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Is it news or infotainment?



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September 17, 2008
Late at night when I have insomnia I turn on WUOM in Ann Arbor and listen to the BBC overnight. Founded October 18,1922 the BBC, along with Big Ben, is perhaps symbolic of England itself and what we used to call the British Empire.

During World War II it almost literally became the voice of a nation under siege and carried the broadcasts of newsman Edward R. Murrow back to the United States, giving the then isolationist America its first glimpse of what Winston Churchill would later call "the gathering storm."

Today BBC news is the largest broadcast news gathering operation in the world. In the United Kingdom alone it has 28,500 employees with an annual budget of 4 billion pounds.

A quasi-autonomous public corporation and public service broadcaster, the BBC is run by the BBC trust and is funded by a levy of license fees paid for, in part, by individuals on radio set ownership. Further funding comes through a government grant in aid from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Outside the United Kingdom broadcasts are commercially funded channels such as BBC America and BBC World News. Additional funding is raised by the sale of merchandise and programming. In order to justify the license fee the BBC is expected to produce a number of high-ratings shows in addition to programs that commercial broadcasters would not broadcast, many of which are commercial free.

To say the BBC is legendary is understatement and we have nothing like it in the United States with perhaps the exception of National Public Radio.

From its starchy beginnings the BBC in recent years has become more inclusive and attempts to accommodate the interests of all strata of society.

What stands out from its broadcasts is I think the quality of writing especially in such programs as 'From Our Own Correspondent' which allow reporters to explore, in literate detail, the subject matter of their reports offering the listener the chance to glide beneath the content of the story and perceive how the correspondent felt when covering it.

Radio and television news here is dominated by its commercial structure and the rule "if it bleeds it leads." NPR attempts to overcome this and except for two weeks of fundraising babble each year does a pretty good job. Still the BBC manages to be a prime example of what good news reporting should be.

Our news reporting does almost nothing in depth, is pretty shallow and is more infotainment than anything else. It's a wonder, in my opinion, that Americans are informed at all.

At the risk of sounding like an intellectual snob I am old enough to remember when radio news actually presented the news. Today when you look at local TV news you seem to get more feature stories than what we used to call hard news. Now I know radio and television news is not supposed to be an in-depth medium but when local stations spend more time hyping the next report, and everything is a breaking story the product quickly loses its credibility. At one time local television news was divided into three segments, news, weather, and sports. Today we have personalities, only a few of which seem to be burdened with any real journalistic experience. At least the BBC calls them "readers" rather than to try to elevate them to celebrity status.

Anchors across the country seem to come from the same cookie cutter, no matter if you are watching in Detroit, Atlanta or LA. To be sure there are more women and minorities on the air than there once was, and that is a good thing, but there is still a sameness to each station the result of which, as someone once said, is the bland leading the bland. So if this makes me an intellectual snob, well so be it.

There is a lot of information out there and sources like the BBC and the Internet offer consumers of the media a chance to gain a wider social perspective. We owe it to ourselves to broaden our horizons and not just read only the things we agree with. The truth is the world is much more a global village today than it ever was and it's high time we realized that.

Email Eric at

tct@pageone-inc.com

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