Sunday, 12 August 2007

Do Have Nightmares!

A couple of weeks ago, I was musing about the impact of TV on the elderly. "If I were frail and lonely and reliant on BBC news for my picture of the world, I think I'd soon be too afraid to leave the house..."

Well, my friend Lucy just drew my attention to this post from the American political reporter Rick Perlstein (via the excellent Making Light):

Shortly before she died, my grandmother — one of the people, naturally, I loved the most in the world — broke my heart. Celia Perlstein, like most of our grandparents, didn't get out much in her final years; in fact, for the last few years of her life, I'm not sure she got out of her old folks home at all. I don't think she really wanted to. She was sure that beyond its threshold lay dragons: far-far-far leftists out to steal her Social Security; turbaned terrorists just itching to fly a jet into the First Wisconsin tower a few blocks to the south; quisling Democrats itching to help them do it; grandma-gutting criminal marauders just outside her door.

I'd look out of her eighth floor picture window, down at the scene she saw every day, half expecting to find that nightmare landscape before me. Nope: same as always, the brightly colored sailboats on Lake Michigan, kids and their parents feeding the ducks (Grandma used to take me to feed the ducks), happy, strolling Milwaukee couples—paradise. Where was she getting these fantasies?

One evening's visit, all became clear. She gestured at the blaring TV set. The excruciating grandma-volume was even more excruciating than usual, because she was visiting with her best TV friend. She told me how much she adored Bill O'Reilly. My wife and I cringed. Watching our latter-day Joe McCarthy on TV every night, she had learned, late in life—for this development was entirely new—how to hate her fellow Americans. I almost cried, because one of the people she was learning how to hate was me.

Over here in the UK, broadcasting regulations mean we have (thankfully) no equivalent to Fox News. So for me to pick on the BBC may be a case of not knowing how lucky you are. (It was also kind of a self-criticism, since I used to be a BBC journalist - albeit a fairly lowly one.)

Yet, powerful as I found his post, I wonder whether Perlstein isn't merging two issues? Bad journalism and outright propaganda deserve censure. One consequence of this, however, can be to present "good journalism" in an uncritical light - and overlook those structural issues which affect the news industry as a whole.

I suspect that even in the UK there are elderly people afraid to leave home because of the picture of the world they get from the news. Maybe we can blame this on the Daily Mail - or the influence that papers like the Mail have over the news agenda of the broadcast media. But can we imagine a sort of "news" which did not consist largely of the misfortunes of people we do not know - misfortunes which affect us little, except (by their retelling) to raise our general level of anxiety?

I'm reminded of a programme I haven't seen for years, but which is still a regular in the BBC1 schedules. 'Crimewatch' specialises in reconstructions of unsolved crimes, while a team stands by to field calls from viewers who think they may have information that will solve them. In a sense, this is the rebuttal of my argument - some, at least, of the misfortunes that make up our news diet are retold because someone out there might be able to help.

What comes back to me, though, is the catchphrase with which the presenter would end each show, as if to counteract the effect of the preceding 29 minutes. "Remember, the crimes featured here are rare," he'd say as he turned to the camera, "so sleep well - and don't have nightmares!"

And I wonder, isn't that just what the news industry does to us all - makes us sleep less soundly in our beds?

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