After Watching Another Wretched Survivor Interview

We complain regularly that the news is so negative, yet we continue like lemmings to follow it. The war in Ukraine makes us captive to the horrors journalists regularly present to us. Are news purveyors basically exploiting such people? Or are viewers all condemned to negativity bias, the condition in which negative events and statements impact our brains more powerfully than positive ones? Mainstream news surely caters to this bias.

A couple of years ago, Time magazine wrote this:

More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feeling anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result, the survey shows. Yet one in 10 adults checks the news every hour, and fully 20% of Americans report “constantly” monitoring their social media feeds—which often exposes them to the latest news headlines, whether they like it or not.

Well, you may say, the negative response has always been part of being human. As Mel Brooks the 2000-year-old cave dweller would say, “Grab that stone and kill the lion.” Journalists are not lion killers, but writing about the Ukraine horrors—and showing us graphic images—makes them feel in control of events that are beyond control. They seem to think that they are giving us a handle on the indescribable.

Last week CNN’s Anderson Cooper devoted much of one show to interviewing bereaved Ukrainian mothers and family of those who had been tortured or killed. One after the other we heard their tales of woe and worse. I got very upset watching this and finally turned it off. It was another of the many cases of tear-jerking emotional overkill that too often are part of the news now.

As a one-time literature professor, I call this sentimentalism. Which I take to mean emotion called up by manipulation, emotion provoked in excess of the situation. Too much of our news dwells on these poor grief-stricken people and their stories at the expense of generating a true response, which should be sympathy. Their pain is obvious yet news people keep dwelling on it.

What they should be showing—and generating in us—is compassion. Reporters like CNN’s Clarissa Ward are better at that than cold fish like Anderson Cooper or the platitudes of Wolf Blitzer. CNN’s news format is partly to blame, as it makes these horror stories part of almost every troubling evening news report.

Online media often take a similar approach. The Washington Post today ran a story “remembering one person for each week of the pandemic: what brought them joy and what they wanted to do next. And how that was cut short.” A lengthy series of headlines follows about each person, like “Dick burst into song when least expected and liked to watch boxing matches.” One wonders if this approach gives solace to the families, or anyone reading it. It seems like the bland leading the bland just to elicit a response.

Media like Aljazeera and BBC have quite different approaches to covering the war: fewer sentimental heart-rending stories and more educated commentaries, overviews, and reporters who show compassion over the exploitation. More and more I rely on alternatives like them to CNN or Fox or MSNBC. Major media has too many motivations to stay negative.

CNN Is Tottering

“More people watch CNN than any other news source,” they tell us, another assertion of the demented state of the populace. But for world news in Mexico there isn’t much choice. In English it’s CNN International or Fox News. I finally signed up with SKY TV to get both and also to watch SKY’s sports coverage.

It was fun for a while. Then it seemed CNN was dumping ads and promos on us every five minutes. And they have kept repeating the same ones constantly: Africa has apparently taken on CNN as a wholly owned subsidiary; more recently, it’s Japan. And we continue getting the same old promos for their tired anchors like Becky (“It all Stahts Heah”) Anderson.

I just had to boycott much of this stuff. When the commercials came on, I switched to Fox, than back to CNN after getting nauseated with Tucker and his guests. There is no loyalty possible on cable. The news media informs us, corrupts us, and too often deceives us.

The latest instance of that is CNN’s recent two-hour special, “Covid War: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out,” which came on last Sunday and will be repeated this coming Friday (8:00 ET). Here is a good positive review of the show if you didn’t see it. You should see it.

Six principal doctors, including Fauci, were interviewed by Sanjay Gupta, as the show tries to set the record straight about how the Trump administration politicized the pandemic from the beginning and caused many thousands of unnecessary deaths.

The doctors’ revelations are sometimes gripping, sometimes trite. Yet often they seem trying to rehabilitate their reputations, glossing over past remarks and attempts to placate the Trump crew and keep their jobs. Deborah Birx is the prime example of that, and her remarks testify to the pressure she felt.

Says Vox, “That the Trump White House was engaged in politically motivated wishful thinking instead of trying to save lives was painfully obvious by late March 2020. And yet Birx opted to try and stay in Trump’s good graces instead of telling the public the truth.”

CNN presents all these interviews without much commentary by Gupta. That’s fair enough, but they can’t stand on their own. The truth behind them is multiplex. Despite their possibly good intentions, these doctors functioned as enablers, one and all.

The show’s apologetic one-sidedness is why so many distrust the media. Polarization just gets reinforced. CNN has many good anchors and hosts who respect the multiplicity of truth. Among them are John Berman, Pamela Brown, and Jim Acosta. The network’s well-paid stars like Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper are something else.

There is no excuse for Chris Cuomo being on the air, especially after his gigs with brother Andrew and getting special treatment for Covid. His smug, brassy commentary is my nightly invitation to shut him off and, God help me, switch to Tucker Carlson for a change of ego. Anderson Cooper can speak like a robot. He often runs over his own words but gets paid $12 million a year for his drawn-out pauses while thinking up a response to a difficult interviewee.

CNN management may well be facing some hard choices soon lest they forfeit their most-watched standing. Media politics as usual isn’t going to cut it. Indeed, they have demonstrated that media politics makes strange bedfellows.