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Monday, August 23, 2010

When Did Cable News Become a 24/7 Shouting Match?

I ended out last week with a complaint about the media. One of the big stories of the week was that about 1 in 5 think that President Obama's a Muslim. Of that 18%, 60% said they got that "information" from the media. In response to the polling, media pundits concluded it was Obama's fault -- not theirs -- that so many held this misconception. He has to go to church more -- never mind that the only time George W. Bush saw the inside of a church was for a wedding or a funeral. No one ever called him a Muslim, did they? As they so often do, the press ignored a fact that didn't fit their pre-written narrative.

But that was only part of my argument. I also worried that cable news is a mix of opinion and news, with the proportion of opinion growing radically. TV news "analysts" don't analyze at all, they offer speculate, and this blurs the line between fact and opinion. When you have to have two or more partisans chime in, the purpose should be to interview, not "analyze." They should be used to illustrate what both sides of an argument believe and no more. When they start throwing out straw men, spin, and propaganda, the anchor should step on them. That's not news, that's useless information.

I came across an example of the problem yesterday with a clip from PBS Newshour. The issue: the Cordoba House Islamic community center in Manhattan. The people: anchor Gwen Ifill, New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, and the Muslim and Democratic mayor of Teaneck, NJ, Mohammed Hameeduddin. The problem: the whole thing turned into a cable news-style free-for-all.

Gwenn Ifill on Newshour's blog, The Rundown:

If the camera had continued rolling Monday night at the NewsHour after I completed a segment on the debate over the so-called Ground Zero mosque, you would have seen me beating my head against the anchor desk.

I am not one to tell tales out of school, but we got a ton of mail from viewers this week who were dismayed by a discussion I conducted that night on the president's decision to weigh in on the debate about whether to build an Islamic center a couple of blocks away from the Ground Zero reconstruction site in lower Manhattan.

The discussion was loud, erratic and, frankly, kind of out of control. It was not the NewsHour's style. More important, it did nothing to move the debate forward. I'm still kicking myself about it...

The segment was nothing exceptional, really. Not by TV news standards. In fact, it was pretty tame, comparatively. Still, PBS viewers didn't find "you suck" vs. "no, you suck" very informative and they wrote into to Newshour to make that clear. Ifill writes:

There are plenty of places where this would have been considered entertaining television. The NewsHour is not one of them.

Viewers apparently agree. "PLEASE, no more yelling, feuding interviews, as was the Ground Zero Muslim center 'discussion' on today's NewsHour," one viewer wrote me on Twitter. The rest of the mail got a lot meaner than that.

I should point out that, according to research by the Pew Center for the People & the Press, viewers of PBS' Newshour are easily the most informed of all viewers of TV news broadcasts. And when the show breaks down into a typical TV news partisan brawl, those highly-informed viewers don't like it at all. The reason is that after the smoke clears, you discover you haven't learned a damned thing.

I could explain the problem in more detail, but it's already been done for me. Let's go back in time to a 2004 appearance by The Daily Show's Jon Stewart on CNN's shouting heads program, Crossfire:

What a dick Tucker Carlson is, huh? This reinforces my belief that people who wear bow ties are evil  and they're just wearing them to look less evil. If Lexx Luthor were real, his PR handlers would have him in a bow tie. Anyway, Stewart's appearance was probably the first and last time anyone who watched the show learned anything they didn't already know -- a few months after this interview took place, Crossfire was canceled.

But Crossfire didn't actually die. Instead of "debate" programs like Crossfire becoming more like news shows, TV news shows became more like Crossfire. We now have segment after segment after segment of morons and hacks shouting at each other -- which apparently brings ratings -- but when the segments are over, you haven't learned a damned thing other than that people really, really disagree about the issues. What an enlightening realization, huh? Worse, all that's being shouted are market-tested talking points and self-aggrandizing spin.

Who's right, who's wrong... who cares? The only thing that matters is that enough people see that commercial for Gold Bond Foot Powder in between the segments. I'm not saying that there should be no opinion on TV news networks. If you want to watch Glenn Beck, that's your choice. If you want to watch Rachel Maddow, hell, I recommend it. But if you want some damned actual, factual news, forget about TV. It's close to useless. Personally, of all the cable news networks out there, the one I watch most is probably The Weather Channel -- they never seem to have two idiots arguing over whether or not it's going to rain.

If you have to watch cable news, then maybe it might be a good idea to be more like those PBS viewers; when two suits start yelling at each other, write to the program and tell them it sucked. Make sure to point out that you learned nothing from the segment, which made it a huge waste of time. And make sure to point out, as Stewart did way back in 2004, that these useless shouting matches and the endless repetition of partisan talking points are "hurting America."

Because they are.


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