The Media on Edge
|Brent Budowsky||January 3rd 2013|
On the matters of quality television, Al Gore and Current TV, I think of the great movie line from Marlon Brando: "I could have been a contender.” Gore could have been. In the end, he was not.
We now learn that Gore and Co. sold Current TV to Al-Jazeera. Gore with Current TV could have made landmark television, but instead Gore treated Current TV as a cross between a hobby and a stock trade (buy low, sell high). What aired on Current TV was fine, though I must confess when I tuned in early Thursday to watch how Current TV today was playing the story of Current TV tomorrow, Current TV was airing a show about the death of punk rock star Sid Vicious, not the vicious treatment of Sandy victims by House Republicans, or the demise of Current TV as we know it. The latest movement of television from Al Gore to Al-Jazeera is a fitting occasion to reconsider the state of television today. Newton Minow, whom I interviewed for this column on the 50th anniversary of his famous speech, called television "the vast wasteland.” Edward R. Murrow warned that bad television could sink the medium to a useless box of wires and lights.
I have great respect for Al-Jazeera and disclose that I did appear once as a guest to discuss politics. I watch Al-Jazeera on occasion, find it to be of exceptionally high quality, and believe Al-Jazeera will contribute to more high-quality American television. I do not agree with everything Al-Jazeera airs, but A-J has come a long way and makes a very valuable contribution. So:
My mourning of Al Gore's failed role in television should be not be interpreted as criticism of Al-Jazeera. The fact that so many American television distributors have refused to carry Al-Jazeera is the latest proof that so many executives throughout the television industry believe that we the people, their customers, are morons.
The fiscal-cliff coverage is the latest example of the horrendous state of many news ventures. The newest congressional intern knows enough about Congress to have known that for 98 percent of Americans, income taxes were not going to rise. Period. Either prospectively or retroactively their tax cuts would have been preserved. There was zero chance these taxes were going to rise.
And yet many of the big stars of the media, who apparently are less informed than those congressional interns, spent weeks frightening already-worried viewers with bogus stories about tax increases that were never going to happen.
Conversely, the payroll tax will be rising, a disastrous, aggressive attack on middle-income and poor workers, which will slow the economy at a time of disastrously high unemployment. Yet with the exception of Ali Velshi and Chris Jansing of CNN and a handful of others, this matter was virtually never discussed by bigfoot media celebrities and pundits who glided from studio to studio giving misinformation about income tax rises that were not going to happen, and little information about payroll taxes that were going to rise, and did.
What Al Gore never figured out, strangely, is that there is a vast audience of potential viewers looking for higher quality than the vast wasteland of existing television.
Here's a tip. There is today a vast body of superb television that can be found with modest search efforts on YouTube. In recent days I have watched the famous Ice Bowl between the Green Bay Packers of Vince Lombardi and the Dallas Cowboys, interviews by Howard Cosell of Muhammad Ali in his prime, the Ernest Hemingway documentary “Spanish Earth,” about the Spanish Civil War that was a prelude to his For Whom the Bell Tolls, music performances by Bruce Springsteen and Edith Piaf, and Ronald Reagan's magnificent speech at a dinner honoring then-Speaker Tip O'Neill.
Most important, I recently watched the original landmark Edward R. Murrow documentary “Harvest of Shame” about migrant workers, and this thought occurred to me:
Why can't some enterprising television exec realize that Americans are not stupid people wanting stupid television, and try something I would call “MSNBC Reports,” “CNN Reports,” “Fox News Reports” or now “Al-Jazeera Reports,” modeled after the great hit “CBS Reports,” then produce and air a Murrow-quality documentary about the challenges, traumas, opportunities and needs of American troops returning home from what is by far the longest period of service in war in American history?
Al Gore could have done this, but didn't. Sooner or later somebody will learn what Al Gore did not. An investment in highest-standard television will reap dividends from an American people who are not the vast wasteland of idiots that so many television execs think we are. Until then I recommend a visit to YouTube, and hunt down Bruce Springsteen's inspirational performance in New York after the terror attacks of September 2001, and Ed Murrow's “Harvest of Shame” broadcast that is more relevant than ever today.
For now: Good night, Current TV, and good luck.
Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Pundits Blog and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.