Msnowe's Blog

why to hate morning television (in case you’ve forgotten)

Posted in Clinton, gender, laura bush, morning television, no child left behind, Today Show by m.snowe on April 24, 2008

Morning news television (produced by the major broadcasters, such as ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox) is in the rather unenviable position of straddling the line between daytime television and regular newscasting. Perhaps a better title would be “daytime lite.” The time of airing is what does this format in–or at least makes it particularly unique. Because these programs usually start at 7am, it services a large crowd early. People have yet to go to work, so network morning new programs catch all groups–workers and stay-at-home people alike. They get people watching at the gym, or those waiting for the traffic report during those ever-important 25-minute-intervaled local news breaks. They get stay-at-home parents and caretakers, and work-from-home professionals. It’s an eclectic mix, and because of that, the shows provide a little bit of everything.

But, in watching an entire show, front to back, you get a much better sense of the structure. Often, people catch five minutes here or there. But if you really pay attention, there are patented social cues inserted into the ebb and flow, including atmospheric shifts and tempered segments. It’s all so that the supposed demographics are fitted, or so those who the execs think are watching, are induced to continue watching. It’s no surprise that in the earliest, 7AM hour, the “hard news” dominates the segments, whereas during the last hour, fashion, entertainment, and cooking make up the majority of the program. But this makes the assumption that these divergent audiences, watching the same three hour show at different times, are only looking for certain things. What this suggests is that the show is purely consumer driven (like most other shows), based on people’s wants. It’s so obvious that stay at home mums want to know how to dress nicely, and that career-types will want the results of yesterday’s financial market projections. But this assumes too much–it isn’t informed by culture, it in fact informs cultural cues, including stereotypes about gender, race, and especially class. It over-compensates, making the facile assumptions that those who stay at home are less concerned with politics, and more concerned about how to bake the perfect muffin. It implies that the legal aid rushing out the door around 8AM doesn’t want to know about which celebrity is in rehab, although they will be glued to their US magazine on the train into work. These kind of cultural assumptions benefit no one.

And the gender implications are omnipresent. First off, the increase in “feminine products” commercials is inversely proportional to the amount of news coverage, as if women, not enticed by ads for vagacil or o.b., are devoid of any use for what’s happening in China (Free Monistat Three Day!…I mean Free Tibet!). And if it wasn’t Black & White enough how sexually-stereotyped the Today show is, they give it to you in Blue & Pink: observe, if you will, next time–that all Matt Lauer’s cheat sheets are a pale blue, whereas Meredith Viera’s are a baby pink. And that’s not the half of it. Gadgets, gizmos, legal battles, medical stories, politics & sports are all covered by the men; whereas cooking, fashion, relationships, and the odd political story about Hillary Clinton is thrown to the women, along with the throw-away mothering stories and pet tragedies. Yes, you might argue that there are exceptions–but they are just that, the exceptions, not the rules. And this isn’t just gender bias here, the show is fraught with racial & sexual bias and ageism. Look at the different segments, and tell which go where. The “anchors” are predominantly white and upper middle class, middle aged, definitely heterosexual(we are meant to think). These are the people that are metaphorically and literally anchoring us — they’re who and what we’re supposed to be. The jolly weatherman, the extra-bubbly semi-hosts, etc.: all superfluous, and therefore all apt job openings for affirmative action initiatives, sadly. The only gay correspondents allowed are those that flamboyantly embrace the most stereotypical roles, and are relegated to, you guessed it: fashion and pop culture (and that’s only for gay men, who never are allowed to really talk about their orientation on air, but it’s implied. Openly out lesbians, well, they don’t get any segments). Young women co-hosts, or fills-ins on the show must be: perfectly trim, stylish, and married, also, the possibility of pregnancy is seen as a way to introduce lovely segments on what to expect while expecting. They will never get a hard-edged story to cover, ever. Where the weatherman or the male anchor can be happily rotund, the younger female hosts must adhere to the strict rules that apply to movie stars (except when pregnant). Another double standard. Like in politics (or almost any other professional arena) women will be judged by what they wear, while the male anchors throw on a suit and they’re done (the only controversy lately about a man’s attire has seemed to center on jewelry, namely a little “flag pin” …but them again, that was about ideology ultimately, not fashion sense. Women have to deal with cleavage counters).

Then there was Tuesday’s Today show, and please note that this is the day of the much anticipated Pennsylvania primary. What heightened the excitement on Tuesday’s show was that the First Lady and one of her (currently sober) daughters guest-hosted, and were interviewed on the show. Now, Laura Bush is no garish bulldog–she’s what every 1950’s woman would have hoped from her First Lady . She’s got stereotypical gender roles coming out her perfectly make-uped pores. Talk of her husband’s politics was verboden, and she focused mostly on literacy (primarily childhood literacy). Though she might get a pass because of her old job as a librarian, literacy is the common cause trumpeted by first ladies ever since Martha Washington supported the post-colonial version of No Child Left Behind. (Yuck…people realize that common grammar rules state sentences shouldn’t end on a preposition, right?)

Okay, so the visit seems innocuous enough, but it’s not. Why would Mrs. Bush pick Tuesday? Could it possibly be an attempt to throw a huge contrast out against Hillary Clinton, the rather “Un-FirstLadylike” Senator hoping to win voted in PA? Laura Bush’s stint on Today reinforced the “important issues” women should focus on: reading to their children, dressing snappily, and helping to plan your kid’s weddings (apparently, a Bush daughter is gettin’ hitched).

At one point, the presidential spawn remarked how its hard to teach children to appreciate reading, “especially getting boys to read.” First, it should be noted that the statement is grossly inaccurate–many little boys love to read. It also reinforces the stereotype that rough and tumble boys are incapable of sitting still and reading a book, cover to cover. Second, it suggests that the state of education should be more concerned with getting boys to excel, when in fact copious studies have shown that our educational methods were primarily crafted by males, for males, and put women and girls in the classroom at a strict disadvantage. The angry objections to Today, and complaints about the first lady’s strategic visit to the set of studio one A could go on forever. Basically, the main thrust of this argument is that morning television is a hazy-eye-crusted version of everything that is wrong in the world, served to us before coffee, so we don’t necessarily process all it’s evils. But let’s not dwell–we’ve all got more important things to be getting on with. (Note that preposition!).