I almost never watch TV news, but on the rare occasions it crosses my path, I’m left both depressed and enraged. The most recent example I came upon while researching my next video is this clip on the trillion dollar coin.
The clip isn’t special, it’s just like all the others from every news channel, but it caught me at exactly the wrong time and irritated me enough to write the nearly 2,000 words that now lay before you, dear reader.
So, if you like, go watch that clip and then come back here and let me talk about it as an example of everything that’s wrong with TV news in vastly more detail than it deserves.
Fear Leads to Hate, Hate Leads to Ratings
The segment starts by telling you that the previous news story you were supposed to fear is over, but fear not, there is more fear to fear:
“So we survived the fiscal cliff after all. The next dire circumstance you’re gunna hear us talking about around here is the debt ceiling which, make no mistake, has the capacity to crash the US economy.”
‘Wow. Sounds pretty serious,’ you might think to yourself. ‘I better watch the rest of this segment’.
“So wouldn’t it be just like the current thinking in Washington, and the cast of characters there, if they could mint a coin they could spend that could solve the problem.”
The anchorman has already conveyed, by implication:
- Washington is doing things wrong because
- The people working there are fools who
- Want a magic coin to fix all their problems
Now, I have no opinion on the trillion dollar coin – and perhaps all three points are true. But these points are not facts, they’re just assertions with nothing to back them up that color the rest of the report.
Twenty seconds in and the viewer is already primed for two emotions: fear the debt ceiling, hate the guys with a (possible) solution.
Vacuous Words in a Silly Voice
At 33 seconds in, we get the weird reporter voice. Why do TV people talk like that? If you go months without hearing a TV report, your first reaction to ‘the news voice’ is ‘what’s wrong with that guy?’
(Hypocrite deflection: this is not my normal speaking voice either but I try, perhaps unsuccessfully, to modulate my voice to add emphasis to a story.)
Now come news clips from other news shows talking about the same topic – or at least we must assume so, given their brevity and lack of context.
My favorite is this guy:
"Take all the fights we’ve had and put ’em all in one fight."
That sounds pretty serious. Perhaps if a trillion dollar coin can solve a fight that’s the size of every fight ever combined, we should look into it.
Cue the ridiculous and embarrassing revelation music and the reveal of an animated trillion dollar coin. This must be the solution to our problem! Can’t wait to learn about it.
Dear Princess Celestia, I Didn’t Learn Anything!
Now it’s time to, you know, explain something. Right?
It’s Simpsons time and Homer’s insightful remark that a trillion dollars is, quote: “a spicy meatball!”
In case you didn’t notice, that Simpsons show was about a trillion dollar bill and we are discussing a trillion dollar coin. Picky yes, but the two forms of cash have different laws regarding how they are created. Which isn’t a big deal, it’s just the whole reason the trillion dollar coin story exists in the first place.
Now, perhaps, you think I’m complaining too much. But take this into account: The Simpsons clip is exactly half way through the video, and so far you don’t know more than what the headline already told you: that a trillion dollar coin may be a thing.
Also, there is apparently a law that requires puns in all published TV news segments and at 1:17 we get it:
"...an idea getting a lot of currency online"
(Emphasis not added, the reporter really leans into that word. All that’s missing is a laugh track.)
We’re told that the trillion dollar coin is supported by a petition with over 6,000 signatures on Whitehouse.gov – which sounds impressive unless you’ve ever been to Whitehouse.gov where you’ll find 23,000 signatures for a Joe Biden reality TV show (which might not be a bad idea), 34,000 to build a Death Star as a jobs program (my personal favorite) and, of course, the 125,000 who wanted Texas to secede from The Union.
But still: 6,000 probably sounds like a lot to people who get their news from TV and have never been on the Internet.
Finally, at 1:20, just 60% of the way into the video, we get a reference to someone who might know what he’s talking about: a nobel-prize winning economist who thinks the trillion dollar coin is a good idea.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t burden us with why this economist thinks it’s a good idea. We’re just told the headline of his article: “Be ready to mint that coin” with no further comment.
At 1:28 is the closest we get to an explanation of anything:
"In theory the treasury would mint the trillion dollar coin and then walk it over to the Federal Reserve for deposit so the government can pay its bills."
That sounds like an explanation, but take a moment: close your eyes and think about that sentence.
Has it informed you about anything? Unless you’re already deeply involved in government fiscal policy – and thus would have no need to watch this video in the first place – that simple little sentence answers nothing and, on reflection, raises a ton of questions:
- Who or what is the Federal Reserve?
- Why do they get the trillion dollar coin?
- How does the government pay its bills if it just gave the coin to the Federal Reserve?
- Why doesn’t the government just use the coin to pay its bills directly?
- If the treasury can print as many coins as it wants, why do we even have a national debt?
- Wait a second, just what the heck is money anyway‽
Hopefully, all will be told in the next breath of the reporter:
I guess not: just a joke about dropping the coin into the sewer using a shot that makes me think of every dropped-lightsaber reaction in the Star Wars prequels.
Is it Secret? Is it Safe?
I don’t know about you, but the questions just raised in my mind about the existential nature of money make me want to know if the treasury can really do such a thing as print infinite cash. So here is the answer:
"Is it legal? Technically the treasury doesn’t need the permission of congress to mint platinum coins."
If you read those two sentences carefully (or if you’ve researched this story already) you’ll notice that the statement sidesteps the question.
Let’s rephrase that:
“Is it legal to murder? Technically, you don’t need the permission of congress to gun down a man in cold blood.”
So… not really an answer.
The legality of minting the trillion dollar coin is an interesting, and unresolved question. (Warning, actual constitutional analysis by constitutional lawyers.)
It’s by no means clear that it is legal. For the executive branch to be able to mint endless money on a technicality is almost certainly something that would end up in the Supreme Court.
Thankfully, the TV news segment doesn’t bring up the complicated reality of the situation.
Next up is how big a platinum coin worth a trillion dollars would need to be… if you melted it down for the value of the platinum.
Again, this has nothing to do with the treasury minting a trillion dollar coin. Fiat coins don’t contain metal worth their face value – that’s the whole point of modern currency.
But, nonetheless, this segment leaves a casual viewer with the impression that idiots in Washington want to make a coin the size of an airplane – reinforcing the sentiment in the opening of the piece.
And then there’s the statement:
"Some suggest it’s [the trillion dollar coin] a political ploy"
Followed by a clip of The Colbert Report – a television show that actually uses humor well to inform – saying nothing about a political ploy at all.
A Final, Non-informative But Memorable Point
At last we come to the thing that really matters: whose face will go on the coin. The choices are three living people, two American politicians and – in a curve ball so curvy it would hit its pitcher in the face – one Canadian teen pop idol.
I understand this is supposed to be some sort of joke, but it irritates me on so many levels, not least of which is that federal law prohibits depicting living people on US coins. I don’t know if anyone in government really thought it necessary to pass a law requiring Americans on American money as well.
The report also says it will be a ‘political battle’ about the face on the coin. It won’t. The law in question gives full authority to the Treasury to pick the design.
So, we’ve made it to the end. And, all told, you’ve learned nothing of any substance that wasn’t mentioned in the title of the story. Thanks, TV news. You’re really doing your civic duty on this one.
P.S. It’s Not My Fault!
To be clear: I’m not laying this terrible segment on the shoulders of its reporter, Kevin Tibbles. I looked him up and his bio is pretty serious. He has won four Emmys, worked around the world in Iceland, Thailand, Panama, Dubai and my adopted city of London. The guy interviewed Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev, David Petraeus, and Nelson Mandela.
He’s a real reporter.
The blame is not his – or any reporters’.
The best reporters of today find themselves as Lando Calrissian in Cloud City: victims of circumstances beyond their control. TV news has huge fixed costs and decreasing revenues. That math results in a desperate ratings grab and terrible conditions.
The news station probably told Mr. Tibbles: “Give us something on the trillion dollar coin, make it less than two minutes long, don’t go into detail and make it funny. Oh, and we need it in two hours.”
Were I in his situation and given the same requirements, I could do no better. And, from most of what TV news has to offer, it's clear no other reporters do much better either.
But, that’s no reason to watch the news. Ever.