MARCUS: Happy news is the remedy for reality

August 24, 2009

The elderly woman sat before me nervously straightening the seams of her dark gray stockings.

“Miss Wonderley,” I said, “we’ve met before.”

“No,” she said in a voice I had to strain to hear. “I’m just out of the joint, been there more than 60 years.”

“I know you,” I said.

“No one knows me,” she responded. “After all, I’m only the alias of a fictional murderess.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I waited. Soon she said, “I need a job. Back when I went up the river, all I could do was lure susceptible men to help me find the Maltese Falcon. From reading today’s papers, that won’t cut it in the job market. Then, too, my age makes it tough to get a job. I’ve held my figure on jailhouse food, but all that bleach in the laundry doesn’t leave a girl with an Ivory-smooth complexion.”

“You’re in luck,” I said. “The Happy News Network (HNN) just called and they want a mature female anchor for their prime-time revitalization of “All Good News, All Day, Every Day.”

“An anchor?” she asked. “You think I should be a dead weight?”

“Not at all,” I said. “The TV anchor is the person on a news broadcast whose presence gives personality and continuity to the program. A pleasant smile, a willingness to laugh at anything said by a member of your team, and a lightning-fast ability to switch from tragic to trivial are the essentials for employment.”

“I could do that with a little practice,” she said brightening.

“Oh, no practice required,” I said. “The less you understand what’s going on in the world, the better you are suited to the job. Experience, legitimate knowledge and true compassion are detriments, as proven by numerous communication consultants. Why, today, no one would hire Walter Cronkite.”

“Walter who?” she asked.

“Never mind,” I said. “Let’s consider how you would deal with a widely used economic indicator. Every month, we get unemployment data for each county in the nation. How would you handle it for HNN?”

Miss Wonderley spent a long time in thought.

“I’d want to know about people who kept their jobs in the worst places,” she finally said. “I’d emphasize how many counties were experiencing little change in their unemployment rates. I’d report every local and state press release on the possibility of more jobs in the next five years.”

“Good, go on,” I said.

“I’d interview corporate and government executives,” she said. “They would describe how they save jobs and continue to provide products and services, while slashing budgets. We’d call that segment ‘Magic by Management’ and play ‘How Great Thou Art’ as musical background. It should ensure us continuing corporate support.”

“Very imaginative,” I said, “but that is already being done on public and commercial TV all across the nation. HNN would need more—more joy, more triumph, more giddiness.”

Miss Wonderley looked at her gnarled hands.

“It might be embarrassing,’ she said in her dour voice, “but we could focus on people who haven’t been hurt by the current economic trauma, people who didn’t need to pull back on spending, who don’t understand that others are in peril because of health care costs, who don’t acknowledge that pensions have been cut sharply and dreams destroyed by the irresponsible behaviors of many who should have known better.

“There are, I imagine,” she said, “many such people out there.”

“Precisely,” I said, “trash the trauma, repress the recession, hype the happy.”

“Wouldn’t that be contrary to standard journalistic sensationalism?” she asked.

“Not the concern of HNN,” I replied. “They want ratings, not analysis. I’ll call them and see if we can get you an audition.”

“Thank you,” she said. “There is redemption for repentant sinners.”•


Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.


Recent Articles by Morton Marcus

Comments powered by Disqus