august 2005: milestone in demise of journalism, rise of personal narrative?

[Last week I was on a committee reviewing high school applicants for a scholarship sponsored by our local press club. Applicants were bright and articulate, but of all the samples they provided, only one constituted what I consider traditional objective journalism; all else were first-person narratives or editorials. As this media historian wondered whether we should be concerned about the demise of what we’ve considered journalism in favor of the personal narrative — and what that means for all of us — I recalled my August 2005 blog entry that, in retrospect, could be read as eerily prophetic.]

A manchild talks about his enthusiasm for collecting sports sneakers. A woman talks about her business of building customized homes. Deepak Chopra talks about his work as a self-help guru. Cliffjumpers, skateboarders and models parade across the screen to tell their stories before disappearing within a few minutes.

Welcome to the world of Current TV, the much-ballyhooed brainchild of Al Gore. How long you stay depends on how much you like to hear people talk about themselves.

Current TV positions itself as the voice of everyman, a power-to-the-people engine that tells stories about interesting folks. And maybe it does that. But the impression that I get is that it’s about people who like saying look at me! angling for their 15 (or less) minutes of fame, as well as studio hosts who aim for a bit of MTV attitude, albeit with a little more intelligence. Sometimes. (A report on cliff jumping was followed by a young telegenic host exclaiming That video was siiick! Wha?)

Since some whose opinions I respect like the network, I worried that I was alone in this observation … but Kay McFadden, the Seattle Times TV critic, admits similar feelings. If Current’s creators got one thing right in targeting the 18-to-34 crowd, it’s the relentless “I-I-I” approach to reporting, she writes. Like the Web log mania presently in vogue on the Internet, no story is worthwhile unless it can be sifted through the presenter’s personal history. An hour of Current TV contains more talking-to-the-camera asides than an entire night of Fox sitcoms.

The network started behind the 8-ball to me (Argh! More first-person prattling!) since Gore and Co. bought the broadcast license of NewsWorld International, a CBC-produced network that brought home reports from their journalists and other top news agencies around the world. Longform reports on everything from the tsunami aftermath to the Iraqi elections to the London attacks had great depth and storytelling, offering an excellent alternative to the America-centric reporting of U.S. networks. But the big, global pictures of NWI have been replaced by the little, first-person narratives of Current TV. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather know more about international political currents than why some guy wants to collect sneakers.

OK, some of the pieces are quite well-done, and I’ll take the surprising cinema verite of Current over the calculated disinformation of old Gore foe Fox News any day. But ultimately, Current seems a jumble of less-than-seven-minute personal narratives, with all the sound and fury signifying nothing but another attempt to snare the 18-to-34 demographic which, in McFadden’s words, ends up feeling even more packaged than a late-night infomercial.

If, as some pundits suggest, Current TV is the future of television, maybe I should just get rid of my cable now and spend that money on books instead. Maybe it’s just me.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “august 2005: milestone in demise of journalism, rise of personal narrative?

  1. Interesting perspective, Tim: I guess this is Hunter Thompson 2.0. Though in the specific case, 1.0 was a lot more interesting.

  2. Tim Nekritz

    Well, it’s not quite the level of gonzo journalism. What we read was more like blogging without necessarily having the blog format.

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