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Guest Commentary

Robin Williams, nonsensical news and supposed ‘Wake Up’ calls

8/20/2014

Much of the TV coverage of the death of Robin Williams called to mind how awful the news can be when clueless reporters babble in their efforts to sound profound or knowledgeable.

The stuff I suffered through reminded me of when the local folks mispronounce Nevada, Madrid or Louisa as they furrow their brows and tell you what’s really going on in that town or county.

Or like the time when a would-be sports reporter let you know that the I-Cubs led 3-2, “ahead by a point.”

Maybe it was the shock of the death that made the commentary seem inane or worse.

Maybe it was because the first news report I heard was from Chris Hayes on MSNBC’s “All In.” As Hayes offered his thoughts on Robin Williams and conversed with others, I found myself saying time and again, “This is really good reporting,” “Geeze, this is good.” So much so, that I emailed Hayes telling him how informative, compassionate, poignant and accurate his coverage was.

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But for much of the other stuff, you have to wonder if television with its contrived shows, giggling anchors and, well, its nature as a “vast wasteland” — the characterization by FCC Commissioner Newton Minnow 53 years ago — has forfeited the chance to be taken seriously in news coverage.

Much of current content is like a production of Shakespeare in the park, with Sylvester Pussycat as MacBeth and Tweety Bird as Lady M. It could be done, but you’d have to wonder.

It almost seemed that commentary on Williams’ death was from a riff that he himself performed at one time or another on mindless journalism.

How can you take these people seriously? Well, you can because there still is a lot of good reporting and useful information on the air and in print, if you care to find it. The audiences of the press and TV news just have to work harder and take more responsibility to find out what’s going on. Or be lucky, as I was in getting the Williams news from Chris Hayes, who nailed the both marvelous genius and painful turmoil of the man.

But then, of course, the news of Williams’ death led reporters to discover that mental illness in general and depression in particular are social issues we have to address. Predictably, one after another dramatically told us of “a wake up call.”

Good night! How many wake up calls does this nation and the watchdog press need? How on earth can you live day to day and not know that our failings to deal with mental illness are catastrophic to many families and shameful to our governing bodies? The State of Iowa, with its awful rankings in psychiatric care and facilities, can serve as a national poster child for our failure to provide adequate care for the mentally ill and their families.

But we still have the “Wake up call” du jour in the press. Last couple of months the wake up call was in care for veterans — a chronic problem in the U.S., dating back at least two centuries. We get lots of wake up calls about gun control, but legislators always respond by pushing the snooze button or making guns even more available.

And now we have the wake up call about mental illness and depression.

Want to be depressed? Try to find out how many times any candidate for public office has talked about Iowa’s woeful standing in regard to mental health care. CV

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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