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HowTo Watch TV News.

HOW TO WATCH TV NEWS by Neil Postman and Steve Powers (Penguin Books, 178 p.) is one of these little gems, crammed full with information, arguments, conclusions and comment, all adding up to a fairly devastating analysis of where TV news is today and where it's heading. It's a timely volume, coming out when the demise of TV network news is openly discussed and when the recently unthinkable actually has become thinkable.

Postman and Powers' main point is that there are too many factors impacting TV news to allow it to be unbiased. A lot of what they write about is philosophical--how influenced is television by the news director's and reporter's own personal point of view, for example--but the crux of their argument is that television news isn't news but what will appeal to the advertiser as producing the largest possible audience.

"News is not entertainment," they write. "It is a necessity in a democratic society. Therefore, TV news must give people what they need, along with what they want."

And they waste no time pointing out that broadcasters "have an obligation not only to make money but to enlighten the public by supplying news and programs of serious content for all segments of the population."

The authors balance this with two straightforward observations: "American television is an unsleeping money machine'' and "Many decisions about the form and content of news programs are made on the basis of information about the viewer, the purpose of which is to keep viewers watching so that they will be exposed to commercials."

And that's the crux of this sharp and analytical little book, written by two people who are obviously pained by the current state of the news art. "Don't trust anything or anyone," they say, over and over again, though sometimes they get bogged down in seroantics. "It's all being done with mirrors, for a purpose quite other than the one to which the networks pretend."

Postman and Powers have a nice way with words, which is only proper in a book which argues that words can be just as important as pictures. Like others before them, they argue that the pace of those 25,000 commercials on the network air in a way that molds the pace of TV news itself, and that, while viewers look at television, television looks at them, analyzes them to a farethe-well, and then shapes its programming based on the results. This, argue the networks, creates shows which the people "want."

There is a very perceptive chapter, headed the News Director, which in its implications of the ratings reign of terror, is quite devastating. Equally, the authors argue that the definition is what is imposed on news-executives by the advertisers.

In the chapter on "What is News?", they argue quite logically that news is what the journalist tells the public is news, and that "important news" is a judgment at the station and not necessarily a reflection of the realities.

TV news, they argue, is a public service but, "more than that, it is an enormously successful business enterprise," sold to advertisers and delivered in the form of entertainment." The result of this, they say, is that nobody takes the news seriously anymore.

The book is a fun, intellectual trip, well-written and provocative, with a nice, fresh, challenging and occasionally tongue-in-cheek approach. What Postman and Powers never get around to concluding is that, as long as the current TV system prevails, nothing will ever change. And, since change is highly unlikely, the status quo will continue, and many more critical books like this will be written.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Hift, Fred
Publication:Video Age International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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