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Frank Zappa Captured Why We Hate TV News


Any respectable playlist assembled to memorialize the recent terrible events in San Bernardino and elsewhere would include “Trouble Every Day” from the 1966 Mothers of Invention debut album, “Freak Out.” Written and sung by Frank Zappa (who coincidentally also wrote a song titled “San Ber’dino”), the song’s original inspiration was the 1965 Watts riots, but Zappa’s lyrics resonate just as strongly today, most notably on how media reportage of unfolding events shirks both responsibility and professionalism.

Zappa’s disdain for television was evident throughout his career despite his appearance in a vignette on “The Monkees” in 1967 and hosting “Saturday Night Live” in 1978. Perhaps his most popular derision of television is the song “I Am the Slime” from the 1973 Mothers’ album “Overnight Sensation.” While that song simply catalogued Zappa’s disdain of TV, however, it was the lyrics of “Trouble Every Day” that were prescient.

TV Is Rotting My Brain

The snarling guitars of “Trouble Every Day” blatantly rip off the sonic textures of The Leaves’ 1966 garage-rock classic “Hey Joe” (a song Zappa parodied as “Hey Punk” from the Mothers’ 1968 masterpiece “We’re Only in It for the Money”). Zappa’s vocals, never his strong suit, are appropriate for the sarcasm and disgust of his lyrics, which begin by lamenting the deluge of bad news reported on television.

He continues with his own reportage of the Watts riots and the misbehavior of both cops and participants before pronouncing:

You know I watched that rotten box
Until my head begin to hurt
From checkin’ out the way
The newsman say they get the dirt
Before the guys on channel so-and-so

Nothing terribly amiss here, as getting the scoop over a competitor is a time-honored journalistic tradition. Perhaps Zappa doth protest a bit too much and, it should be remembered, the Watts riots predated 24-hour television news by 15 years.

However, it seems more and more viewers of television news select their network of choice not by who gets the dirt faster but by who frames the narrative better aligned with viewers’ specific worldview. We’ve come at least a little way from 1965 and the vapid “bubble-headed bleach blonde” of Don Henley’s 1982 hit “Dirty Laundry” to today’s polished albeit biased news announcers.

Either way, Zappa nails it when he tells listeners previously in the song “about all the phony stuff on sports / and all the unconfirmed reports” permeating televised news and the rush to report something, anything on-air:

And further they assert
That any show they’ll interrupt
To bring you news if it comes up
They say that if the place blows up
They will be the first to tell,
Because the boys they got downtown
Are workin’ hard and doin’ swell,

And if anybody gets the news
Before it hits the street,
They say that no one blabs it faster
Their coverage can’t be beat.

Contrast today’s abysmal state of the nation’s news media. Nothing’s really changed in 50 years other than satellites, high-def graphics, skirt hems, and lapel widths. On full display in the hours immediately following the San Bernardino shootings, for example, was evidence the only thing seemingly worse than conjectural reporting was dead air or reruns of the Ted Bessell and Anita Gillette vehicle “Me and the Chimp,” which were until recent times considered the nadir of broadcast television.

Breathlessly Telling You the Same Thing Over and Over

Whether the three broadcast networks or basic cable, “news” of horrific shooting events features subject-matter “experts” playing a shell game wherein every fact is placed under a Dixie cup of speculation, shuffled, and repeated with each newly revealed kernel of truth.

The network waited hours after other news sources had confirmed the primary suspect’s name was Syed Rizwan Farook before announcing his name.

Talking heads masquerading as news readers hypothesize endlessly whether shootings were right-wing, far right-wing, right to life, crazy extremist right to life, moderate right to life, or simply just an irritated employee. Most agree that, whatever the root causes of any given public shootings, more restrictions on guns are necessary.

Additionally, such speculative “journalism” leads networks and viewers down unnecessary blind alleys, as was the case with CNN immediately after the San Bernardino shootings. The network waited hours after other news sources had confirmed the primary suspect’s name was Syed Rizwan Farook before announcing his name.

Why? It was perhaps an effort to rationalize the panel of “experts” gathered to discuss their pet conspiracy theories having nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism. The Internet was awash in attempts to frame the San Bernardino shootings as yet another Planned Parenthood attack. Salon and CNN scrambled to connect nonexistent dots between the Inland Regional Center shootings and the proximity of the nearest Planned Parenthood facility.

Turns out, however, at least one mile separates the two. That might not seem like much distance to the Einstein reporters at Salon and CNN, but such a miscalculation appropriately would earn any terrorist the nickname of Capt. Peter “Wrongway” Peachfuzz.

It’s a Three-Ring Circus About Nothing

Zappa made similar observations about news coverage 50 years ago, remarking on all the “unconfirmed reports” emanating from what has become since then 24-hour, wall-to-wall idiocy advertised as news:

And if another woman driver
Gets machine-gunned from her seat
They’ll send some joker with a brownie
And you’ll see it all complete

Complete, of course, with all sorts of ridiculous guesswork delivered by serious-looking men and women wearing immaculately tailored outfits, expressing whatever can be digested as news before being vomited back as propaganda.

Certainly there’s more to Zappa’s song than remarking on the lousiness of news coverage, but the middle section’s media critique has been applicable on too many occasions. Yes, the American public deserves to know what goes on in the rest of the world and nation, especially when it’s news as earth-shattering as recent events in Paris, Colorado Springs, Fort Hood, Chattanooga, and San Bernardino.

But we could all quite frankly do without the guesswork and attempts to further whatever progressive agenda—whether it’s gun control or depicting all pro-life advocates as murderous hypocrites—is the flavor of the day.