Monday, November 22, 2004

NBA, CSI & Desperate Wives Pass for Front Page News

Do you ever have that dream
Where you open your mouth
And you try to scream
But you can't make a sound
That's every day starting now
That's every day starting now
-- "Wish I May" words & music by Ani DiFranco

Hard hitting reporting takes a nose dive once again with Monday's New York Times front page.

"N.B.A. Hands Tough Penalties to Players Involved in Brawl" continues pressing the story that must be changing and altering all of our lives -- why else is this brawl still being passed off as major news? (Two op-eds appear on this "issue" in Monday's Times.)

More front page space is taken up by Bill Carter's "Many Who Voted for 'Values' Still Like their Television Sin." Carter's piece appears to attempt to prove that we're not so different, so polarized, in this county because the "red" states love their "sexy" TV as well. Or maybe it's attempting to suggest that the "red" states are hypocrites since they vote "values" but then turn on "sexy" TV shows?

I'm not sure what he's trying to prove. But a better question is how did this make it to the front page? At best, it was a front of the arts' section, not a front page story on the main section. And that's if it was based on sound reasoning. Carter's piece isn't.

Six cities are superficially looked at in terms of their TV habits: Atlanta, Cleveland, New York, Orlando, Salt Lake City, Tulsa. Presumably all TV shows are looked at but the graph (and most of the text) relies on these ten shows: C.S.I., Desperate Housewives, Without a Trace, C.S.I. Miami, Survivor: Vanuatu, Lost, Everybody Loves Raymond, C.S.I. New York, ER and Two and a Half Men.

We've already been told the convention wisdom that urban areas trended towards Kerry in higher percentages than they did Bush. (Conventional wisdom because certification of tallies is still ongoing.) (Of course, the basis for Carter's article could be exit-polling, but no one really wants to address exit-polling these days, so I'm assuming he didn't rely on exit poll totals.) So here's an obvious problem -- the six cities picked are urban areas.

Here's another problem -- how did they determine which shows indicated what?

To me personally Everybody Loves Raymond is a throwback to the fifties, to someone else it might be an honest look at family life. How is Carter able to determine which is the reason someone's watching. Does Two and a Half Men speak of "family values" in the "tradition" of Full House or is it a sleazy show that plays to the image (true or not) of it's star Charlie Sheen? Are C.S.I. viewers watching for the gore or out of some interest in "law & order"?

How are these being rated as evidence of "values"? I don't think they can be short of an academic study that asks the viewers what the shows mean to them.

Desperate Housewives is a show I've never watched (I haven't seen any prime time shows this fall) but judging by the press coverage and the office talk, it's a soap opera (with humor, some people report). A soap opera is a hit? And that's news how? And it says what about America?
(Aren't soap operas one of the long running genres on network television?) Which brings up a new point, this isn't an academic study. There's nothing to indicate that the Neilsen ratings sampled voters. Though 2004 appears to have had a healthy turnout, we're still not turning out even sixty percent of potential voters. With more and more people turning to cable or turning off their televisions, how are these ratings reflective of anything?

But here's a really important point, that's not made in the article, how many of those adults who voted cited "values" as their reason for choosing whom to vote for? According to the Times' own Frank Rich, the figure is 22%.

This is a non-story where popular narrative passes for truth. And it's on the front page of the Times eating up "prime real estate" that could have gone to a story that has bearing on our lives or a story that has a factual basis.

A tiny subsection of voters cite "values" as a deciding factor in their choice, broadcast TV continues to bleed viewers, Neilsen ratings are cited as though everyone who watches TV elected to vote, six major cities are chosen to study (when the split is supposed to be between urban areas and rural/suburbs), and TV shows are "judged" to imply something by the writer that they may not imply to the viewers.

It's not anything that belongs on the front page and I think one can argue it doesn't belong in the paper at all. The NBA story is news -- in the sports section. Though it continues to be played as a front page story, people aren't going without health insurance because of it, people aren't starving. It's water cooler chatter, to be sure, but it's not front page news.

Frank Rich's comments on 22% and reporters' fondness for a narrative (true or not) can be found at

According to Rich, we live in an age where it’s easier for the media to pursue a fictional storyline than to pursue the truth. While 22 percent of voters may have cast a vote for “moral values,” that’s not the whole story. “The press was off and running with this storyline, and it persists even now,” said Rich. “How did we get in a position in this country where we have so many media sources that ‘go off’ on these fictional storylines?”