TV News in a Postmodern World

February 2003

by Terry L. Heaton

I heard a report the other day about math and science scores in American public schools as compared to the rest of the world. We don’t do very well, folks, and that has all the usual suspects pointing fingers of blame. Politicians on both sides of the aisle use statistical stories such as these to argue their own agendas, but everybody seems to miss the reality that we, as Americans, live in a culture that views such teaching as increasingly irrelevant. Whether that’s good or bad is not the point of this essay. I merely wish to point out that my daughter’s calculator makes her legitimately ask why she needs to memorize math tables.

Math and science themselves have created the tools that allow the users to move past learning fundamentals and into application, the experiencing of the knowledge as opposed to the learning thereof. This is basic postmodernism, a fun little cultural change that has happened in my lifetime, and one to which few TV journalists have paid much attention. Too bad, for without this understanding, none of what’s happening in the business of TV news makes much sense, nor does there seem to be any way to plug the holes of this sinking ship. The truth is that a sinking ship eventually sinks! I say, "Let it go and build one that can stay afloat in the 21st Century." But that requires a fresh perspective on life in these United States.

What is postmodernism?
I don’t believe there is a single, universally accepted definition of this term. As a movement, it essentially points to the end of modernism, a cultural era that touted science, logic, and the mind of man over traditions, especially religious ones. I also doubt that there is such a thing as a pure postmodernist, for that would mean somebody completely anti-intellectual and entirely relativistic. In fact, it’s very difficult for a logical modernist to accept or even understand concepts so contrary to his or her own core perspective. Therefore, rather than taking a standard definition from a philosophy text, it will be more useful for this discussion to compare postmodernism with modernism on a few important levels:

Modernists share a universal faith in logic and science. Postmodernists (Pomos) see the realism of limitations.

Words like purpose, design and hierarchy are modernist, while postmodernists would rather use play, chance and anarchy. Pomos don’t completely reject logic, but their own experiences tell them that order isn’t over all, and they passionately despise what they see as the inherent elitism of hierarchy.

Modernists view much of life of life at arm’s length. Postmodernists experience it as participatory. Life is not "out there" to Pomos; rather, it is all around us — something that we can have as little or as much of as we choose.

One of the most defining differences is with God, where the modernist would first see God, the Father. The postmodernist would see God, the Holy Spirit. God, the Father, represents distant authority, which Pomos reject, while God, the Holy Spirit, is among us, something we can experience for ourselves.

For the modernist, the parts logically make up the whole, but the Pomo views the whole as greater than the parts.

Most people I know today are a combination of modern and postmodern thinkers, but the shift from one to the other is unmistakable, if you allow yourself to see it. What’s interesting is exploring the various writings about postmodernism, because everyday events begin to make sense. My generation has helped create a world wherein this postmodern thinking can flourish. My daughter’s calculator, for example, permits her to use math, something that I couldn’t do without memorization and discipline. Likewise, the Internet enables her to use science, because knowledge is there at the click of a mouse. "Use it" is very postmodernist, while "Study it" is very modernist.

Armed with knowledge and information promised by the Internet, postmodernists are a serious threat to every institution in America whose power is derived from protected knowledge. Why do you think the American Medical Association was quick to create a lobbying arm that would keep informational medical Websites under its purview? The AMA is an entity governing a modernist institution whose members are licensed based on knowledge. Pomos don’t believe anybody should have to pay for knowledge, and they reject the idea of governing bodies, because they view them as self-serving. Modernists would argue this is really about protecting consumers from the unscrupulous, but postmodernists would say it’s about the AMA protecting its own interests first.

I believe this cultural shift has significant ramifications for the news business. Postmodernism wants to play and experience, and it will not sit still for lecturing and passive participation — both of which are fundamental essentials of TV News. The anchor is a traditional authority figure. Postmodernists abhor authority, especially what they view as elitist, and the more we try to promote that, the more the postmodern world moves away. The more we try to educate, the farther away moves the audience. They don’t wish to be taught; they wish to learn by participating. Postmodernism sees through our bells and whistles, our live shots, our promotional copy, and our trickery. The more we attempt to explain what we view as out-of-control, the more we lose postmodernists, who view anarchy and chaos as acceptable realities and reject the modernist idea of a logical way things "ought to be."

The "broad" in broadcasting is gone forever. The very ideas of community and group identity have changed. "Tribes" is a word often heard in postmodernist discussion; diversity is a righteous concept among Pomos. Tribes transcend communities. A mosaic that spreads beyond anybody’s melting pot has replaced yesterday’s logical, American mindset. This also runs counter to modernist news organizations, which still operate with a logical belief that the whole (community) is the sum of its parts and that we’re all in this together.

10 ideas for consideration
So how does one "do news" for postmodernists? In my opinion, the following ideas are open for discussion:

  1. Firstly, there IS no news except television (better: "video") news. Pomos want to see and hear for themselves, not read about it from a distance.
  2. News must be available 24/7. Gone are the days when people will tune in at a specific time to be "given" the news.
  3. There’s no such thing as a newscast in a postmodernist world. Stories must be available simultaneously, with the viewer able to select at random. Pomos don’t believe they should have to wait for anything.
  4. News must not be afraid to present the absurdities and contradictions of life as parts of the reality of a multi-cultural, diverse world.
  5. News must include everybody’s perspective, identify the organization’s own perspective, or give none at all. The artificial journalistic hegemony known as objectivity is dead. It never was real and Pomos see through it.
  6. News must give up its obsession with stardom and celebrity. Postmodernists reject authority and elitism (newscasters and reporters) in favor of participation and the knowledge acquired therein.
  7. Reporters could and perhaps should represent the various tribes. This would provide sort of a global view from which viewers could pick and choose. "Now what?" is an important question for postmodernists, but only insofar as they can make up their own minds.
  8. "Live" is hypercritical, for the Pomo wants to participate more than anything else.
  9. News must be interactive, but the goal is participation, not driving viewers to goals or solutions.
  10. I believe it’s time for TV stations to spin their news departments out as wholly owned subsidiary companies and permit them to seek their own distribution outlets. Create a licensing arrangement with the parent company for broadcast rights, and let the laws of the market determine who continues and who doesn’t. Despite their similarities, broadcasters are not Web people, because their interests conflict. Consequently, TV stations only play with the Internet, and in so doing, they miss the point of the technology. They also deny and ignore the primary conduit to the whole postmodernist movement. It will stay that way unless the news becomes its own master, complete with the option to decide how best to distribute its product.
Chasing the young demos
Young people are vastly more postmodern than their parents, and the gap between generations today is far more than simply one of age. This is critical for television people to understand, for it offers an identifiable clue as to why TV News audiences are getting older and older. If you want to catch trout, you must use trout bait. The currently accepted philosophies of television news will never be attractive to postmodernist-leaning young people.

The digital era, created by the logic of a modernist world, has done far more than simply empower young people with knowledge. It is the force accelerating an enormous cultural shift and leaving broadcast news organizations in a very fragile position. Like Dorothy, Pomos have cast aside the curtain and revealed the Wizard for what he really is — a profit-motivated entity that they believe has fooled people for decades.

To paraphrase Murrow: "We can deny and ignore this shift if we choose, but we cannot escape responsibility for the consequences."

© Terry L. Heaton

Terry Heaton's career spans the broadcasting world to the web and beyond. He spent almost 30 years as a News Director and Producer at local television stations throughout the country. He left the broadcasting world to become CEO of ANSIR Communications, an Internet-based research firm. A rare bridge between the past and future, Terry has a special understanding about the evolution of digital media. He recently founded Donata Communications, a New Media consulting firm .

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