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The News Business

Day by Day Cartoon by Chris Muir
click image to enlarge

All rules that can be applied to the analysis of other news features can also be applied to sports reporting. Conventionally, sport takes up the back section of a newspaper. Sports stories are increasingly reported in the front section of the newspaper, particularly if they involve personality (eg David Beckham) or a major tournament or competition (the World Cup, the Olympics).

The news business is in a revolutionary state. Newspapers have been declining in both numbers and editions for decades, and today only the very largest cities have more than one general-interest daily paper. Television news has changed even faster. In 1950 it barely existed at all. By 1970 it had come to dominate the American news business, and the national network anchors, especially Walter Cronkite of CBS, were more famous, and often more powerful, than the politicians they covered.

But as cable television spread, making more and more channels available, the audience for the network evening news shows began to drift away. Today the network evening-news audience largely consists of middle-aged and elderly people who acquired the habit a generation or more ago.

Television, in fact, has never been a very satisfactory medium for news. While it is unsurpassed in handling breaking news and stories, such as the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, with a strong visual content, it is dismal at those that require nuance or aren't visual in nature, such as many policy issues.

The Internet, a technology undreamed of by most Americans when Walter Cronkite retired, is rapidly replacing television as the dominant news medium. Like television, and unlike traditional newspapers, the Internet can function in real time, covering stories as they break, updating minute by minute if necessary. While high-quality moving images on the Internet are in their infancy, there is no doubt that they will soon be commonplace. In addition, unlike television, the Internet can deal with complex issues and can cite sources in abundance. And unlike the days when there were only three television news outlets, there are an enormous number of Internet news outlets. Every major news organization, from newspapers to television to the wire services, now has an "Internet presence."

A few months ago Fox News averaged 840,000 viewers each evening. The channel’s most popular on-air talent, Bill O’Reilly, attracted roughly two million nightly viewers. These are impressive numbers when measured against Fox’s cable competitors, CNN (448,000 viewers) and MSNBC (270,000 viewers). But when stacked up against network news, Rupert Murdoch’s behemoth looks considerably smaller. Recent figures peg ABC’s World News With Charlie Gibson at 8 million viewers, NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams at 7.3 million viewers, and The CBS News With Katie Couric at 6.1 million viewers.

More fundamentally, I wonder just how influential television news really is. In American history courses it is axiomatic that the advent of television played an unusually large role in shaping recent politics and culture. Without taped coverage of Birmingham and Selma, the civil rights movement would have had a tougher time selling its legislative agenda to sympathetic Northerners; without news feeds from Vietnam, antiwar sentiment would have been slower to emerge.

But is this really the case? Until 1963 the three networks offered only 15 minutes of national news each evening. CBS and NBC switched to the 30-minute formula that year, and ABC followed suit in 1967. Yet in October 1969, at the high-water mark of 1960s social upheaval (this was just weeks before the Moratorium Day protests against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s famous “Silent Majority” speech), a survey reported that more than half of the adult population had not watched a newscast in the preceding two weeks. In 1976 the Roper Organization found that more than two thirds of poll respondents claimed to get most of their news from television, but the ratings told a different story. Newspaper readership still eclipsed TV news viewership. A 1974 survey of 5,600 Americans over the age of 18 found that “on any single, average day, the television news audience includes only about half of the adult population while only one adult in five sees the showcase of the medium, the evening network news.”

This meant that what little news Americans were watching by the 1970s tended to be local news, which became sillier and more frivolous as the decade wore on. Once reported by sober-looking, nondescript, middle-aged white men, local news in the ’70s became the preserve of attractive on-air talent with little or no background in journalism. Local stations eagerly adopted the advice of broadcast consultants who argued, as did one typical 1970s-era concern, for “simplifying and limiting treatment of complex news, and elimination of ‘upper-class English.’” Increasingly, the focus of local news moved from current events to sensational and salacious doings (“Masked vigilante arrested wearing no pants! Film at 11.”), and the sales pitch for news teams was their affability rather than their knowledge or journalistic talent. Hence an advertisement that promised viewers “good news or bad, laugh a little with your News-4 favorites. You’ll feel better.”

I abandoned the news programs of the three major networks several years ago, having usually watched NBC Nightly News since the old Huntley-Brinkley days. I am not alone, as their ratings have been in steady and serious decline for more than 20 years. My objection was the ever-increasing emphasis on “soft news,” especially features aimed at the AARP demographic that is the heart and soul of the aging audience for network news. Being a member in good standing of that demographic doesn’t make me want to listen to reports on kidney dialysis and old people moving back from Florida to be with their children in their final years, thank you very much. I want to listen to the news.

Now I watch Special Report with Britt Hume on Fox News Channel, which runs from six to seven, at least in the Eastern time zone. Its virtues are many besides its anchor, who, I think, is the best in the business. For one thing, it’s all hard news of the day, no soft, feel-good features of the locating-the-blind-boy’s-stolen-puppy variety. For another, it really seems to me to be, to coin a phrase, fair and balanced. Network news—along with CNN and MSNBC—remains permeated with an unconscious liberal bias. By that I don’t mean a tough-on-Republicans-soft-on-Democrats bias (although that happens, of course) but rather the unquestioning acceptance of the idea that the liberal world view is the only one decent people have, that the American political universe is divided into two classes: moderates and right-wing nuts. Hume, who does not share that notion, seems to me consciously to try hard to be fair and balanced, whereas his competitors unconsciously assume that, being “moderates,” they are, ipso facto, fair and balanced.

So I would recommend Special Report. I don’t recommend Bill O’Reilly. I find him obnoxious to put it mildly. But then, proving myself fair and balanced, I can’t stand CNN’s Lou Dobbs either. I have a limited tolerance for blowhards, even blowhards who earn several million dollars a year blowing hard.

Fox spent more daytime air on Anna Nicole Smith than on Iraq and less on Iraq than CNN and MSNBC did. Having sometimes tuned into The Big Story with John Gibson, which precedes Britt Hume, I can certainly verify that she got more than her fair share of attention (personally I would put her fair share at about 10 seconds; I also have a limited tolerance for bimbos). Having run that story into the ground, Gibson’s show is now obsessing about Rosie O’Donnell. Why a Fox News Channel show would give ABC’s The View a free 10-minute infomercial every afternoon is a mystery to me.

But I wonder why just daytime news was measured. None of the “news channels” are pure news, especially in the daytime. They are all a mix of opinion, fluff, financial ticker, etc. I wonder what measuring the evening, or even the whole 24-hour day, would reveal. Mr. Zeitz mentions that he can understand why Fox shies away from reports on Iraq (Special Report certainly doesn’t), but then, maybe the reason CNN and MSNBC have so much Iraq news is that they are only too delighted to report the bad news. This tendency is nicely spoofed in the Day by Day cartoon series for Memorial Day. I would be interested to see a comparison of the various news and broadcast channels’ signature evening news programs regarding Iraq coverage and fluff coverage. I bet Fox does nicely (more Iraq, less fluff) compared with the others, but that’s only a guess.

As for the question, how important is television news, about the only thing for sure is that the news business, like every other aspect of publishing and communications, is in a profound state of flux, thanks to the Internet. The news business that I grew up with (I can remember when New York City had at least seven daily newspapers) is long gone. The news business of the 1980s and 1990s (let’s call it the CNN era) is rapidly disappearing. What will replace it is anybody’s guess. But one thing is certain. The news business in, say, 2032 will be utterly different from what it is today, just as the overland transportation business in 1860 was utterly different from what it had been in 1835, thanks to the railroad.

Joshua Zeitz / John Steele Gordon. How Important Is Television News? / How Important Is Television News? II. American Heritage. May 28, 2007 / May 29, 2007.


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