In analyzing network coverage of the Sandy Hook murders, I had no intention of doing a series of articles on television news, but the opportunity to deconstruct the overall grand illusion was compelling.
It’s familiar to every viewer. Scott Pelley, in seamless fashion, might say, “Our top story tonight, the widening conflict in Syria. For the latest on the Assad government crackdown, our coverage begins with Clarissa Ward in Damascus…” .
Clarissa Ward has entered the country secretly, posing as a tourist. She carries a small camera. In interviews with rebels, she discovers that a) there is a conflict, b) people are being arrested c) there is a funeral for a person who was killed by government soldiers, d) defiance among the citizenry is growing.
In other words, she tells us almost nothing.
But CBS is imparting the impression that her report is important. After all, it’s not just anchor Scott Pelley in the studio. It’s a journalist in the field, up close and personal. It’s coverage.
Here are a few of the many things we don’t learn from either Pelley or Ward. Who is behind the rebellion in Syria? What is their real goal? What covert role is the US playing? Why are there al Qaeda personnel there?
But who cares? We have coverage. A key hole view. It’s wonderful. It’s exciting for two minutes. If we’re already brainwashed.
Coverage in television means you have the money, crew, resources, and stand-up reporters you can send out into the field. That’s all it means. It has nothing to do with information.
CNN made its reputation by coverage, from one end of the planet to the other. Yet, what did we really learn in all those years? We learned that, by straining to the point of hernia, a cable network could present news non-stop, 24/7.
The trick of coverage is the smooth transition from anchor in the studio to reporter in the field. The reporter is standing in front of something that vaguely resembles or represents what we imagine the locale contains. A large squat government building, a tower, a marketplace, a river, a skyline.
At some point during the meaningless report, the screen splits and we see both the anchor and the reporter. This yields the impression of two concerned professionals discussing something significant.
Then we’re back to the reporter in the field filling up the whole screen.
The anchor closes with a question or two.
“Denise, have you seen any tanks in the area?”
“No Wolf, not in the last hour. But we have reports from last night of shelling in the village.”
Well, isn’t this marvelous. Wolf is in Atlanta and Denise is in Patagonia. And they’re talking to each other in real time. Therefore, they must be on top of what’s going on.
“Denise, we understand medical help arrived a short time ago.”
“Yes, Wolf. Out in the desert, in tents, surgeons are performing emergency operations on the wounded.”
Well, what else is there to know? They’ve covered it.
In a twist on this performance, Denise might say, “Government officials are cautiously optimistic about repelling the invading force.” We cut to an interview conducted by Denise, in a hotel room, a few hours earlier.
She’s sitting across from a man in a suit. He’s the minister of information for the ruling party.
Denise: Is it true, Dr. Oobladee, that rebels groups in the suburbs have taken over several branch offices of the central bank?
Dr. Oob: We don’t believe that’s accurate. Our soldiers have been providing security for families in the area.
Denise: And their fortifications are secure?
Dr. Oob: They’ve trained for this mission, yes.
Cut back to Denise standing where she was standing before.
“Wolf, as the night wears on, we hear sporadic gunfire from the civic center. It’s a repeat of the last three evenings. The rebels are determined to make a stand and not give up further ground, in this war that enters its sixth month…”
Cut back to the studio in Atlanta.
“Thank you, Denise. We’ll take a break and be back in a minute to discuss the upcoming controversial film, Cold War in a Hat, starring George Clooney.”
We went from Atlanta to a street corner in the capital of Patagonia and then to a hotel room in the city, and then back to the street corner, then to Atlanta, off to a commercial, and then back to the studio for teasers on a new film. The technology and the technique are indeed impressive. The knowledge imparted is hovering at absolute zero, but it doesn’t matter. They have coverage.
It’s on the order of a magician sawing a woman in a box in half, after which the box is opened and found to be empty.
Coverage can also be simultaneous. In the middle of the screen is the anchor, head and shoulders, talking about the latest shooting. In the upper left-hand corner is a little static scene of three police cars with flashing lights sitting near a strand of yellow tape across a front yard. At the bottom of the screen is a moving line of text recapping headlines of the hour. Coverage. Look at all that. They must know what they’re doing.
Then we have the bonanza of coverage, a story that deals cards to several reporters in the field at different locations. As always, the anchor retains control. He may have two or three reporters on screen at the same time after they individually file their thirty-second pieces.
There is a bit of crosstalk. The anchor mediates. The shipment of frozen food was tainted. Therefore, we have a reporter standing in front of FDA headquarters in Maryland, another reporter in front of the manufacturer’s home office in Indiana, and a third reporter outside a hospital emergency room in San Francisco, where a child is having his stomach pumped. There is also a three-second clip of a lab in which workers in white coats and masks are moving around, and a clip of a moving assembly line which presumably has something to do with the production of the tainted product.
The whole story, as the network tells it, could be compressed down to 20 seconds, total. But they want coverage.
On election night, a network could simply show three or four newsmen sitting around in shirtsleeves smoking cigars and talking about the Jets for a few hours, after which one of them says, “Obama just won.”
But instead, we get the circus. A half-dozen stand-ups from various campaign headquarters, a numbers guru with a high-tech map as big as a movie screen pulling up counties in the studio, an anchor “bringing it all together,” and pundits weighing in with sage estimates. Team coverage. The “best in the business.”
I love hearing Wolf Blitzer utter that line. It makes me think of a guy selling expired cheese. But after all, he has a right to promote his people. He’s not just in a studio, he’s in The Situation Room. Where there is coverage.
The height of absurdity is achieved during a violent storm. A reporter has to be standing out in the rain and vicious wind, water seeping into his shoes, holding an umbrella in one hand and a mic in the other, looking for all the world like the umbrella is going to take him up into the sky.
The storm could be shot from inside a store at ground level, and the reporter could be sitting in a chair next to the cash register peering out through the window, but that wouldn’t really be coverage.
If you were to compare the anchor/reporter-in-the-field relationship of 40 years ago to today, you’d see a stark difference. In days of yore, it was exceedingly clunky and clumsy. It was one anchor and one reporter, but at least the man in the field was expected to have something to say. Now it’s all flash and intercutting. Now it’s the technique. The facile blending. The rapid interchange of image. It’s nothing made into something.
Segueways and blends are far more important than content. The newspeople are there merely to illustrate smoothness and transition. Brian Williams (NBC) is the champion operator for this mode. He is the doctor who can impart to you a diagnosis of a disease that doesn’t exist, but you don’t care. He’s a fine waiter in an expensive restaurant who will deliver three small items in the center of a very large plate and make you feel honored. He’s a golfer with such a fine swing you don’t care how many strokes he takes to get to the green. When he shifts to his man or woman in the field, you feel he’s conferring knighthood. Brian knows coverage.
There is a phenomenon that ought to be called minus-coverage coverage. Sandy Hook gave us wall-to-wall everything without exposing a single fact behind a fact. We saw nothing but Sandy Hook for two days on end, with stand-ups from every hand on deck, and yet we learned almost zero after the first few hours.
In the second Gulf War, we were bombarded with studio and field reports, but we saw no engagement or conflict that exposed both sides in simultaneous action against each other. Embedded reporters had to pledge the life of their first-born they wouldn’t break a rule laid down for journalists by the Army command.
Modern network coverage does one important thing. It establishes a standard by which other news is measured. For most viewers, if the news can’t display full technique, full smoothness, full effortless transition, it must be lacking in some important, though undefined, way.
Coverage is almost synonymous with transition. How the news moves from anchor to reporter(s) and back is Value. This is highly significant because it mirrors what a good hypnotist is able to do. If he’s a real pro, he doesn’t just put someone in a trance and talk to him, he puts him under and then moves from one topic to another—without breaking the trance. This is a skill.
In fact, the hypnotist’s transitions are a vital aspect of the process itself. The patient feels the guidance as the scene changes before his eyes. The hypnotist (or news anchor) is presenting scene after scene and extending time without causing a jarring ripple in the still lake of consciousness.
Whatever a person learns in a trance state, while, for example, watching the news, functions somewhat differently from what he learns while he is awake. Trance learning tends to settle in as a lens, as a way of thereafter viewing the world. It doesn’t add content or knowledge so much as it produces a viewpoint that generates an attitude toward reality.
As in: THESE are the parameters of reality, but THOSE aren’t. I care THIS much, I don’t care THAT much. I care in THIS way, not in THAT way. I’m at THIS distance from what is happening, not at THAT distance.
To enhance this level of teaching, the major networks utilize technology and personnel in the direction of making each edition of the national news, every night, one seamless ribbon of flowing river, with straightaways, corners, turns, adjustments; never breaking, never ceasing until the last breath of the anchor and the closing music fadeout.
And the next challenge for them is the integration of commercials, so the viewer truly doesn’t register a shift of consciousness during those moments.
Some day, people will look back on the news of today and say, “How could they have altered the mood during commercials? That was ridiculous. They were really primitive, weren’t they? What were they they thinking? The whole idea is to have one uninterrupted experience.”
The blue hues in the news studio set will match up perfectly with the blues in the commercials. The sound and tone of the anchor’s voice will be mirrored by the narrator of the commercial. The pace of the commercial will match the pace of the news.
In fact, it’s already starting to happen. If you watch shows via a DVR, you might notice that fast-forwarding through commercials is a different experience these days. It used to be a cinch to stop the fast-forward when the show began again, because the colors and shapes of the commercials were so different from those of the show. But now, not so much. The commercials are tuned more closely to the programs.
Some day, the meaning of network coverage will include commercials. The one unending stream will sustain the light trance of the viewer.
Major corporate advertisers will realize they don’t want to jolt the viewer out of the show; they want to leave him in the trance. In other words, corporations won’t be so concerned about competing against other corporations. With these companies coming, more and more, under centralized ownership, under the control of big banks, the whole idea will be to tune the attitude of the viewer toward “corporate buying” in general.
Every huge corporation, allied with big government, will aim to condition the viewing audience to the State Oligarchy.
Coverage in the Matrix.