Every television newscast: staged reality
Watch how tonight’s Trump-Hillary debate is set up.
Are the two podiums the same size? No? Who has the bigger podium?
Is the lighting even, or are there shadows? Where do the shadows fall?
Is there blue color in the background, which exudes a “calming effect?”
How is the moderator, Lester Holt, lit? Is he spotlighted, haloed, to impart the sense that he’s the ultimate authority in the room?
What about camera angles on the two candidates? Are they receiving the same coverage, or is one more prominent? Are there close-ups?
Will cameras impart a sense of distance, in order to reduce dramatic effect and give the impression that the whole event is somewhat monotonous?
Will the audience be allowed to applaud and boo, or will Lester Holt control that?
To what degree will the candidates be allowed to wander off-topic? Will the reins be tight or loose?
How much time will each candidate be given to make statements? Will either or both of them be pinched, so they can’t say anything of substance?
Ah yes, substance. Context. Network news is famous for thin context:
The news is all about artificially manipulating the context of stories. The thinner the context, the thinner the mind must become to accept it. If you want to visualize this, imagine a rectangular solid. The news covers the top surface. Therefore, the mind is trained to work in only two dimensions. Then it can’t fathom depth, and it certainly can’t appreciate the fact that the whole rectangular solid moves through time…
Let’s consider some general background on the news:
The network evening news. This is where the staging is done well.
First, we have the image itself, the colors in foreground and background, the blend of restful and charged hues. The anchor and his/her smooth style. The overall effect: hypnotic, yet stimulating.
Then we have the shifting of venue from the studio to reporters in the field, demonstrating the reach of coverage: the planet. As if this equals authenticity.
Actually, those reporters in the field rarely dig up information on location. A correspondent standing on a rooftop in Cairo could just as well be positioned in a bathroom in a Las Vegas McDonald’s. His report would be identical.
The managing editor, usually the elite news anchor, chooses the stories to cover and has the final word on their sequence.
The anchor goes on the air: “Our top story tonight, more signs of gridlock today on Capitol Hill, as legislators walked out of a session on federal budget negotiations…”
The viewer fills in the (thin) context for the story: “Oh yes, the government. Gridlock is bad. Just like traffic on the I-5. A bad thing. We want the government to get something done, but they’re not. These people are always arguing with each other. They don’t agree. They’re in conflict. Yes, conflict, just like on the cop shows.”
The anchor: “The Chinese government reports the new flu epidemic has spread to three provinces. Forty-two people have already died, and nearly a hundred are hospitalized…”
The viewer again supplies context, such as it is: “Flu. Dangerous. Epidemic. Could it arrive here? Get my flu shot.”
The anchor: “A new university study states that gun owners often stock up on weapons and ammunition, and this trend has jumped quickly since the recent school-shooting tragedy…”
The viewer: “People with guns. Why do they need a dozen weapons? I don’t need a gun. The police have guns.”
The anchor: “Doctors at Yale University have made a discovery that could lead to new treatments in the battle against autism…”
Viewer: “That would be good. More research. Laboratory. The brain.”
If, at the end of the newscast, the viewer bothered to review the stories and his own reactions to them, he would realize he’d learned nothing. But reflection is not the game.
In fact, the flow of the news stories has washed over him and created very little except a sense of (false) continuity.
It would never occur to him to wonder: are the squabbling political legislators really two branches of the same Party? Does government have the Constitutional right to incur this much debt? Where is all that money coming from? Taxes? Other sources? Who invents money?
Is the flu dangerous for most people? If not, why not? Do governments overstate case numbers? How do they actually test patients for the flu? Are the tests accurate? Are they just trying to convince us to get vaccines?
What happens when the government has overwhelming force and citizens have no guns?
When researchers keep saying “may” and “could,” does that mean they’ve actually discovered something useful about autism, or are they just hyping their own work and trying to get funding for their next project?
These are only a few of the many questions the typical viewer never considers.
Therefore, every story on the news broadcast achieves the goal of keeping the context thin—night after night, year after year. The overall effect of this staging is: small viewer, small viewer’s mind, small viewer’s understanding.
The average viewer, having been entrained through years of watching the news, is going to come to tonight’s Presidential debate ready for thin context and no depth.
That’s the subconscious expectation.
Can this expectation be reversed in 90 minutes, regardless of what either candidate says?
And if either candidate suddenly punches a hole in that expectation, will the average viewer welcome it, or will he feel shocked and disturbed by the intrusion? Will he resent it?
Or to put it another way, which candidate more closely resembles a network news anchor—the familiar words, the familiar generalities, the thin context.
The networks that will broadcast the debate consider it a media/news event.
They will try to keep it within that space.
They think they own that space, which includes the viewer’s mind.
Image Credit: Anthony Freda Art