excerpts from the book

How To Watch TV News

by Neil Postman and Steve Powers

Penguin Books, 2008, paperback


Anyone who is not an avid reader of newspapers, magazines, and books is by definition unprepared to watch television news shows.

Anyone who relies exclusively on television for his or her knowledge of the world is making a serious mistake.

Those who have not read about the world are limited in their capacity to understand what they see on television.

The preparation for watching television news begins with the preparation of one's mind through extensive reading.

When providing entertainment, the public's preferences must be paramount. But news is different. There are things the public must know whether or not they "like" it.

News is not entertainment. It is a necessity in a democratic society.

News is what news directors and journalists say it is.

Ben Bagdikian

Though today's media reach more Americans than ever before, they are controlled by the smallest number of owners than ever before... in 1983, there were fifty dominant media corporations, today there are five.

Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC)

The top five programmers - Viacom/CBS, Disney/ABC, NBC, Time Warner and News Corp./Fox - now control 75 percent of prime-time programming and are projected to increase their share to 85 percent.

Studies conducted by Professor George Gerbner and his associates at the University of Pennsylvania have shown that people who are heavy television viewers, including viewers of television news shows, believe their communities are much more dangerous than do light television viewers. Television news, in other words, tends to frighten people.

The early-twentieth-century journalist Lincoln Steffens proved that he could create a "crime wave" anytime he wanted by simply writing about all the crimes that normally occur in a large city during the course of a month. He could also end the "crime wave" by not writing about them.

The TelePrompTer operators are the person who helps the anchors look like they've memorized their script as they focus with intensive eye contact on the camera. It is the TelePrompTer's job to keep the script up-to-date, make changes, operate the TelePrompTer, and keep the script scrolling at the reading pace of the anchors. If TelePrompTer operators scroll too slowly, the anchors have to slow their reading down; if they scroll too fast, the anchors could start sounding like Alvin the Chipmunk, trying to keep up the pace. The TelePrompTer operator may use a manual device on which actual pieces of typed script paper are laid out on a moving belt; in more modern facilities, the computerized script appears on a screen. In either event, the script is projected onto a piece of glass located directly over the camera lens. This allows the anchor to look directly into the camera, as if making eye contact with the viewer, while reading the copy. We've all seen situations where anchors suddenly stop talking and stumble a bit, then look down at their scripts. Chances are something went awry with the TelePrompTer, forcing the anchors to rely on hard copy, scripts printed on paper used as backups.

To most working TV journalists the news is determined by what the news director thinks is important.

Media Matters says conservative voices significantly outnumber progressive voices on the Sunday talk shows. It conducted a content analysis of ABC's This Week, CBS's Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press, classifying each of the nearly seven thousand guest appearances during Bill Clinton's second term, George W. Bush's first term, and the year 2005 as either Democrat, Republican, conservative, progressive, or neutral. The watchdog group says the conclusion is clear: Republicans and conservatives have been offered more opportunities to appear on the Sunday shows and, in some cases, dramatically so.

* During President Bush's first term, Republicans/conservatives held a dramatic advantage, outnumbering Democrats/progressives 58 percent to 42 percent. In 2005, the figures were identical: 58 percent to 42 percent.

* During both the Clinton and Bush administrations, conservative journalists were far more likely to appear on the Sunday shows than progressive journalists.

* In every year examined by the study (1997-2005), more panels tilted right (a greater number of Republicans/ conservatives than Democrats/progressives) than tilted left. In some years, there were two, three, or even four times as many right-titled panels as left-tilted panels.

* Congressional opponents of the Iraq war were largely absent from the Sunday shows, particularly during the period just before the war began.


In short, Media Matters concluded that the Sunday talk shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC are dominated by conservative voices, from newsmakers to commentators.

A remark made by the American novelist Philip Roth. In commenting on the difference between being a novelist in the West and being a novelist behind the iron curtain (this was before the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe), Roth said that in Eastern Europe nothing is permitted but everything matters; with us, everything is permitted but nothing matters.

The more information, the less significant information is. The less information, the more significant it is.

TV is not what happened. It is what some man or woman who has been labeled a journalist or correspondent thinks is worth reporting.

The "news" is only a commodity, which is used to gather an audience that will be sold to advertisers.

No one is expected to take the news too seriously... tomorrow's news will have nothing to do with today's news. It is best if the audience has completely forgotten yesterday's news. TV shows work best by treating viewers as if they were amnesiacs.

YouTube visitors watched 100 million videos a day in 2006, all videos shot by ordinary folks and posted on the Web site.

According to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, there were 12 million bloggers in the United States alone in June 2006, and 34 percent of them consider blogging to be a form of journalism.

The network nightly news audience has dropped from 53 million to 27 million in the past twenty-five years.

Broadcast Media watch

Home Page