THE coast of Mazatlan was beautiful. The jagged rock formations were impressive. But after 90 minutes of bobbing on the Pacific Ocean in a small skiff, listening to the Mexican tour guide’s corny jokes (“Doesn’t that rock look like Scooby-Doo?”), I turned to him and asked: “When do we get to the beach?”
He was flummoxed. “I try my best,” he murmured under his breath.
Later, as the morning approached afternoon, we reached shore, which turned out to be a stone’s throw from the dock. I huddled with some fellow tourists who also wondered why we didn’t just go from Point A to Point B. Why the Disneyland Jungle Cruise ride? “Does everyone think Americans need to be entertained?” I asked no one in particular.
Oh my God. The answer is “yes.” Americans are seen as dumbed down.
It starts with our news. Especially broadcast news, which is a bubbly concoction of car chases, celebrity whereabouts and crime – infotainment. “Did you hear the news? Paris Hilton was arrested at the World Cup,” said my brother on the way home from the port. On Tuesday, I couldn’t escape the nonsense about Hollywood party girl Lindsay Lohan being jailed for (theoretically) 90 days. We are like spoiled children in need of a permanent distraction. At least, that’s how we’re perceived.
On board the cruise ship, the Disneyfication continued with parades of costumed pirates and jousting knights in green and red felt jumpsuits. And this was an international cruise
line and not one of those party ships.
I felt embarrassed to think I’m seen as less than serious.
When I got back from vacation, I called Jim Willis, the now departing chairman of Communication Studies at Azusa Pacific University, where I’ve taught some media classes, for his thoughts.
He had the same experience when he was chair of the journalism department at the University of Memphis and was hosting German TV journalists. They told him most of what passed as “news” in our country would not fly in theirs. They took their news straight, without tongues in cheek.
I’ve heard the stereotypes of Americans overseas as pigs – demanding, insolent, pampered. But dumb? Too dumb to hear about nature without comparing each rock to the cast of Cartoon Network?
American media is a mix of news and entertainment – Hollywood meets Eyewitless News – and its all the same to the average foreigner. In Southern California, the emphasis on infotainment is heavier than elsewhere in the U.S.
“This idea we have as news as entertainment is not universal around the world,” said Willis.
Willis is leaving to head up the journalism department at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. He’s worked in Oklahoma and Ohio as a print journalist. Recently, he took to blogging and his first assignment was the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Will the Internet save journalism?.
Willis says blogging is more of a sideline to news reporting and leans toward commentary and opinion. We have some dedicated bloggers in Pasadena and Altadena who are producing more serious stuff than TV news, so perhaps there’s hope.
He says the cable networks are moving toward advocacy journalism. This kind of emotional “yelling” as opposed to reporting is crowding out hard news and investigative journalism just as entertainment news did in the `80s and `90s.
“We (as American consumers of news) are interested in what people think about what is going on as much as what is going on,” Willis said.
Advocacy journalism and infotainment tell us what to think. That picture of Americans needing a crutch has permeated across the globe.
In Mexico, I enjoyed the sight of a pod of dolphins. I watched the pelicans rule the rocks and the sea lions dive beneath our glass-bottom boat. Those sights came without a laugh track. And they left the biggest impression.