s why performing at the halftime show, for example, is such a coveted gig. (Way to go, Bruce!) But that happens once a year; it doesn’t afford us the opportunity to experience, for ourselves, new acts. These days, if Dane Cook bombs on Leno (to go back to the comedy vein,) he can always (try) to redeem himself with a better performance on Letterman. Or on the internet, where Cook in particular is known for having built up a strong presence. (By the way, I’m not endorsing Cook’s mostly unfunny comedy…)

But these myriad options are why, switching again to music, there were so many nominees and performers at Sunday night’s Grammy awards whose songs I don’t know. I recognize the name of most of the performers because I see them mentioned in Rolling Stone. But I don’t listen to the radio anymore – mostly because I don’t drive but even when I did I always had my own c.d.s with me because radio sucked. (…Plus there were those pesky commercials.) And I don’t watch MTV or other so-called music channels because they don’t play music and the music they do play is rarely without a gimmick. The burlesque showgirls of Gypsy were ahead of their time when they sang “You gotta have a gimmick to get ahead.” I don’t know who this Katy Perry girl is – but I know she sang a song called I Kissed a Girl. (Didn’t Jill Soubile do that years ago? And doesn’t Perry look like Zooey Deschannel?)  I’ve never heard anything about her talent or lack thereof but I know about her gimmick. What a shame that music – popular music which was once the arena of Jimi and Janis – is being infiltrated by commercialism and sell-ability rather than quality.

There are so many choices out there and everyone wants to be a star. That’s why Miley Cyrus performed on the Grammys. Record executives don’t listen to music – they’re pitched gimmicks and marketability and that’s what they sign. That’s why, in the late nineties, we got ambushed with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Hillary Duff and others all at once. Now that it’s been ten years, fortunately we see that the talent has allowed those who posses it, Christina, to have a flourishing respectable career, one that has allowed her to perform with other talented and non-gimmicky artists. On the other hand, Britney is still in our zeitgeist – mostly as a cautionary tale – but her career isn’t respected. And she’s not performing with Aretha Franklin (frankly, no one can – there’s no room on stage when she’s wearing a hat!); instead, she’s performing with the queen of gimmicks – Madonna.

Good music and comedy and theatre and films are all too often pushed aside because of the overwhelming number of options Kinsley referred to. Hotel for Dogs gets green-lit and hits theatres (really? Were people asking for a movie about kids and dogs?) while Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is taking over two years to find a distributor. (I’m no champion of the book but I know John Krasinski made the film out of a true and pure passion for the material, not because he thought it would be financially advantageous.) Perhaps if we had less than a thousand plus channels to watch every night, (meanwhile there’s nothing good on T.V. aside from Jeopardy and The Daily Show,) the shows on the paltry 900 channels would be better. When executives concern themselves with quality rather than quantity (kind of like how I feel about religious observance – don’t do everything if nothing means anything to you) is when everyone wins. We won’t be bombarded with horrible trash like Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire (really, conservative television execs? You okay rubbish like that and then want to talk to me about the sanctity of marriage? Really?) and quality television, like the prematurely aborted Studio 60 would be given a chance to find its audience.

And to bring it back to the news: When news broadcasts finally revert to what they used to be (i.e., an apparatus for disseminating the news, totally independent from the entertainment division and therefore not beholden to ratings – which mean nothing, particularly in these days of DVRs…) maybe I’ll watch the news again. But when Brian Williams is forced to report on the rehab habits of Amy Whinehouse (talk about brief interviews with hideous men) it no longer becomes news – it is infotainment and he loses all credibility. Walter Cronkite would not have stood for this.

But we keep perpetuating the cycle by tuning in and allowing our senses to be assaulted with garbage (like Coldplay.) It’s time to boycott trash and demand better of the gray lady, Clive Davis and the Weinstein brothers. I know Howard Beale is with me – who else?

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