Quote April 4 2012 — Tim Robbins on why he quit watching television

“People go in front of their television screens and they yell at the person they object to politically. . . . I said, ‘I’ve got to stop hating.”

– Tim Robbins, quoted in “Tim Robbins: I’ve thrown out my TV”, The Telegraph, April 3 2012

Tim Robbins said he came to this realization after directing a play based on Orwell’s novel 1984. (Which I haven’t read yet, but do intend to read someday.)

One of the things Orwell talks about in the book ‘1984’ is this thing called ‘the two-minute hate,'” Robbins said in a press conference in Bogota.

“People go in front of their television screens and they yell at the person they object to politically. I realised I had been doing that for two hours every day during (the administration of George W.) Bush. I said, ‘I’ve got to stop hating.'”

. . .

Robbins says he’s inclined to disconnect from all forms of mass communication and jettison his cell phone, which can easily be used to track one’s movements.

“If you have a phone, they can find you whenever they want,” he said. “I personally would like to live on a farm with a rotary phone.”

I chuckle a little bit at the part about living on a farm with a rotary phone — I live on a farm that still has landlines, and there’s a lot of conveniences I think people in urban areas take for granted. We have frequent power outages, and as a consequence I always make sure there’s at least one landline phone in the house that has a corded handset (since wireless handsets quit working when the power is out). Also, if you’re hungry but don’t feel like cooking, you’d better hope there’s leftovers or frozen meals in the refrigerator or freezer, because the nearest restaurant — or fast-food restaurant, or coffee shop, or convenience store, or really any store — is at least 20 minutes away.

But in the larger sense, Robbins is dead on. Television news gets viewers by making you angry. If they’re reporting the news, they’re heavily emphasizing the emotional side — someone got hurt, someone might have gotten hurt, something isn’t fair, someone’s upset, an injustice has occurred. If they’re having guests, the guests are almost always very forceful speakers — and usually very angry too. If they can get a very forceful and opinionated guest and pair them up with another very forceful of opinionated guest who has an entirely different opinion, even better — the news anchor doesn’t have to do any shouting but can just let the guests shout at each other.

Why is this? Well, as Goldberg comments in his book Bias, television news is like a politician, it needs to get your vote to stay in business. But instead of a politician desperately trying to get your vote ever two or four or six years, the news is trying to get your vote every 5 seconds. Because that’s about how long they have to grab your attention as you come by their station while channel-surfing, and that’s how long they have before you start channel-surfing again if they bore you.

So, televised news leans VERY heavily towards the emotional. The more of an emotional wreck they can make something, the more likely you’ll slow down as you’re channel-surfing to look at the damage — same reason why a wreck on the side of the road turns into a traffic jam on the road and in the other lane too, people want to slow down and see the damage.

Some anchors and some producers are more blatant than others about trying to get your attention and trying to get you either mad or sad, but if it’s televised news it’s almost guaranteed they’re doing it to some extent.

And that brings up one of the other big differences between broadcast news (television or radio) and written news. When it’s radio or television (or just audio or audio + visual, if you want to describe it another way) they’re constantly talking, constantly bringing up new stuff so if there’s a topic you wanted to stop and reconsider what was said about it, too bad for you. So your brain vaguely remembers what it heard or saw, and it will definitely remember the emotional intensity and timbre of what it heard or saw, but probably won’t remember the vague doubts and unanswered questions you were starting to consider because a whole new segment started with a whole new set of emotional speeches. (If you’re recording the news or if you’re viewing or listening to it on the internet, you might be able to go back and replay what was said, but if you just happened by the news while channel surfing at home or in the car, you probably don’t have that option.)

Whereas with something that’s written, you can stop, think for a minute or two about what you read, and maybe go back and examine it again. Is that something someone really did, or are they just accused of doing it? How clear is the article being about whether there are any other viewpoints on the issue being discussed and why those viewpoints are or aren’t equally valid? Are there any actual objective facts (and what are the details about those facts, where did they come from, who measured them, how were they measured, and was it a single measurement or a series of measurements mathematically compressed into a single number and was the compression method used also valid in this particular setting), or is this all just supposition and press releases being issued by competing individuals or organizations?

Here are two other articles about the news industry, while I’m writing this post:

“One Angry Man”, Peter J. Boyer, New Yorker,  June 23 2008. About Keith Olbermann, his personality, how he got started in the news and how things were working out at MSNBC (where he worked at the time the article was written).

Asked about the prospect of an Olbermann reign at “CBS Evening News,” Sandy Socolow, Walter Cronkite’s final executive producer, responded emphatically. “Oh, no, no, no, he’s not a newsman,” Socolow said. “He’s not a reporter. I’ve never seen anything that he’s done that was original, in terms of the information. It’s all derivative. I like him, I agree with his perspective, and I think he’s very, very good on television. But he’s not a newsman.” Socolow added, “Ten years ago, if he had done at CBS what he does every day on the air at MSNBC, he would have been fired by the end of the day.”

. . .

As Russert [Tim Russert, Washington bureau chief of NBC News] put it to me shortly before his death, “Keith and I have each carved out our roles in this vast information spectrum.” He continued, “What cable emphasizes, more and more, is opinion, or even advocacy. Whether it’s Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann or Lou Dobbs, that’s what that particular platform or venue does. It’s not what I do. What I do is different. I try very, very hard not to come up and say to people, ‘This is what I believe,’ or ‘This is good,’ or ‘This is bad.’ But, rather, ‘This is what I’m learning in my reporting,’ or ‘This is what my analysis shows based on my reporting.’ And as long as I can do that I’m very, very comfortable. And nobody has asked me to do anything but that.”

At Fox News and MSNBC, the old pieties do hold less sway. Cable-news culture is informed more by the new media, blogs, and talk radio. “Cable’s about rejection,” Griffin [Phil Griffin, senior vice-president in charge of MSNBC] says. “Ninety-nine per cent of the people are passing you by. You try to stop them and grab them. That’s most of cable news. And then there are the élite in cable news—Olbermann, O’Reilly. They have audiences that come to them—and they’re unique.”

“What the Daily Show Can Teach Journalism Students”, Journoterrorist, Journoterrorist (could not find the author’s actual name looking around on the site), March 26 2012. About Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, interviewing Hollie Haglund and Zhubin Parang who write for The Daily Show, and having them be opening keynote speakers at a college media convention.

Parang joked that his first script for The Daily Show was so heavily edited, all that survived of his own words were, “Welcome to The Daily Show, my name is Jon Stewart.”

A few days before their keynote, I called Haglund and Parang to review what we’d discuss onstage. I told them I’ve advised a college newspaper for 13 years, and I’ve seen student reporters reduced to tears or induced to yelling just because an editor dares ask for a rewrite. “I don’t know about journalism, but in comedy, you gotta have a thick skin,” Parang said.

I’d like to think I do know about journalism, and I’d hate to think that fake news writers are made of hardier stock than real news writers.

. . .

So Parang reads the news literally morning and night. His RSS feeds take him through The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and a dozen political blogs.

Meanwhile, Haglund reads financial news because, “I volunteer for those assignments instead of going for the presidential primary stuff.” . . .

. . .

How many college journalists challenge themselves to cover Student Government instead of concerts? How many even read the day’s news?

After Parang listed what’s in his RSS feeds, I asked audience of 700-plus, “How many professors are here?” A couple dozen hands went up. “How many of you give current events quizzes to force your students to read the news?” Only a few hands went down.

A few days earlier, I told Parang all about these current events quizzes, and he was stunned that students needed this coercion. “Isn’t that what they want to do for a living?” he asked me. “Supposedly,” I replied. “What’s really gonna blow your mind is that some of them fail the quizzes.”

(emphasis in original)

One thought on “Quote April 4 2012 — Tim Robbins on why he quit watching television

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