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Jim Hume: Media are deceptive in coverage of the real-life reality show

Watched a TV documentary a short time back called The Last Day of World War One.
Jim Hume mugshot generic
Columnist Jim Hume

Watched a TV documentary a short time back called The Last Day of World War One. Can’t remember the day or the channel I stumbled across while searching for something worthwhile in what Newton Minow once described as “the vast wasteland” of television.

For any younger readers venturing into this corner of Sunday’s Times Colonist, Minow was a newly appointed chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission when he bravely coined the phrase in 1961. Bravely? Well, he was still a rookie on the job when he delivered his first major speech to the annual convention of the U.S. National Association of Broadcasters and told delegates that he recognized they were in a tough, competitive business, but had no plans “to make life any easier for you.”

He reminded the television power brokers of the words of their own president, Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins, who in an earlier speech had reminded NAB members: “Broadcasting, to serve the public interest, must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel as well as to sell; the urge to build the character, citizenship, and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product … a much better job can be done and should be done.”

I am sure the same criticism and message could be delivered to newspaper publishers, editors (and columnists) who seem more and more to strive to entertain rather than inform.

All of which brings me back to my opening note on The Last Day of World War One — and the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. There are several versions of similar documentary theme clips on YouTube (not to be confused with “acted” film versions). The one I stumbled across on TV ended with a surgeon who had replaced half the face of a soldier who had survived a last day artillery barrage. In grim, grainy black and white, the surgeon described what had been required to rebuild the smashed face.

The video was not pleasant to watch; the end result was scarcely human. The surgeon ended his brief piece regretting that such horrors were never shown to the public In 1918 because reaction would have demanded an end to such brutality.

It got me thinking how media — radio, print and television — still deceive us when it comes to violent death on the battlefield, or on the highway. The broadcasters and publishers deceive us because they know we want to be deceived. We don’t really want to know the true cost of battle; we don’t really want to be forced to look at the horrible consequences of an automobile crash whether caused by alcohol, carelessness or mechanical fault.

We are content to be warned that “following scenes may be disturbing … viewer discretion is advised” with shots of wreckage strewn across a highway, of automobiles crushed in deadly embrace. Or wrapped around a power pole. But no torn or smashed bodies, please. We leave those to firefighters, police and paramedics. Many of us seem to enjoy reality shows, but not on a nearby highway and only as long as in the end everybody, even the losers, survives.

When genuine reality intrudes on our highways or other public places, many respond generously and lovingly with bouquets of flowers and messages of condolence. It is their hope that victims will be remembered; that the mini-shrines will serve as a warning to others for as long as the flowers last. But no reality images, please, even if the savageness of reality might shock and save future lives.

Nothing much has changed in the 60-years since Minow deplored the wasted power of television and advised its owners and operators to spend an entire day keeping their eyes glued to a TV set: “I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom.”

Little has changed in more than half a century. I suspect little will change in the next. Broadcasters — and publishers — will still be feeding us a twittering, wasteland diet but, all too rarely, the genuine reality nourishment we need.

(To read Minow’s full text, Google “vast wasteland.”)