When I went to see “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” I expected to be quoting Ron Burgundy and his motley news crew for the next five to 10 years (give or take).
Instead, when I left, the words on my mind were those of T.S. Eliot, who wrote: “Humor is also a way of saying something serious.”
Don’t get me wrong. Will Ferrell’s much-anticipated sequel packed some punches and zingy one-liners. But the point it hit hardest (other than the salon quality of Ron’s hair) was that our 24-hour news cycle and the industry’s demand for ratings are killing real journalism.
Without giving too much away, we join the ever good-looking Burgundy and his news team as they try their hand manning the nation’s first 24-hour news desk for a station called GNN in New York City. Burgundy’s big mouth and bigger ego land them the terrifying task of boosting ratings from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. lest they be booted from the Big Apple.
Instead of reading the actual news, he and his team decide to spruce things up a bit and change the news forever.
“Why do we need to tell people what they need to hear?” Burgundy asks. “Why can’t we tell them what they want to hear?”
Ratings go through the roof and Ron is again the most popular man on TV. Eventually, he and his team’s desire to “give the people what they want” reduces news stations to little more than hype and superficial stories on celebrities and petty crime (sound familiar?). Eventually, Ron must fight the monster of his own creation and report the real news or get out of the game altogether.
The point he makes has me wondering about the serious message behind his humor.
In an era of websites and social media, we expect all of our news sources to do the work of 24-hour news stations like GNN. We want news around the clock, and not only the news we need to know, but also the news we want to hear.
It’s a dilemma that, as Burgundy showed, can ruin real journalism by pandering to ratings and replacing news with something more “interesting.” But the recipe for sharing important news is more complicated than you might think, and sometimes it calls for a few nuts.
Take the Miley Cyrus twerking performance of 2013, for instance. Soon after it happened, CNN.com posted a story about the singer’s scandalous dance moves alongside stories about more serious news topics such as Syria.
The news website got flak from satirical online news source The Onion for being a “disservice” to the public and making a cheap grab for page views.
As someone who manages Web content and social media for The Journal Gazette, I, too, was frustrated with the attention that major news stations gave Cyrus. Here, we try to balance our Web content’s quality with its likelihood to garner clicks and shares online, erring on the side of more Syria, less Cyrus.
But as Andrew Wallenstein, editor-in-chief digital of Variety Magazine, explained after the Cyrus-CNN.com fiasco, sometimes even serious news sources use Cyrus stories to drive traffic to Syria stories.
“Come for Cyrus, stay for Syria,” is how he puts it, and as much as we would like to say enough people would come for Syria in the first place, the numbers just don’t add up. After all, Google’s most-searched person of the year was (guess who?) Miley Cyrus.
The beautiful and terrifying thing about our Internet age is that the public can help determine what news matters more with every click, like and share. Like Burgundy, the Internet is our polyester-clad-and-permed (yet strangely attractive) god that gives us what we want. But as the old adage goes, sometimes what we want isn’t what we need.
We may toss you a Cyrus in the form of a cookie recipe or a cute puppy picture every now and then, but we hope it gets you to stick around for the serious stuff.
After all, sometimes it takes the silly to show us the serious.
If we end up quoting Burgundy for the next 10 years or so, let it be something along the lines of, “You deserve the real news, America.”