Sunday, March 22, 2009

Optimism in the American News.

It is often assumed that one of the major differences between France and the United-States is that whereas the French are a pessimistic or even cynical people, the Americans are always more upbeat and optimistic - and in many respect it is true.

Of course, the current economic crisis offers a very serious challenge to that old time American optimism......Or does it? You wouldn't believe it anyway if you've been following NBC news this month.

Only in America do people write their news anchor to complain that the news is too depressing and the anchor (Brian Williams on NC) actually responds by giving people what they want : more positive news!
Even he [Brian Williams] was shocked at the thousands of responses he has received in less than two days after asking viewers to suggest some good news to report.

"I'm looking at a stack of printed e-mails," Williams said Friday. "We have more stories than we could humanly cover if we combined all three network newscasts. It's hit an unbelievable nerve."
Williams said he's been hearing it repeatedly from people he meets on the street or viewers who send e-mails: The news is so bad every night that it's a burden to watch. Wrote one viewer: "We all know it's bad, but the news makes us feel like crawling under a rock." (
I have often been very impressed with American optimism. A lot of French people may see it as naive, but I find it more helpful than cynicism which is so pointless and makes things just a little bit tougher to go through.

Of course, the French have many perfectly valid reasons to feel a bit cynical and our different histories have shaped how we see the world - the French have had revolutions, the Enlightenment, world wars and have somehow managed to make sense of it all and find comfort in their reverence for those intellectuals and philosophers who have helped them to put it all into perspective. Hence the high suspicion of the French towards idealism. (of course, this is all gross generalisation)

The Americans, on the other hand, have been busy settling the land, fighting indians and building a new country isolated from any threat with great military superiority. In a nutshell, it has escaped some of the worst disasters of Europe and its success has given its people many reasons to be optimistic. (and this is also gross generalisation as things are necessarly more complicated about it, but let's not be too French here).

But as much as I can appreciate optimism, it can also sometimes amount to denial, and I think that's exactly what Brian Williams has been condoning here. The news should not be feel-goodism. It is just the news - period. If you don't like it, or think it's too depressive, find something else to do. God knows there are plenty of ways of being entertained these days - go watch Foxnews for instance!
The stories Williams has run like "nominating people doing good work, perhaps a random or regular act of kindness in a cruel economy" may "FEEL GOOD" but those are just cheap anecdotes, NOT NEWS.

The problem is precisely that people see the news as a form of entertainment and they judge its value by how they feel about it. That's why (some) conservatives watch Foxnews. - not because it is "fair and balance", but because it re-enforces their political bias and makes them "feel good" about it (even by making them feel angry at times which feels good at times).

So I am disappointed that a great journalist like Brian Williams should into into such a cheap trap.


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