Meeting The Enemy: What’s Behind the Tabloidization of Television News?

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BRIAN EDWARDS AND PHIL WALLINGTON are a pair of living fossils. Professional broadcasters from the golden age of producer-driven television, they stumble through the toxic media environment of the early twenty-first century like a couple of old Tuataras – flesh-and-blood remnants of a long-dead epoch.

But they can still bite.

Acting quite independently of one another, both men have launched stinging attacks on TV3’s political editor, Patrick Gower. Edwards using his well-read blog, Wallington his TV review slot on Radio New Zealand – National’s Afternoons programme, hosted by Jim Mora.

Edwards’ posting began with a challenge:

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“The following report by TV3 political editor Paddy Gower appeared on the channel’s 6pm bulletin last night. Setting aside as best you can your political prejudices, please answer the following question: Is this journalism or a party political broadcast on behalf of the National Party?”

Wallington, in similar vein, told Jim Mora: “We’ve got this incredible situation on TV3 where Patrick Gower and Brook Sabin, as a tag-team, seem to be working themselves up into some sort of weird frenzy. Last week I was absolutely appalled and gobsmacked to see a piece that they led the news with – it was a big secret revelation about Kim Dotcom ….. Here we have a piece of tosh, and that’s what it is, something straight out of the sewer. It came from the Whaleoil blog, and it appears to me that there is a very nasty collusion between TV3 News management and the political reporters and Whaleoil. And it goes back into Key’s office, because Key says that he often talks to Whaleoil, they exchange confidences, and they get stories going either way.”

Edward’s and Wallington’s outrage reflects their journalistic coming-of-age in the late-1960s and early-70s. As noted above, in New Zealand and Australia (Wallington’s homeland) the USA, Canada and the UK, these were the years of producer-driven television, during which the news and current affairs divisions of both the public and private networks achieved their maximum levels of editorial independence and democratic efficacy. Television journalists brought the world into people’s living-rooms with an emotional force that print journalists could not match and which was capable of inflicting enormous damage on the political and cultural myths to which the vast majority of the population were strongly attached. The Viewers were not always appreciative.

It was the American essayist and poet, T.S. Eliot, who said that “humankind cannot bear very much reality” and certainly as the great post-war boom faltered and people began to worry about their children’s future, television producers’ determination to rub their noses in the blood, sweat and tears of reality became increasingly wearisome. As the audience for Things As They Are dwindled, the ratings for Things As We Would Like Them To Be grew by leaps and bounds.

Intellectuals all over the English-speaking world take huge delight in deconstructing contemporary television news and current affairs. They decry the “dumbing down” of public discourse and the introduction of “tabloid” news values into what should be serious and rigorous journalism. That people find politics “boring” troubles them deeply and they lament the loss of the sort of programmes that broadcasters like Brian Edwards and Phil Wallington used to make. More than a few of them would have shed a quiet tear this week as “the rock” of Radio New Zealand – National’s Morning Report, Geoff Robinson, gave them his last “goodbye”. Over the dulcet notes of Robinson’s favourite bird, the Kokako, many of them would have heard the sound of barbarians pounding upon the public broadcaster’s gates.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the things that Edwards and Wallington deplore: tabloidism; stories “straight out of the sewer”; the gross dumbing-down of political reporting; and the unholy alliances forged between senior politicians, editors and press gallery journalists; all have been a constant feature of the New Zealand news media for pretty much as long as there’s been such a thing.

Those who decry the influence of the Whaleoil blog and its scandal-mongering editor are exactly the same sort of people who once decried the influence of the weekly tabloid newspaper, Truth. (Fittingly, Cameron Slater was that venerable tabloid’s last editor.)

It is a sad but indisputable fact there has never been a strong tradition of media independence in New Zealand. In 1951, when the first National Party prime minister, Sid Holland, brought in the infamous “Emergency Regulations” to crush the Waterside Workers Union, not a single editor employed by the more than 150 daily and weekly newspapers then published in New Zealand was willing to risk dismissal and/or arrest in the name of defending the freedom of the press. Every one of them meekly acquiesced to having a burly Police sergeant looking over their shoulders to make sure that nothing remotely sympathetic to the locked-out watersiders was published.

Nor is Paddy Gower the only Press Gallery journalist to be on the receiving-end of “useful” information emanating from offices in close proximity to the Prime Minister’s own. (Or, for that matter, from offices close to the Leader of the Opposition’s!) With television supplying the lion’s share of what scant political news the electorate still has stomach for, it is hardly surprising that its political editors are courted and feted by the Powers That Be.

Edwards and Wallington are right to be appalled and gobsmacked at the state of political journalism in this country, but they are wrong to blame the politicians, TV news and current affairs chiefs, and their reporting staff for its declining quality. If New Zealanders wanted more and better political reporting – they would have it. No other medium on earth is as sensitive to the tastes of its audiences than television. The truth is that we have grown as addicted to fast and spiced-up information as we have to fast and spiced-up food. Sound-bites and chicken-nibbles are products of the same cultural kitchen.

In the immortal words of Walt Kelly’s comic-strip hero, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

36 COMMENTS

  1. NZ political and economic journalism is absolute crap, I doubt whether any of these people have even done Economics 101 at University.

    It is all emotional, irrational BS.

    • JACK – you are completely right!!! The “news” on politics and economics here is shallow and emotive nonsense, little else.

      Having had the privilege of having traveled a bit over my lifetime, I have also had the chance of seeing media in different countries.

      Chris is right though when he writes:
      “Edward’s and Wallington’s outrage reflects their journalistic coming-of-age in the late-1960s and early-70s. As noted above, in New Zealand and Australia (Wallington’s homeland) the USA, Canada and the UK, these were the years of producer-driven television, during which the news and current affairs divisions of both the public and private networks achieved their maximum levels of editorial independence and democratic efficacy.”

      The late 1960s and early 1970s, yes to some degree going into the early 1980s, saw the breaking of traditional boundaries in many areas, and that did also happen in the media and in reporting and debates of issues. Then we also had the dominance of public broadcasting, and that alone forced journalists to be reasonably balanced and offer differing perspectives of what happened.

      Before then there was much conformism, also abuse of media, and since then that has increased again, now to levels that are probably worse than for decades, or even for ever. The privatisation and corporatisation of mainstream and mass media have a lot do do with it. And the internet has forced the traditional types of media to compete at levels not seen before, so that it is now all about survival of the fittest, which means getting ratings and advertising revenue. Contents and quality of it suffers, and can only suffer.

      The ones like Gower, Garner and many others, following the rant, rave, sloganise, scream, yell and ridicule approach, they are the product of a ruthless competition also between individual contract employees, and those that call themselves “media personalities” or “commentators”.

      It seems necessary to boost the ego and profile, and that works when you cause ripples, waves and even outrage, as long as it is not over the top of the extreme that is now norm.

      So gutter news get accommodated and used, and presented as “news”, simply to steal attention from competitors. And all these players know also who puts the butter on their bread, so they do all to please the bread giver, and avoid biting the hand that feeds them. That serves the haves and the powerful, and does do nothing to the rest.

      I saw John Key on the Paul Henry Show now for the second time in perhaps only 6 to 8 weeks, and it was all smiles, jokes and casual chattering, and nothing of substance. Free election campaign airtime, it seems, nothing else.

      When Cunliffe is “allowed” on the screen, he must count his blessings for not being ridiculed and challenged too much.

      As for New Zealand journalism as a whole, as the above commenter writes, it is of a very low standard, and since most here do not know any better, they simply put up with the crap they get served.

      And they fall for the lie that TV and radio are for free, which they are not. They would not want to pay fees other than a subscription to Sky, so they do not complain. In reality, we all pay for the crap, through the products we buy, that get advertised.

      But thinking that far is too much asked for, that is for most.

  2. Thank you Chris – as ever, you write with the benefit of historical knowledge and insight.

    I started secondary school teaching in 1970. As an English teacher I taught 5th formers about the language of advertising, and always made clear the distinction between advertising that informs, and advertising that seeks to persuade.

    Some years ago some retiring advertising boffin made a big speech asking New Zealanders for honesty, and then said: “Advertising is only there to inform.”

    What?? Surely, I thought, this buffoon will be laughed to scorn. But no, nothing in the way of a rebuttal appeared in our market-dominated media.

    You are right – the enemy is us – because too few of those people that I and my colleagues tried to educate can either tell or care when they are being fed commercial-media manure.

    Saddest of all are the right-wingers who cannot see their own bias, consider themselves neutral, intelligent and informed, and brand any kind of dissent or questioning as ‘leftie’.

    Many of them claim to have gained their wisdom from experience in ‘the real world of business’.

    Rubbish. The world of business is a limited, blinkered, artificial and cosseted world, far away from the real world that matters.

    But these people now dominate our media. TVNZ is State-Owned, but it has been turned into an SOE, now has a CEO from the bloody marketing industry, and has been totally emasculated as an independent body that might question the policies of the commercial marketers and business moguls who manipulate the populace to further their own exploitative ends.

    I had hoped that enlightened, educated people would demand better news coverage. Very sad to find that I was wrong.

    But I don’t want to agree with you and surrender. The enemy is indeed us, but how do we beat the dumb-ass mentality?

  3. “.. we have grown as addicted to fast and spiced-up information as we have to fast and spiced-up food. Sound-bites and chicken-nibbles are products of the same cultural kitchen.”

    The sadness, the calamity, the tragedy is that the Colonel doing the finger-licking is Cameron Slater. And there’s no healthy, fat free cooking going on, it’s all being deep fried in heart and mind destroying whale oil.

  4. I agree with you Chris about the deplorable state of political reporting on TV news and current affairs programmes but I’m not sure if I agree that the current affairs chiefs and their reporting staff are not responsible. They select the items that are produced and the people whose views are to be broadcast. They may or may not be aware of the extent to which they have internalised the requirements of the corporate structure to which they belong, but they always seem to reflect a view if the world that accords with those requirements very well.
    I don’t blame the politicians – they will say and do whatever they think they can get away with – and I don’t blame the public, because most people don’t know about things that are consistently concealed from them. I do blame the individuals working within the broadcast media because they are the ones who could keep the politicians honest if only they would be honest in their reporting.

  5. George Carlin.
    ” If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you’re going to get selfish, ignorant leaders. ”
    Totally agree with him and you Chris.

  6. I don’t buy it myself.

    What did we do to ‘deserve’ Whaleoil? Not throttle him at birth? The argument is defeatist and fails in terms of falsifiability and explanatory power.

    If the enemy were us, then no better standard of journalism would be possible. But we know perfectly well we had much better before postmodern and postmarxist themes destroyed the credibility of the humanities.

    In the time of reigning teleology it may have been useful to critique the reigning social narrative, but now the vacuum has been filled by corporatism and plutocracy got up as economics the old goals of the decent society look pretty damn good.

    We need enlightenment values, and journalists with enlightenment values if we want a better society. Part of the process of securing this is to demand the removal of corrupt and incompetent journalists like Henry, Gower and the Herald cheerleaders. International embarassment is expensive for media companies, and the problem is an international disgrace.

    But no, the problem is not us – do mea culpa on your own time – there are scoundrels to hang. Scoundrels like Gower, Henry, Key, Banks, Collins and all their accomplices.

  7. I’m hoping for a Watergate moment. I’m sure it exists and there was more than a whiff of it hanging in the air over the Peter Dunne email saga. Question is, who will play the parts of Woodward and Bernstein and, most importantly, Deep Throat?

  8. Not sure I agree because there has been considerable efforts by the elites to dumb people down since the 60s and even the likes of Edwards still produced journalism that presented the journalist as the ineffable judge of what people needed to know. Once that happens it’s inevitable that you’ll lose contact with the people you’re supposed to be serving

    This has happened along with the increasing intellectualisation of the left where the Labour party is full of very smart people with impressive degrees and we here at this website, sit around debating the issues of the day while mostly having no connection with the people the left are supposed to serve.

    I’m as guilty of this as anyone else but unlike most of my fellow travellers I’m not so sure we’re the solution to all of humanity’s problems

    Which is not to say I’m defending Paddy Gower in the slightest –
    a curse upon his house etc etc – and as for Slater, words fail me.

  9. I don’t know a single person that doesn’t think that the way the political news being presented in this country is anything short of scandalous and corrupt.This is no doubt a directive from the top with willing, high paid, immoral egos queuing up to deliver.
    People try complaining vociferously but the standard reply is, ”our reporters are intitled to their opinions”.Yes, they are,but keep it to yourself!tThe rest of NZ doesn’t and shouldn’t need to know!
    To proffer that,’ if it wasn’t what the people wanted, they would stop watching and the networks would then change’, is a fallacious argument.Nobody wants to watch wall to wall series of Masterchef or American Idol, but they serve that garbage up because it’s cheap and a lot of people will watch any old thing and say ”oh well,.. that’s all there is”.
    It’s the same mentality with the news.
    If your prognosis is correct,why, with a viewership of more than 250,000 did they shut down the excellent and popular, TV7?Complaining and street marches got nowhere!
    This is all about controlling the narrative and dumbing down of the masses.How many people want to watch Richie McCaw or Sonny Bill Williams stretching their hamstrings for 15minutes every 2nd night.We don’t get a choice.!
    Next stop-Zombieville!

    • Ha ha I totally agree, I am so over the sports news, and the Hollywood ads on every night on t.v 3 news are unbelievable. If national gets in again I am unplugging everything the radio, t.v as it is becoming like watching and listening to a whale hunt, I can’t stand watching animal cruelty. This country, most New Zealanders, the cows, bush, birds, seas, fish…rivers, fresh water…. Are being abused, I don’t want to know anymore if it carries on or gets worse under another term of the psychopathic Nats. We have to get them out!

  10. Getting closer, Chris.

    My own view is that NZs relatively small number of well educated social democrats need to face up to the fact that this is what democracy looks like these days. It’s just X Factor, but with uglier contestants, and the current flavour of the month is centre right authoritarian populism, with no sign of change anywhere.

    Yes, Key is not what we’d want in a politician, but for all his faults, and they are many, he and his government are nowhere near the likes of Abbott, Cameron, Harper, or Bush fils. For that at least we can be thankful.

    Unless you are willing to consider that democracy may not in the end be all its cracked up to be.

    • Its getting pretty sad when Key and his government are being seen as a positive alternative to Abbott or for that matter Mussolini or Mugabe or any other despot.

      Keys task and Nationals DNA is to hang on to power no matter what and a good example of that is the soon to be announced increase in paid parental leave policy that mimics the opposition. Oh and the lolly scramble budget that Key says wont happen.

      I heard Rachel Smalley interview David Cunliffe this morning re Pacific Island voters being told to vote National by a couple of church leaders. And in this “interview” she adlibbed the tired old chestnut, that it’s because National are better for business, (yawn) and all Polynesians vote Labour. God it was embarrassing. Cunliffe corrected her with the bleeding obvious, not all people of any given race vote for any party and business did better under Labour.

      She was awful yet typical but I suppose being part of Nationals Newstalk ZB can’t help her objectivity or research for that matter.

  11. TV 1 and TV 3 think they can win national the election, the gutter crap NZ is fed on a daily basis has nothing to do with “journalism” real journalism doesn’t exist in NZ, if it did, john key would have been history long ago. Interesting that you brushed the dirt from john key onto “the leader of the opposition” Mr Trotter, in the media beat ups, of which you have done your fair share, “the opposition leader” hasn’t been getting fair and unbiased air time at all. So who is getting “useful information emanating from offices close to the Leader of the Opposition’s” ? and where is it being presented?? as the msm seem to be oozing nothing but the likes of Gower, Garner, Whale oil, Farrar and Hooton etc …….

  12. Its is beyond any reasonable comprehension why you Mr Trotter, want to absolve “politicians, TV news and current affairs chiefs, and their reporting staff” from any kind of responsibility, as others have very aptly noted, they are the very cause for the appalling state of political “reporting” in this country. The inappropriate use of the word “journalism” doesn’t apply here. MSM operate under their own agenda, it seems that what the public want and expect ie responsible, fair and unbiased reporting, is completely beside the point as is totally irrelevant to them. And calls from the public for MSM to clean up their act, falls on deaf ears.

    • I really don’t think that is fair.

      In my town back in 1980, at news time you had about 5 media options. You could watch Television One News for half an hour. You could watch some god awful shite on TV 2, or you could listen to the National Programme or you could listen to the pop station. You could also buy an evening paper (the Rotorua Daily Post).

      (Remember back to a time when if you wanted to see a TV Clip repeated, you had to write in to the TV network and hope it got played on “I like that ONE 2”.)

      People watched the same things because they had to. It’s rather like the golden age of English football in the 1950s. There wasn’t anything else to do on a Saturday afternoon, so lots of people who wouldn’t be football fans became football fans (that’s why you can talk to lots of single elderly ladies who used to go every Saturday to the match).

      When you have a captive audience, the Reithian attitude makes sense, and people will be better informed. Now people have more or less infinite media choice at any time during the day.

      The dreck we have now is what they can get people to watch. They know this. They are professionals whose livelihood depends upon it.

      • Tom, I’m just old enough to remember the 1980s, and you are broadly correct, although you’ve left out regional news shows like the Mainland Touch, and thoughtful panel shows like Beauty and the Beast hosted by the unflappable Selwyn Toogood. But this bit is just not true:

        >> The dreck we have now is what they can get people to watch. They know this. They are professionals whose livelihood depends upon it. <<

        By this logic, what people most want to watch is hours of intelligence-insulting ads, interspersed with the odd slice of a program or movie. Honestly, free-to-air TV these days is like eating a bowl of shit with sugar sprinkled on it. No wonder people who can go to the PirateBay for their favourite shows.

        You are buying into the neo-liberal logic that everything on the market exists because a lot of people wanted it. Yes, there is a 'natural selection' among the products and services which can be bought, or the TV shows which can be watched, but the idea that demand conjures these into existence is magical thinking. Remember, as David Graeber reminds us in Debt, the men who coined the phrase "invisible hand of the market" were *literally* talking about the hand of God.

        What happens much more often in reality is that business identify a product they can make fairly cheaply, then manufacture demand for it using psychological manipulation and mass media messaging, ie marketing. There was never a "consumer demand" for sugar-saturated carbs, but call them "breakfast cereal", put them in a colourful box with a cartoon character and a toy inside, and put them at kids' eye height in the supermarket shelves, and people can be press-ganged into buying them.

        The "news" in this country is the media equivalent of breakfast cereal, and the god-awful TV shows are the cultural equivalent.

  13. I thought it was the job of journalism to give us the ugly truth and not the beautiful lie as we now get .
    The Fourth Estate has been perverted by chasing ratings.
    Jingle-ism fits the product now.

  14. I tend to think all this talk of bias or incompetent media from people on the left is a case of sour grapes. The fact that the media doesn’t always reflect the views that the left share must mean it is dumbed down and contolled by sinister right wing forces. The reality is that the media around the developed world is pretty much similar to what we have here. This even applies to places like the UK which has the state controlled non-commercial BBC as a huge prescence in mainstream broadcasting.

    • Gosman you are an idiot, who has no sense of history. Indeed, the left has called the media into question for over a hundred years. So sour grapes, what a load of propagandist ass. Indeed, Maoriland Worker was produced for a reason – the press is anti-working people and it always has been. The interests of the elites and working folk generally clash in a capitalist society. So go troll somewhere else, you feckless prig.

    • Yes my right wing friend, it is controlled by sinister right wing CORPORATE COMMERCIAL forces with special interest in growing profits and low tax rates.

      Cooking shows, ads, fat people losing weight, ads, police chasing brown fellas, ads, news headlines – Key doing great – ads, Cunliffe ‘tricky’, ads, more cooking, ads, Gower calling Dotcom Nazi, ads, John Key great in China, ads, Collins ‘oh dear’ – look over there – Norman wants to print money – how childish, ads, John Key change flag – hey innit great?, ads and so on.

      Yes Mr Gosman, the right is controlling the media. And they are doing it well, you should sit back and enjoy it (if you can).

      • And yet people like me somehow are able to manage and manipulate the entire news media. Amazing how we can do all that without thinking and you lefties can’t control even one source of news with all your “thinking” you get up to. Must rip your undies that simple fact.

        • “And yet people like me somehow are able to manage and manipulate the entire news media”

          Certainly not you. You are just what is in this kind of discussions commonly referred to as the ‘useful idiot’.

  15. The news as “party political broadcast on behalf of the National Party” has been going on since John Key got first elected. It kept National in office by creating the perception that this government can’t do wrong, asset sales and all.

    Why did it take so long to be noticed? Gower over-did it, he failed at his job.

    “If New Zealanders wanted more and better political reporting – they would have it.” I disagree, people get used to it and think it’s never been different. That’s what the whole concept of dumbing-down of public broadcasting is all about. Creating new realities.

    Have a look at Italy, they are about 25 years ahead of us (yes TV can get worse). The concept worked, Berlusconi was in office forever and a day (for Italian standards). And the public would tell you: ‘It’s always been like this’.

  16. Chris, Me like – although you should go to the next step. The MSM hates working people, and work as part of a propaganda machine to emotionally manipulate the masses.

    They don’t want a free press, then people might just realise that the life they have is shit – because a few thousand people have a sociopathic drive to consume the world.

  17. If your argument was true Chris,
    ,,,,,,,,……….that if we the people wanted better political programs the TV moguls would give us it, …………
    …………then why were Bombers great TV program(s) closed down twice (If I recall correctly) in recent years?

    • …and TVNZ7, what about that Chris. Street marches and packed public meetings, even here in Ōtepoti. We demanded better media, and were told to fuck off.

  18. There is very little alternative available to the rubbish reporting we have now.

    The fix is an ad free public broadcasting system.

    That there isn’t one is the fault of politicians.

  19. Who today seriously relies on television for news? With a wealth of information available free on the internet, those who use this medium to be informed likely watch the evening news bulletin for entertainment value. The evening news might as well be known as How Low Will It Go.

    The marked decline in the quality of programming and the speed at which it occurred since this Government has been in power; lead me to discover the blogosphere. The changes were so pronounced and the contemptuous way this Government leads were obvious reasons to be concerned.

    Ever notice on free-to-air TV no programming pre-1980’s? It’s as if the world never existed before this current economic era. To access such programming one must pay, and it seems if one can afford to pay, one is a good, compliant, consumer. Not one prone to rock the boat.

    Everyone I’m aware of expresses nothing but ridicule at the quality of television today. If there are people addicted to this force-fed trash; who are they? In which case what are we becoming? Nietzschean Last Men?

  20. Chris Trotter,

    Please answer my question.

    What are the sources of information TV channel managers base their decision about what our viewing tastes are and what is best to put on our TV channels?

    I was under the impression that some of the information is gleaned off a select group of homes who are monitored for what they watch. If this is so, then have these homes been chosen in a manner that reflects all viewing preferences in NZ? Because the decisions on what to put on air certainly do not reflect my tastes.

    The other ‘measure’ that is bandied about when it comes to what programmes are picked to air is ‘commercial viability’. What is this concept based on? The above mentioned monitoring of select viewers? Or worse: simply the programmes that advertisers are most likely to place their ads in amongst? Perhaps these advertisers favour candyfloss-style programmes for the stupor-like state it puts viewers into – therefore they are left more susceptible to their ads’ suggestions? I doubt programs that get people thinking leave viewers in such a trance-like state; quite the opposite.

    When we had decent channels – SBS One & Two, Stratos and TV7 – I spent no time on any of the other channels, surely I am not the only one in NZ to respond in this way? You can therefore imagine my surprise and shock at these channels being whipped away.

    In summary, due to the questionable choices being made over the years on what is deemed worthy for our TV channels and what is not, I question the information that TV stations base these decisions on. Chris, you appear to believe that viewers are part of this decision on what is aired, so you therefore must both trust these methods are accurate and know what these methods are, please tell.

  21. …by sheer coincidence I happened to be on the TVOne News facebook page yesterday – they have approx. 48 000 ‘likes’ -interested to see if your article would be corroborated – I went to TV3 facebook site. They have approx. 11, 000 ‘likes’.

    Out of these two News programmes – it is clear that TV One take a more balanced approach and TV3 take a more spin and sensational approach.

    What was that you were saying about NZers having “grown as addicted to fast and spiced-up information as we have to fast and spiced-up food”?

    These likes on facebook don’t back up your point Chris.

  22. Face up to the inevitability. TV and Newspapers are walking dead. Their revenue has collapsed. You’re seeing the last thrashing of a shark on a deck. Desperate acts to grab attention.

    Few under the age of 30 watch The News – they get more information by glancing at the Internet for 30 seconds than an hour of TV ‘news’ delivers.

    http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/225528/third-of-millennials-watch-no-broadcast-tv/

    We’re witnessing the end of an era. The TV and newspaper pundits of the world are becoming irrelevant. The Millennials are thinking for themselves.

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