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Seeing the damaging results of 24/7 news

“Look, I know I’m not supposed to be up here but to be honest, neither is Donald Trump.”

That was Stephen Colbert on Sunday after he’d taken the podium in a largely empty hall at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The event hadn’t started yet so he no doubt thought he could get away with hacking around a little. So he uttered some tendentious words for his blue-haired “Hunger Games” character to say, announcing the “Hungry for Power” games.

Republican security had other ideas. So they hustled him away from the podium but not before Colbert got off one of the better Trump zingers in a long time.

Colbert is being allowed to go live all this week after the convention – an extraordinary risk by CBS, which is gambling on Colbert and his weeklong conscriptee, Jon Stewart, no matter how many previous broadcast “standards” they trash in the process.

That was CBS’ way of entering into the New Age we’re clearly in and which demands that no medium think any more in the hidebound ways that are paralyzing so many.

When they were back-to-back on Comedy Central, Colbert and Stewart were not among them. Stewart especially had virtually invented a new kind of journalism that recognized if they called what they did “comedy” and made it funny, they could get away with doing many of the exhaustively researched things that actual journalists thought themselves incapable of doing for procedural reasons.

It was no small blow against “lamestream” media, as far too much of America understands them.

In this Age of Information – 24/7 cable TV news on multiple channels, stories appearing online with lightning speed – nothing proceeds the way it once did. The damage it does to America is immense.

Almost anyone thoughtful about this country and the world knows that the horrifying rising tide of violence and terror is related to the speed of word getting out and the immensity of those instantly in the “know.” Every terrorist and killer goes off into eternity with his name writ large in a digital forever wherever and whenever someone wants to call his name up. We’ve come a very long way from Herodotus and Thucydides.

Among the hundreds of revolutionary things it has done is open up the process of journalism to an inside view of how the sausage is made.

We could see, for instance, on Sunday that at the exact same time CNN was correctly reporting three deaths in the horrifying shootings in Baton Rouge, Fox News was clinging to only two deaths, as well as the overall story of how the horrific event might impact the Republican Convention. That’s a little like wondering how Lincoln’s assassination affected the Ford Theater audience’s opinion of that night’s performance of “Our American Cousin.”

When Ted Turner announced the creation of CNN in 1976, I had grave doubts about what it would do to journalism, information and the world.

I worried in print then – and after – that when you’re filling 24 hours of air time with “news,” you’re going to have to define news differently. And if you’re going to then get involved in a capitalist donnybrook with other cable news agencies for audience, you’re going to stop making journalistic decisions on value alone and make them for show business reasons.

Don Hewitt’s “60 Minutes” first accidentally transformed the world of TV journalism to include money. Somewhat remarkably, “60 Minutes” wound up in the Nielsen Top 10 nine years after it was created.

The devil’s connection was made: News, that traditional network loss leader, could make huge amounts of money.

Some of the people after me who showed up that truth in the most pitiless way have been comedians, whose insistence on truth can be stunning. Media theoretician Neil Postman once wrote a book about the result of where the world was going called “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

We can see now in the stories about Fox News’ Roger Ailes being sued by fired personality Gretchen Carlson what happens when news moguls seem to act like Hollywood moguls, assuming all the prerogatives for which the Hollywood pashas were always infamous.

We now have a national political convention in which a man will be nominated for president who was a creation of print and 24/7 media.

I was almost alone among my colleagues worrying out loud about how the definition of everything couldn’t help but devolve after CNN came to be. News veterans whom I respected enormously couldn’t have been more excited while I sat off on the side worrying constantly. Their beloved NEWS was getting its own TV network. Valhalla had arrived.

Now we know how much it resembles hell.


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