And then along comes John Oliver: How a brilliant comedian became an indispensable public educator and policy analyst.

John Oliver

And then along comes John:

I can’t believe it. I get to be effusive about something.

For almost 20 years,  I have been on a tear against the phony experts and purveyors of pseudo-facts and pseudoscience who are regularly asked to serve as news sources. I once even promised — on the cover of the Washington Post Sunday opinion section — to keep my mouth shut when it was clear I wouldn’t really know what I was talking about.

We are victims of 24-hour panic-news outlets who cover serious social problems without even the minimal complexity they deserve. Instead, we are treated to “experts” like chiropractors without serious, evidence-based, graduate training in either immunology or virology who tell us to avoid childhood vaccines that have saved millions of lives.

The result?

All sorts of genuinely urgent threats to health and safety are virtually ignored while reporters in the 24-hour shoutocracy hyperventilate about incidents that, however genuinely painful and tragic, are extraordinarily rare. Yet problems that objectively pose a threat to enormous numbers of people remain all but invisible.

Take the problem of the injuries and fatalities that result from the accidental falls of seniors. These are statistics from the CDC:

Data on Senior Falls

So while we are treated to endless nonsense about incredibly rare things that worry us more than they should, we rarely get accurate, evidence-based information about social problems that, because of their frequency, should worry us.

And then along comes John Oliver.

It took a while for this to sink in, but I’m absolutely convinced that what John Oliver is accomplishing on his weekly HBO show represents an extraordinary contribution to serious public discussion about a host of serious problems that we have all but ignored in the past.

Week by week, using his gut-splittingly hilarious comic style, Oliver has been engaged in an effort to educate the public about what seems to be every possible under-publicized social problem. Whether prescription drug marketing, civil forfeiture, food wasting, or prisoner reentry, he has taken problem after problem out of the shadows and made incredibly persuasive arguments for why we should be more concerned.

In an ideal world, this kind of responsible public education would be anything but revolutionary. But in the confusing media mess of arguing pseudo experts, accompanied by a soundtrack of screaming and shouting that passes for debate on tabloid television, what Oliver is doing is nothing short of extraordinary.

Obviously, Oliver comes to us from one place on a wonderfully crowded ideological spectrum. I admit it is probably close to the place I reside. And I know  there  are many other interesting points of view on these problems that should also be heard. The problem, though,  is that no one else from anywhere on the political spectrum has ever tried to do what he is doing with anything close to the elegant style and razor-sharp wit that he brings to the table.

Some years back, I was at a meeting of FDA consultants working on the question of how to get the public concerned about legitimate threats to health and safety. The whole session kept returning to the same questions: Why does it seem to be impossible to get people to care about W or X? Or to pay attention to  Y or Z?

Thanks to John Oliver, we have an answer.

It isn’t impossible.

Find someone brilliant, someone who combines the analytical skills of a policy analyst and the humor of a hilarious  social satirist, put him in the same room as a little understood problem like civil forfeiture (the name alone is a sleep aid!), and — poof! —  suddenly it’s an issue of broad public concern.

Are the mainstream media capable of illuminating serious threats to health, safety, and social welfare? Absolutely.

His name is John Oliver.

Advertisements

MSNBC and Prison Reality Programming:” Or How Did “Lockup Raw” Get On a News Channel?

 My love-hate relationship with 24 hour cable news continues.

I’ve admitted it before: None of my  criticism of 24 hour cable news – including what I have to say here – can hide a simple fact: When all hell breaks loose, or when an event occurs that is important to me, I am tuned in for the wall to wall coverage like any other news-loony.

The problem with MSNBC, CNN, and FOX is that they are responsible for news holes too immense to fill and too costly to fill with in-depth reporting. So they each rely on all sorts of  filler — talking heads, re-runs of regular network magazine shows, and reality shows from independent producers – to fill the schedule. Of course, this is a tacit admission that they are simply unwilling to spend the resources required to fill the hole with serious news or analysis.

On MSNBC, for example, we are treated to such unrepentant claptrap as Lockup Raw and Caught on Camera, and, reaching even deeper into the cultural garbage bin, re-runs of To Catch a Predator.

Believe me; I am sure that they would rather fill the hole with enough truly cataclysmic events that they could keep “BREAKING NEWS” flashing on the bottom of the screen permanently. The problem is that, by mercilessly hyping any remotely interesting news story, they have raised the catastrophe bar so high that a war between India and Pakistan might not even make the cut unless one of the countries loaded up the nukes.

OK, so I exaggerate.

But barring a world that doesn’t come apart 24 hours a day, they each look to trashy programming as filler.

And this is where “Prison-P–n” comes in. One of MSNBC’s most popular fillers is Lockup Raw, which offers hours of riots and fights inside prisons backed by a soundtrack of screaming and yelling and all-around mayhem. We learn nothing about the causes of prison conditions.

But we do learn the profound and shocking lesson that inmates occasionally beat the hell out of each other. Brilliant. And deep. Very deep.

Normally I wouldn’t waste keyboard strokes about “Prison P–n” programming, but last week I heard a feature on NPR’s All Things Considered about the inhuman conditions in California prisons, including crowding, disease, and sexual assault. As I listened, I was struck even more how garbage like Lockup Raw, with all its screaming and bleeding, is too mindless to offer even a slightly provocative insight about why prisons are the way they are.

They keep it quite simple: Prisoners are animals. Prisons are zoos.

Please check out the extraordinary report by Laura Sullivan on overcrowding at San Quentin that was broadcast July 7th on All Things Considered. No video. No blood. No prison p–n. only a brilliant and chilling story about what happens when two inmates occupy a cell built for one; when the barbaric view of the human being as animal is formalized in a state’s public policy and practice.

Why Not Feed the 24 Hour News Beast Something Truly Repulsive? The Case of Liz Trotta

 

With all the disgust I feel for much of the detritus that the 24 hour cable news channels use to fill their bottomless news hole, I won’t deny that I am simultaneously a fan. 

 

Hypocrisy? Maybe.  

 

CNN and MSNBC are simply indispensable for live coverage of breaking news. Further, they each are staffed with journalists capable of on the spot analysis and perceptive commentary that can be superb. I think of CNN’s William Schneider, former CNN Baghdad correspondent and bureau chief Jane Arraf and medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta.  And what about people at MSNBC like Robert Bazell, perhaps the best science and medical reporter of the last several decades, Keith Olbermann, political director Chuck Todd, and Tim Russert?

 

I should say that I don’t omit Fox News out of any knee-jerk revulsion.  I am glad the audience who feels their views represented by Fox has that highly partisan option. I only wish that they would at least be honest about their ideological slant, rather than continuing to make the embarrassing (and amusing) claim of fairness and balance.

 

Fox simply has very little, if anything,  to say to me.

 

But all three of the cable news networks are faced with an insatiable news beast demanding to be fed.  And it seems that, in the age of screaming and incivility, nothing fills a slow news day better than two or three minimally informed pseudo-experts trying ever-so-hard to out-shout each other. 

 

No surprise there.

 

There is an unintended, entertaining  benefit to all this: When your definition of news makes room for yelling by provocateurs rather than reporting by reporters, you occasionally are treated to an idiocy that transcends any definition of idiocy you ever imagined.

 

So here we go. Check out these comments on Fox News by Liz Trotta, her attempt to bring some “analysis” to the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s remarks about the RFK assassination.

 

And ask yourself: How does any news organization keep someone like Liz Trotta on the air? Where is her apology? Who will take the responsibility for deciding that suggesting the assassination of a presidential candidate should be a career-ender, something that should preclude her from ever doing news or commentary again?

 

This isn’t about her right to express herself.  She can be as astoundingly stupid as she wants. And she can do it on the air. The question is whether Fox will decide that the “decency-line” has been crossed.

 

Watch closely. Her comments come quickly at the end of this short excerpt. And they are repulsive.

 

Fear + Hyping = FYPING: The “Crystal-Methification” of 24 Hour Cable News

Remember Howard Beale, the anchorman played by Peter Finch in the film “Network?” I always think of his “mad as hell” moment when I see the latest example of 24 hour cable news networks like MSNBC and CNN and Fox shamelessly pumping overdoses of adrenaline and fear into anything they characterize as “breaking news.” Video is played and replayed, graphics and special effects get more and more dramatic, any pseudo-expert who claims to have a legitimate “Dr.” is instantly anointed an authority, the voices of announcers take on an unintentionally hilarious pseudo-gravitas, and we are off and running on our latest social panic.

Yes, I understand that the business model requires that an audience be delivered to advertisers. If audience research has genuinely shown that hyper-ventilation attracts larger audiences, more power to them. At least in the new age of digital information, we have alternatives like RSS feeds, the Internet, radio, local newspapers, blogs and all the other new technologies and techniques.

So if there are so many other choices offering the same content, why does this nutty hyper-activity still bother me? It’s that I can’t shake the fact that there are still large audiences being subjected to “news on crystal meth” whose world view is being shaped by the idea that the basic elements of human life are “fast-breaking,” “urgent,” and “exclusive.”

Hyping a balloon trip across New Mexico or a butcher closing after 30 years is one thing. But what about all the times when the news has to do with some aspect of life, health or safety that really affects the way people live? What if the news is about the efficacy of a medication? The recall of a food product? Or a new strain of the flu virus that was not covered by the last flu shot? A terrorist incident? A crib with a defective mechanism?

This is where the breathlessness and hyper-hyping can do its real dirty work, pumping up the volume so high that basic facts get lost amidst the cacophony. Let’s say the news is calling a widely used medication into question. Pity the viewer who really needs to hear the nuanced findings that will allow him or her to make an informed decision. And what of the stories completely buried under the avalanche, like the risk of falling among older citizens. Fear-hyping, call it FYPING, makes it all but impossible to communicate this nuance with care and concern for the people whose lives are affected. And how long is news actually “breaking?”

I have seen stories on the AP wire in the morning that 12 hours later are still being reported by MSNBC’s Dan Abrams with an ominous breaking news logo and nerve-shattering theme music.

Of course the answer is that the news is only breaking as long as we let it, as long we listen or watch. But never, ever try to tell me that in matters of true urgency, where health and safety are really on the line, that this is how you most effectively communicate the specific information that people really need. CNN’s Sanjay Gupta and MSNBC’s Robert Bazell are notable exceptions, but most of the time frenzy reigns supreme.

And all we get is the adrenaline without the content. The fear. The hyping. The fyping.

Thank you Howard Beale. I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore.