Rachel Maddow’s “Failure”: News As Entertainment In The Television Age
What happens to us when media, politics and information are consumed as entertainment?
Wednesday afternoon, glued to the incessant stream of internet drivel I all-too-frequently allow myself to be drawn into, I was genuinely curious as to why people were so angry about Rachel Maddow’s report on President Donald Trump’s tax returns Tuesday night.
Viewers eagerly tuned in to The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC hoping to bear witness to a fantastic reveal concerning Trump’s taxes. Less than ninety minutes prior to the airing of her show, Maddow posted two tweets, igniting a social media frenzy of sorts:
Like most rabid consumers of political drama in the wake of last fall’s election, viewers had hoped Maddow’s late-night report would send them off to bed satisfied. Their insatiable appetite for groundbreaking news would be quenched by the hope that new insight into the president’s tax returns would reveal sketchy business dealings, ties to Russia, or anything else destructive to his administration. Whatever information Maddow revealed would further intensify the craze surrounding the taxes issue, AND people could watch it on live TV. What could be juicier?
After waiting twenty minutes for Maddow to more overtly delve into the topic she promised —specifically, the two documents from Donald Trump’s 2005 tax returns that were given to her by investigative reporter David Cay Johnston — some viewers felt she introduced no groundbreaking information. Hopes were squandered, ushering in a myriad of angry objections and a varying degree of disappointed responses: “What a waste of time,” “She’s so desperate for ratings,” “Nothing even happened,” “She led us to believe there was a real story here” (I will only allude to the small, ignorant barrage of derogatory statements aimed at her as a person).
This was all before I even watched the show. Not to mention, I already knew Maddow has no need to scrounge around for ratings. Although Tuesday night’s anticipation helped garner her a soaring 4.1 million viewers, enough to beat all other networks for that day, Maddow’s show had already reached its peak ratings month this past February, practically doubling its viewership since February 2016.
But after reading her tweets, skimming through reactions and “knowing” her and her show, my persistent skepticism of humans kept me wondering: how much of this hype was really generated by Rachel Maddow? How much of it was created by us, the public? (After all, as Thom Yorke says, “You do it to yourself.”)
When you look strictly at Maddow’s intent, was the firestorm of anticipation justified? Are our anger, impatience, and quickness to attribute “failure” to Maddow’s reputation at all misguided?
How much does our eagerness to consume “breaking news” stem from emotional needs and instant-gratification, rather than a genuine interest in the content?
All “failures” and “successes,” tax returns and potentially dubious information aside (literally), this kind of public response merits a deeper exploration into what we deem “good” news, “good” reporting, and what types of information we value as a society.
At 9:o0 PM EST, Rachel Maddow began her hour-long program with a twenty minute introduction that helped contextualize the debate surrounding President Trump’s tax returns.
“We’ve got some significant Breaking News tonight: Donald Trump’s tax returns have surfaced…at least, a portion of Donald Trump’s past tax returns. What we have tonight has been turned over to a reporter. These are returns for one year. It’s a federal return.”
She emphasized why this is cause for attention:
“This is the first time we believe any federal tax returns for Donald Trump have been obtained by anyone, certainly by any news organization, since he became a presidential candidate, let alone President.”
Maddow goes on to explain why it is we ask to see candidates’ tax returns, highlighting the insight and reassurances they can provide, and then explains why this is of particular importance with Trump. For example, it’s not unlikely that his amalgam of foreign ties and personal business dealings are linked to “unexplained sources of income, particularly income of a foreign origin,” all of which, aside from being flagrantly illegal, could influence his decision-making as president. She cites one questionable occurrence: a bizarre incident when a “Russian oligarch dump[ed] almost sixty million dollars into Donald Trump’s pocket for no discernible reason,” a quandary that tax returns could “clear up,” yet are puzzlingly kept in the dark.
Regular viewers are accustomed to Rachel Maddow’s monologue style. They are long, fact-heavy, in-depth constructions, relatively void of the usual elements of entertainment news—flashy visuals, dramatic sound effects, music that fills transitions between segments — prompting news coverage to feel more like a sporting event. This approach is designed to render news as exciting even when it’s not, and as catastrophically unserious as any fictional television drama.
In fact, part of why I cared about any of this was because I have come to appreciate the meticulous research and measured calculation that is the basis of Maddow’s nightly weekday program. To me, these efforts to provide viewers substantive, well-researched information, regardless of how well she may or may not communicate this material and how it is received, easily override any of her shortcomings as a reporter and of her show as a whole.
In contrast, newcomers found The Rachel Maddow Show frustratingly anticlimactic, causing them to both overlook and misunderstand her main points: 1) that these two tax documents were “a super interesting first window into [Trump’s] finances,” which hopefully encourage more relevant material to emerge down the line, and 2) that “the question of [Trump’s] finances is a legitimate scandal” needing continual reinforcement, both by the media and the public.
Should she have treated her proclamations about possessing Trump’s tax returns with a bit more sensitivity before making such claims public to the world? Probably. Does tweeting out “BREAKING” and “(Seriously)” show her as a willing participant in generating hype? Yes. Shouldn’t she have expected such a firestorm response, knowing that the public has proved consistent in their concern about Trump’s tax returns (despite the prevailing narrative that no one cares)? Undoubtedly.
But was her presentation anything close to the colossal journalistic failure many made it out to be? Absolutely not.
Tuesday night was less a journalistic woe and more an important, yet rare case of unsensational reporting, meant to inform, focus on content, and keep crucial issues relevant.
The failure was that the public developed insurmountably high expectations and were so bored by the act of listening to straightforward, unimpressive information that the missed the point. People were duped and “misled” — not by Maddow, but by themselves.
Nevertheless, I began to feel that blaming a large portion of our population for being thickheaded was an unfair, oversimplified characterization.
Public perception of The Rachel Maddow Show made embarrassingly obvious our proclivity toward receiving information that is succinct, easy to grasp, and instantaneous. But frequently and automatically expecting drama to coincide with news signifies a much greater, conditioned societal response.
This is a learned reaction, a product of a complex web of gradual changes in communication methods and a changing public consciousness.
Enter Neil Postman and his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Although published back in 1985, Postman’s view is that the way that people receive information has always mattered, as different methods of communication dictate how information is perceived:
“…it is, I believe, a wise and particularly relevant supposition that the media of communication available to a culture are a dominant influence on the formation of the culture’s intellectual and social preoccupations.”
Pre-1840, American assumptions about intelligence, truth, and the nature of discourse largely came from the printed word, which “had a monopoly on both attention and intellect, there being no other means, besides the oral tradition, to have access to public knowledge.” It was common that key public figures — presidents, scientists and lawyers — were known for what they wrote, not for what they looked like. In fact, to our modern day astonishment, it is not unlikely to imagine that “most of the first fifteen presidents of the United States would not have been recognized had they passed the average citizen in the street.”
But by the mid-nineteenth century, the American frontier extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean, necessitating the creation of a railroad system that would allow for quicker transport of people and goods. Postman notes that at that time, the speed of a train was precisely equal to the speed at which information could travel — a limiting thirty-five miles per hour. This allowed the United States to exist as a conglomeration of regions, “each conversing in its own ways, addressing its own interests,” rather than as a singular national community.
This was true until Samuel Morse developed the telegraph in the 1840s, inconceivably expediting the speed at which information could travel. Instead of having to wait weeks or months for messages to send, the telegraph allowed messages to be communicated within minutes.
The invention of the telegraph is undeniably remarkable in changing how communication shaped the world. But the new national unity it inspired, which made “one neighborhood of the whole country,” also meant that newspapers and various print media started to become irrelevant. It was the catalyst in the gradual phasing out of print media, largely obsolete today. From this, the newfound ease in communication had a profound, unintended effect: it “destroyed the prevailing definition of information.” This was noted by Henry David Thoreau in Walden:
“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate….we are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough…”
The consequence was that information shared between people and various networks, nationally and globally, no longer needed to be critical or functional in nature. The telegraph, by “introducing a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and coherence” to communication, introduced and legitimized “the idea of context-free information…attach[ed] merely to novelty, interest, and curiosity.” Irrelevant information now became more acceptable, and even attractive to communicate.
Postman postulates that this switch from a print-dominated, word-centered culture to one that is television-dominated and image-centered set the stage for our allowing news as entertainment. Like the telegraph, this marked another tremendous, irreversible shift in public consciousness, specifically in the information people came to regard as of interest.
Television as a medium pushes us to prioritize and more ably grasp visually entertaining material, with information simplified and dished out in spoonfuls of timed segments. Postman argues this is immensely detrimental to rational public discourse and reasoned public affairs because it effectively streamlines what is often highly complex, nuanced information. Or, as he phrases it, “public discourse [on] descent into vast triviality.”
Postman exemplifies how the inclusion of music and commercials help work to portray news as entertainment:
“All television news programs begin, end, and are somewhere in between punctuated with music. I have found very few Americans who regard this custom as peculiar, which fact I have taken as evidence for the dissolution of lines of demarcation between serious public discourse and entertainment. What has music to do with the news? Why is it there? It is there, I assume for the same reason music is used in the theater and films — to create a mood and provide a leitmotif for the entertainment. If there were no music — as is the case when any television program is interrupted for a news flash — viewers would expect something truly alarming, possibly life-altering. But as long as the music is there as a frame for the program, the viewer is comforted to believe that there is nothing to be greatly alarmed about; that, in fact, the events that are reported have as much relation to reality as do scenes in a play.”
“The viewers also know that no matter how grave any fragment of news may appear, it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal.”
The obvious problem with news as entertainment is that entertainment itself is enjoyable, or amusing, while news is innately serious. When important information is treated and consumed in the same way as anything else put on television (weather, sports, puppy videos), the public finds it increasingly difficult to separate serious news from non-serious “news,” and may not even realize why this is problematic.
Over time, we become desensitized to our own inability to distinguish between the critical and the trivial.
This the origin of Postman’s self-described “inquiry” and “lamentation.”
This shift — from the “Age of Typography” to the ascendance of the “Age of Television” — was catastrophic for information.
All of this is why I was perplexed and alarmed by assaulting language toward Rachel Maddow as a reporter. To me, her Tuesday night “failure” was that she unabashedly rejected the notion that political news has to be presented as entertainment in the Television Age. Maddow’s refusal to ascribe to the excessive audial and visual drama used by news programs to fashion news into an entertainment commodity, her work to provide audiences a breadth of context extending beyond just the story at hand, her willingness to report both bombshell and “non-stories” alike, is a stunning defiance.
She is also deviant in the sense that she occasionally pauses in her long-winded monologue. Perhaps she recognizes that hefty bouts of information can be overwhelming for the human mind. Perhaps she is simply thinking about what she says before she says it. But this is critical to note. That the audience is able to catch a reporter in the act of thinking and experiencing emotion is an incredibly rare instance of human vulnerability within fast-paced news dialogue, which tends to prefer “applause” over “reflection.”
The solution to improving the relaying of vital information in the Television Age is not to staunchly reject television and social media and force ourselves to get all of our information from books. Instead, it is to recognize and embrace these human components imbedded within modern communication, like a reporter taking a breath within a monologue. It is to actively work to recognize when information is presented to us in a contrived manner. It is to demand reporters reject superfluous distractions and sensory bombardment and implore the audience to pay attention, form its own opinions, and recognize when the nature of content is serious.
I worry that our historically recent aversion to complex and serious information has prompted us to grow apathetic toward it. I also wonder whether information, when relayed in a more unadorned fashion, is then rendered incomprehensible to our 21st century minds. There is no question that it has become more and more difficult to both interpret and even desire information that is communicated through the written word. So are these not very real possibilities?
There is nothing wrong with consuming trivial and pointless media (I like to tell myself), especially when our overwhelming world often justifies a break for the brain.
The problem comes when we, as individuals and then as a society, too frequently choose simplicity over nuance, ease over complexity, and hype over all else.
If we consistently value our own reactions to news more than the actual information itself, how then, will history be remembered? What will be lost?