TV News Gets Freaky
The voice of television news is expected to be more conversational and less formal than newspaper writing. But lately, as cable news organizations try to fix what aint broken, that voice is becoming more and more wince-inducing.
Back in October, a CNN Headline News producer sent an internal e-mail to the writing staff that read: "In an effort to be sure we are as cutting-edge as possible with our on-screen persona, please refer to this slang dictionary when looking for just the right phrase." Words such as freak (sex), fly (sexually attractive), jimmy cap (condom), and ill (to act inappropriately) followed.
The e-mail instructed the writers to use this guide to help all you homeys and honeys add a new flava to your tickers and dekos -- that is, the graphics that appear on the overcrowded, seizure-inducing Headline News screen.
The revelation of this memo gave humorists a nice little shot in the arm. James Earl Jones intoning "This is CNN, beeyotch" -- this stuff writes itself!
But by the time it had come to light, AOL-Time Warner's news war-horse was already wedging terms like "bling bling" into its crawl. This e-mail merely revealed that the man behind the curtain has a glossary.
CNN, with its average viewer age of 62, was no doubt responding to the belief floating around out there that coveted younger audiences, the 18- to 34-year-olds who command the highest ad rates, get their news from hipper television sources, including comedians like David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Tina Fey. Even if that were true, it's not like those three are peppering their jokes with hip-hop lingo; when was the last time you heard Letterman complain about Saddam being all up in our grill?
Slang is an ever-changing organism, which makes it impossible to keep a dictionary current or relevant; wouldn't squeezing obsolete slang into the "dekos" completely undermine the purpose of using it to sound hip? The claim that slang "modernizes" a newscast only makes sense if they are replacing old slang with new, but it's not like Judy Woodruff has been calling Wolf Blitzer Daddio all these years.
And it's just as cynical to believe that everyone in a certain age group, or any other group, is hip to certain (or any) slang as it is to believe that a target 20-year-old would flip by, see that "jimmy cap" has been shoehorned into CNN's crawl, not recognize that she's being pandered to or having her culture exploited, and lock in CNN with "favorite channel" status, saying to herself, "Finally, news that speaks to me."
Or maybe that should be "Finally, news, speaking to me," because CNN fronting with the slang is just one change in the language of TV news. Tune in to CNN, Fox News and occasionally even the broadcast networks, and you'll hear elliptical, participle-filled sentence fragments like these, recently uttered by Fox News Channel's Shepard Smith: "Meantime, the Navy, looking for another suitable training location, the Navy secretary saying it will be tough but not impossible. The Navy using Vieques for the past 60 years."
Or this bit of verblessness, from NBC's Andrea Mitchell: "Gary Condit today, the first sighting in weeks."
Or these shards, from CNN's John King: "Those negotiations continuing. Mr. Bush speaking to reporters earlier today. Suddenly optimistic."
This phenomenon was explored by the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, where it was somewhat mistakenly called "The Vanishing Verb" (the verbs are usually there, they're just tense-less), and, more recently, in The New York Times. Smith of Fox News calls it "people-speak." He told the NewsHour's Terence Smith, "I try to talk like I speak when I'm yakking with my buddies."
But this really isn't the way people talk in conversation, casual or otherwise, unless you go around saying things like "Me, suddenly stuffy. A cold today. Buying cough drops."
This flashy, spliced speech has also been implemented to save valuable time (of course, "Those negotiations continue" is actually shorter than "Those negotiations continuing"). Even if it does occasionally shave a couple of syllables off a sentence, is that really necessary? Is there really so much more to cram into a newscast than there used to be (when 24-hour news channels didn't exist) that words need to be squeezed out of sentences?
Judging from the numbing repetition, examination of minutiae, and parade of "usual suspect" pundits, the biggest problem the 24-hour cable news channels seem to have isn't making time, but filling up the time.
The addition of hip-hop slang and "people-speak" are two misguided "solutions" to the same imagined "problem": that the on-screen persona of TV news has to be changed to accommodate the supposed throngs of young people who aren't interested in, or can't focus on, straightforward information, and who need to be lured in by choppy, faux-chummy incomplete sentences and forced, contrived lingo -- like trying to focus and entertain an infant by shaking a shiny, jangly set of keys in its face. But if the result is the loss of credibility with younger viewers and the repulsion of older viewers, who is left to tune in?
"It's definitely not your mom's Headline News anymore," Headline News chief Rolando Santos told the San Francisco Chronicle about his revamped product (ironically using a stale cliché in the process). But has anyone in this focus group-crazy business even asked if people thought the news sounded too "old-fashioned" before? What makes the ratings go up on cable news channels is a big juicy story, not how chatty or down the middle-aged, overly-coiffed anchors sound. When the story goes away, so do the ratings. That proves that people tune in to 24-hour news channels when they are looking for information.
It seems odd, then, that news, just news, is becoming harder to find on cable. Cable channels, underestimating the very viewers theyre trying to attract, are coming off like that desperate high school teacher who tried in vain to be "cool."
Karen Lurie is a writer living in New York City.