No Time To Think

BOOK REVIEW by Maxwell D. Epstein, Dean Emeritus,
International Students and Scholars, UCLA

The Menace of Media Speed and the 24 Hour News Cycle
Howard Rosenberg and Charles Feldman
The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2008
204 pages

Both authors are well steeped in the culture of the media. Rosenberg won a Pulitzer during his 25 years as the TV critic for the Los Angeles Times. He now teaches critical writing and news ethics at the University of Southern California. Feldman is an investigative TV and print journalist, who worked for CNN in New York and Los Angeles, and now contributes to CBS radio. He also teaches at the University of Southern California, where he is an adjunct professor of journalism.
In their Prologue, they provide a rather dramatic rendition of their thesis: "…we have before us bloggers whipping up hyperbole like meringue and hyperventilating news anchors, ad-libbing reporters, instant non-experts and hair-trigger pundits shooting form the hip with bombast blazing on the Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC." And finally, quoting TV journalist Dave Marash, "news and faux news traveling faster than the speed of thought." So here we have it; the villains are TV news, bloggers and the internet in general. We are addicted to speed. It thrills us and is like adrenaline. Beyond stating this "fact," there is no discussion about the psychology or underlying dynamics of our love for speed, but maybe it is self-evident.
The problem of speed in the media, we are told, escalated in 1980, when CNN began. The media's speed for speed's sake mania evolved from the 24 hour news cycle. The result was that CNN released "…into our biosphere a chain-reaction force and media-mushroom cloud whose fallout would become the 24 hour news cycle." This brief quote is useful, both in conveying the author's point of view, and also their somewhat florid use of language.
Reference is made to Carl Honore's book "In Praise of Slowness-Challenging the Cult of Speed." (That book, by the way, is well worth reading. Honore attacks speed as applied to eating, sex, and medicine among other aspects of our lives. He even discovers that weight lifting slowly is far more effective for muscle-building).
Among the problems caused by speed in the media, Rosenberg and Feldman include errors, which are sometimes dangerous; poor use of language; reporting which takes place before the event; adverse effects on decision-makers who are rushed for opinions; and political debates which are not really debates, but 30- or 60- second sound bytes on major issues.
A good example they offer of the danger of news speed is the Cuban missile crisis. The case is made that if we had the speed then that we have now, there is a good possibility that the American public would have brought great pressure on President Kennedy to bomb the missile sites. We now know that the Soviets controlling these missiles had orders to fire them at the U S if they were attacked, and that would likely have been the start of World War III.
The authors argue that there is not really enough news to fill our three 24 hour news channels (CNN, Fox and MSNBC), and therefore they fill in with trivia and opinion which is not news. One example they site is Lou Dobbs and his ongoing tirade against undocumented immigrants. The problem with this argument is the premise. What evidence is there to support the contention that there is not enough real news? There are some 200 countries in the world. There is this one very complicated USA where significant things are happening much of the time. There are stories about the best and worst human responses to events, about breakthroughs in our understanding of the world.
The issue here may be that the news channels are not expending the time or resources required to unearth the news. As for the Lou Dobbs example, surely his tirades are obviously opinion, as is much of the commentary on TV, and the question is, are we fooled by this? The trivia complaint is valid and is frequent.
We are informed that not all is bad with speed. Technology which produces speed can be beneficial. In 1481 a letter sent from Turkey to England took two years to arrive. In 1841 it took three months and 20 days for Los Angeles to learn of President William Harrison's death in the East. It is also recognized that live cameras are peerless when covering civil disturbances or wildfires.
Although much of the book is devoted to the problems of TV, the internet also comes in for its share of blame for our malaise. Bloggers, are cited as guilty of sending opinion in the guise of news. The question here is whether those who read these messages consider them news, or recognize them as opinion.
At the end of the book, there is a rather short section on solutions. One improvement they suggest would be for newscasters to more often state that all is not yet known instead of speculating. They advocate training our children to recognize truth in reporting. UCLA and the University of Southern California (USC) offer courses in media literacy, but we rarely teach the subject to children. Canada, Australia and England, by contrast, do. One reason given by some Canadians for teaching media literacy from the first grade on is that they are equipping their children to resist the U S culture that is imposed on them.
This is not a long book, but it would have benefited from some disciplined editing. Many of the points are made repeatedly, and the number of examples is sometimes excessive. Still, it is a useful wakeup call to the ways in which speed in the media cheapen and even endanger our society. More thought given to how to change the current trends would have made the book more valuable.