Monday, August 12, 2013

(No.244)"Cable news: home of the callow & the sanctimonious"

"Cable news: home of the callow and sanctimonious
(plus items on Canadian banks, Picasso in Las Vegas and Conrad Black)"

by Alastair Rickard

I have long since become resigned to the careful use of spoken English continuing to decline in television journalism coincident with the cultural 'advance' of electronic communication with its emoticons, acronyms, Twitter limitations, etc). But it is still irritating to watch the decline in the standard of English usage among the very class of persons who ought to be one of its bulwarks: broadcast journalists.

The CBC in Canada, always anxious to be seen as inclusive and non-elitist, puts on air younger reporters (especially but not exclusively) whose lack of facility with properly spoken English serves to promote its misuse like the debasing of a currency.

Just one example: the other day I heard a CBC broadcast journalist reporting from the scene of a relatively minor tragedy, an event certainly some distance from one signalling the end of the world, use the following words within a minute or two: unthinkable, indescribable, unimaginable and incredible.

Clearly the matter being reported did not qualify for the use of any of these words if they retain their actual meaning. But such hyperbole has become routine in television journalism, especially on cable news broadcasts.

It involves the misuse of language in the service of promoting attention (and ratings) among those people who -- the networks believe -- must be stimulated to watch by the use of verbal hype, by endowing something or other with phoney gravitas or salaciousness. Meaningful context is usually missing:  too time consuming to provide; too much risk of straining the average viewer's supposed brief attention span; might promote distraction from the 'headline' focus (i.e., ratings).

What would be an example of a fact, a reality that might begin to approach providing justification for the use of such hyperbolic language?

How about this?

In terms of Japan's record of mistreating prisoners of war before and during WWII, its greatest crime was not (as many in the west understandably think) against POWs it captured in fighting the western allies in World War II (about a 30% death rate overall) but the Chinese. On Dec.7, 1941 -- the date of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- after 4 years of war in China, the Japanese  held some 340,000 Chinese POWs. At the end of the war in 1945 fewer than 100 [sic] remained alive.

Do you think that the next time a cable news story involving some aspect of continuing tensions between China and Japan is reported (if it is reported at all) that even this much or comparable context will be provided? Don't hold your breath.

Linguistic flatulence does make a contribution to feeding today's popular media culture especially as embodied by the comments of the callow and the sanctimonious who are increasingly prominent. CNN, in pandering to those U.S. viewers they believe are interested above all in crimes and misfortunes involving attractive blond females, makes CBC news coverage look consistently elevated.

Under its recently installed senior management CNN pursued higher ratings by spending almost all day every day for several weeks on one event, one trial and the post-trial period: i.e., the shooting of a 17 year old Florida youth by a self-appointed neighbourhood 'guardian'.

Where was the needed context, the perspective, the proportionality for this sort of massively excessive 'news' coverage? There wasn't.

This single unfortunate shooting happened in a country in which more than 30,000 of its citizens become gun death statistics each year, an average of more than 80 a day, and in a country in which every year twice as many people are killed by guns than die in terrorist attacks worldwide.

But then 'news' network executives can smell a story they can build into a likely ratings succcess as readily as a feral cat roaming an alley can find an opened tin of salmon. Forget about proportionality related to importance.


In the second of a two part column on Las Vegas and a few of its curiosities (No.221, "Las Vegas nocturnes: Monet & the Cirque du Soleil") I referred to Steve Wynn, the most creative and sophisticated entrepreneur in the modern history of Las Vegas.

Wynn was and is a collector of major works of art. A valuable painting in his personal collection was Picasso's Le Reve which he had bought in 1997 for $48 million. In 2006 he had arranged to sell it for $139 million to hedge fund player Steve Cohen. However while showing the painting to some guests Wynn (who has degenerative eye disease and is now legally blind) turned and put his elbow through the painting.

The sale was cancelled and Wynn sent the painting for a major restoration effort. It has recently been reported that Wynn has now sold the restored Picasso to Cohen for $155 million.


Terry Campbell is the president of the Canadian Bankers Association. I knew him slightly several years ago when we were part of the same financial services working group. He is a very able and articulate advocate and has proven to be an excellent choice as head of the CBA.

Earlier this year he wrote an op-ed piece for the Financial Post (March 19, 2013). In it he explained the reasons, as he saw them, for a rise in Canadians' "favourable view of banks in Canada." One main reason, he argued, is that during the the world financial crisis five years ago Canadian banks were seen by Canadians as "well run and well regulated."

I have in several columns in the past few years commented that the fact no Canadian bank failure
occurred post-2007 had mainly to do, despite Candian bankers taking international bows,  with strong federal government prudential regulations vigorously enforced by the federal regulator OSFI which prevented Canadian bankers from treading the same disastrous financial paths as many of their American and European counterparts did.

Conrad Black also expressed an opinion in one of his weekly columns in the National Post (March 23, 2012): "Canada was spared (the) fate (of bank failure and govt. bailout) only by the fact that Canadian banking is a tightly regulated six-bank cartel, not by the genius of our bankers -- contrary to their frequent insinuations otherwise."


In a RickardsRead column "Executing the innocent as well as the guilty" (No.242) I reviewed some of the causes and results involving the conviction of accused persons in the U.S. who are later shown to have been innocent, the conviction having been based on faulty evidence.

One of the causes I cited for this state of affairs was wrong eyewitness testimony. One recent American analysis of 40 cases in which DNA evidence established the innocence of wrongly imprisoned individuals revealed that 36 of the 40 convictions involved incorrect eyewitness identification of the innocent (but convicted) person.

It occurs to me that, whatever the objections from the prosecutorial fraternity, the reality of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony -- long known to criminal counsel -- should be used as a caution when charging juries (at the very least). It would doubtless also be useful news for television watchers who in the main seem to believe in the verisimilitude of American courtroom dramas.




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