In 1979 the Iranians seized the American Embassy in Teheran.
In response, ABC News created a nightly news program called “America Held Hostage”. It was hosted by the then little-known Ted Koppel.
When ABC News started ‘America Held Hostage’, neither they nor anyone else in the world knew how long the hostage crisis would continue. But they began to tag their nightly programs by the number of days that the crisis had lasted. America Held Hostage Day 3; America Held Hostage Day 38; America Held Hostage Day 137… and so on. Who could have imagined that the Iranian Hostage Crisis would go on for an unbelievable 444 days?
444 days of the hostage crisis.
444 hours devoted exclusively to one topic – Iran.
Now, if you went to Columbia University and took 444 classsroom hours on one subject like Iran, you would have enough credits not only to get a PhD in Iranian History but also to become fluent in Farsi, (which is what they speak in Iran). If, on the other hand, I strapped you to a chair and forced you to watch all 444 hours of America Held Hostage, there is a distinct possibility that your brains would drip out of your ears.
Why is that?
Why is it that we produce (even with the highly honored Mr. Koppel) such unmitigated, vapid and generally intellectually worthless crap?
Part of the reason is that the vast majority of reporters haven’t got the vaguest idea what they are reporting about, particularly when it comes to foreign stories. In the Iranian Hostage Crisis of the more than 800 US reporters who first went to Teheran, not one spoke Farsi. Imagine if 800 Chinese reporters came to the US to cover ‘hanging chads’ in the 2000 election, without being able to speak a word of English. What kind of stories would they have written? What do you think the Chinese people would have taken away from that kind of coverage.
What is the value of sending US reporters to Iraq who don’t speak Arabic, don’t have any background in the history, country, culture or location? Nothing… or just next to nothing. With all respect to Bob Woodruff (who apparently speaks fluent Chinese), what could he possibly bring to the table by going to Iraq? China… for sure. He had lived there. Iraq? What was the point?
The concept of foreign correspondent was once someone who lived in the country, spoke the language and knew what they were talking about. No more. And this does not even touch on the question of Iraqis telling their own story. How many Iraqis do you think have video camcorders? 10,000? 50,000? Every day they are filming what is happening to their country. In four years, how much of that video have you seen? None?
Another part of the reason that we deliver worthless pap is because we don’t bother to do any long term planning for our news programming.
Look. We have pretty much the same audience every night, night after night. The same people – and, if we are good, they are ours for years. Night after night we have them for half an hour or an hour. The war in Iraq has now dragged on for four years. The end is hardly in sight. Instead of reporting ‘breaking news’ – this helicopter was shot down, that car blew up, we might instead lay out a kind of curriculum to educate our viewers; to arm with the the critical and necessary information on a number of topics so that they can make important decisions – armed with the facts.
Slowly, over time, building on what we taught them yesterday, and the day before and tomorrow, we could create a national classroom where we might educate and both create and conduct a kind of national discourse (good use for the Internet, by the way), on topics that really matter.
This is important stuff, as more than 85% of Americans get the bulk of their information from television news. The content that we deliver, the intellectual quality is critically important now. The saga of Anna Nicole Smith might seem like a good story to lead with or to expend time and resources on. It gets ratings. But in doing so, we only serve to further debase our viewership and erode their ability to participate in things that matter. We now run the very real risk of creating an idiot culture, capable of being led into wars or foreign conflicts without the ability to say no, or even know that ‘no’ is an option.
It is America Held Hostage but this time it is not by the Iranians.