Not the News

I get to watch TV news only occasionally, mostly at airports, hotels and while visiting friends. Today at my friend’s place in Delhi, I woke up to TV news. It was wall-to-wall coverage of Dr Manmohan Singh’s heart surgery and the gunning down of two Pakistani terrorists just outside Delhi.

On the 24-hour news channels, the presenters have to keep talking non-stop about whatever is the breaking news. Naturally, it is humanly not possible to say something meaningful about any event without some time to think about it. So the need to keep talking incessantly about an event which can only be described in a few words results in verbal diarrhea. There is so little content in the story being told that the TV screen has to be filled with all sorts of other items: there are two or three lines of scrolling texts relating to different issues, some totally meaningless video occupying part of the screen, another part of the screen given to some advertisement, etc.

The nature of news is that it has little information content. News is froth on the surface of a deep ocean of interrelated events that unfold over time spans that range from weeks and months to years and decades. Merely being told about the news — even if the same little bit is repeated ad nauseam — when one lacks some familiarity with the bigger more persistent issues, is useless. It gives one information without any increase in knowledge and understanding.

I don’t like news programs that look at the world from the minute-to-minute perspective. Tennis matches and soccer games lend themselves to that but not real news.

People have different preferences, thank god for that. It’s a matter of taste and while I would recommend what I like, I don’t expect others to agree. I like programs that help me better understand what happened, how it is related to the past, what impact that will have in the future, and provoke me to think about the unanswered questions related to the event.

I would certainly like a program which is titled “Not News”. In that program, I would like to hear a couple of people who have a deeper understanding of the world than I do talk about what is going on. I note that “breaking news” often dig up talking heads but it is an ugly sight. It is always a lack of time: too little time to have pondered the issue at length before being thrust in front of a mic or a camera, and too little time to actually say what they have to say. The best they can do is to make some inane observation and it is back to the incessant chatter of the tv presenter.

I am not as familiar with Indian tv programming as I am with American tv. I think American commercial tv news programming is basically crap, and I suspect that Indian tv programming is heavily influenced by American tv (like most of the other garbage that the US produces and the rest of the world readily adopts.) But there is great stuff on American tv as well. I really like the PBS news programs like “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer”. For thoughtful views, I like programs like “Charlie Rose” and Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” on public radio is an all-time favorite.

I think that there is a market for such programs in India. One of these days, some people in India will make a pile of money and make a significant difference by starting such channels. I suggest “Not the News” as the title of one such program.

Related posts:

Information Overload (May 2007).

The Age of Superfluous Information — Part 1. Part 2. (Oct 2005)

The World is Information Fat. (June 2005)

Author: Atanu Dey


3 thoughts on “Not the News”

  1. That’s one of the reasons I don’t get news from TV, as the format with ticker-tape, breaking news etc. most likely leads to ADHD which can’t be good. It’s such a jumble and so confusing, and leads to knee-jerk reactions to events.

    As for PBS, it’s mostly funded by government, viewer donations and some corporations (with very limited ads – they just mention the name at the beginning and at the end).

    So seems like we have a contradiction. 🙂

    Free-market leads to stupid news format as competition to be ahead forces producers to come up with meaningless gimmicks, whereas government funded programs maintain their better standards.

    Data suggests there’s a give-and-take involved here between news standards and money, not unlike Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. If you can figure out a way to keep higher standards *and* fund such news and programs on TV using free market economy, let us know. *grin*

    I think we’re simply getting addicted to “information” as our brains need constant stimulation, and it takes some discipline to place limits on the amount as well as nature of that information.


  2. Atanu – also do not forget C-SPAN (if you have watched that while in the US). I am a total C-SPAN junkie – they have some of the best guests and the whole thing is entirely non-partisan. No one cuts each other off and discussions are really well developed.
    I took an idea for low-budget, high quality programming to an investor once – they laughed me out of the building. But I think the space is ripe in India for at least a dozen C-SPAN type channels – one in each of the major language markets. Sadly nobody in India will fund it – everyone is too busy developing saas-bahu crap and mind numbing banality in the name of network news


  3. Thank you, Ghost. Yes, C-SPAN was an excellent source to get information during the elections without the spin and blather from so-called media pundits, and gives more opportunity to the viewer to make up his own mind.


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