Focus on the network evening news. This is where the staging is done well.
First, we have the image itself, the colors in foreground and background, the blend of restful and charged hues. The anchor and his/her smooth style.
Then we have the shifting of venue from the studio to reporters in the field, demonstrating the reach of coverage: the planet. As if this equals authenticity.
The managing editor, usually the elite anchor, chooses the stories to cover and their sequence.
The anchor goes on the air: “Our top story tonight, more signs of gridlock today on Capitol Hill, as legislators walked out of a session on federal budget negotiations…”
The viewer fills in the context for the story: “Oh yes, the government. We want the government to get something done, but they’re not. We want to government to avoid a shutdown. These people are always arguing with each other. They don’t agree. They’re in conflict. Yes, conflict, just like on the cop shows.”
The anchor: “The Chinese government reports the new flu epidemic has spread to three provinces. Forty-two people have already died, and nearly a thousand are hospitalized…”
The viewer again supplies context, such as it is: “Flu. Dangerous. Epidemic. Could it arrive here? Get my flu shot. Do the Chinese doctors know what they’re doing? Crowded cities. Maybe more cases all of a sudden. Ten thousand, a hundred thousand.”
The anchor: “A new university study states that gun owners often stock up on weapons and ammunition, and this trend has jumped quickly since the Newtown, Connecticut, school-shooting tragedy…”
The viewer: “People with guns. Why do they need a dozen weapons? People in small towns. I don’t need a gun. The police have guns. Could I kill somebody if he broke into the house?”
The anchor: “Doctors at Yale University have made a discovery that could lead to new treatments in the battle against Autism…”
Viewer: “That would be good. More research. Laboratory. Germs. The brain.”
If, at the end of the newscast, the viewer bothered to review the stories and his own reactions to them, he would realize he’d learned almost nothing. But reflection is not the game.
In fact, the flow of the news stories has washed over him and created very little except a sense of continuity.
It would never occur to him to wonder: are the squabbling political legislators really two branches of the same Party? Does government have the Constitutional right to incur this much debt? Where is all that money coming from? Taxes? Other sources? Who invents money?
Is the flu dangerous for most people? If not, why not? Do governments overstate case numbers? How do they actually test patients for the flu? Are the tests accurate? Are they just trying to convince us to get vaccines?
What happens when the government has overwhelming force and citizens have no guns?
When the researchers keep saying “may” and “could,” does that mean they’ve actually discovered something useful about Autism, or are they just hyping their own work and trying to get funding for their next project?
These are only a few of the many questions the typical viewer never considers.
Therefore, every story on the news broadcast achieves the goal of keeping the context small and narrow—night after night, year after year. The overall effect of this, yes, staging, is small viewer, small viewer’s mind, small viewer’s understanding.
Billions of dollars are spent by the networks to build a reality the size of a room in a cheap motel.
Next we come to words over pictures. More and more, news broadcasts are using the rudimentary film technique of a voice narrating what the viewer is seeing on the screen.
People are shouting and running and falling in a street. The anchor or a field reporter says: “The country is in turmoil. Parliament has suspended sessions for the third day in a row, as the government decides what to do about uprisings aimed at forcing democratic elections…”
Well, the voice must be right, because we’re seeing the pictures. If the voice said the riots were due to garbage-pickup cancellations, the viewer would believe that, too.
How about this: two-day-old footage of runners approaching the finish line of the Boston Marathon. A puff of smoke rises at the right of the screen. A runner falls down in the street. The anchor is saying: “The FBI has announced a bomb made in a pressure cooker caused the injuries and deaths.”
Must be so. We saw the pictures and heard the voice explain.
We see Building #7 of the WTC collapse. Must have been the result of a fire. The anchor tells us so. Words over pictures.
We see footage of Lee Harvey Oswald inside the Dallas police station. The anchor tells he’s about to be transferred, under heavy guard, to another location. Oswald must be guilty, because we’re seeing him in a police station, and the anchor just said “under heavy guard.”
Because it mirrors what the human mind, in an infantile state, is always doing: looking at the world and seeking a brief summary to explain what the world is, at any given moment.
Since the dawn of time, untold billions of people have been urging a “television anchor” to “explain the pictures.”
The news gives them that precise thing, that precise solution, every night.
“Well, Mr. Jones,” the doctor says, as he pins X-rays to a screen in his office. “See this? Right here? We’ll need to start chemo immediately, and then we may have to remove most of your brain, and as a followup, take out one eye.”
Sure, why not? The patient saw the pictures and the anchor explained them.
After watching and listening to the last year of news, the population is ready to see the president or one of his minions step up to a microphone and say, “Quantitative easing…sequester…”
Reaction? “Don’t know what it is, but it must be okay.”
Eventually, people get the idea and do it for themselves. They see things, they invent one-liners to explain them. They’re their own anchors. They short-cut and undermine their own experience with vapid summaries of what it all means.
“Here are the photos. Just look at these photos. Don’t look at any other photos. These are the killers. Here’s what it means: we’re going to send in SWAT teams and rout you out of your homes at gunpoint, we’ll search your homes, no warrants, and you’re going to comply, and when it’s over and we’ve caught them, you’ll cheer.”
“Sure. Okay. We will.”
Pictures, explanation, obedience.
The staging of reality, the staging of news; they’re the same thing.
montage: Claire Palmer
The author of two explosive collections, THE MATRIX REVEALED and EXIT FROM THE MATRIX, Jon was a candidate for a US Congressional seat in the 29th District of California. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he has worked as an investigative reporter for 30 years, writing articles on politics, medicine, and health for CBS Healthwatch, LA Weekly, Spin Magazine, Stern, and other newspapers and magazines in the US and Europe. Jon has delivered lectures and seminars on global politics, health, logic, and creative power to audiences around the world.