In the wake of news cycles that have variously centered on “Balloon Boy”, Meghan McCain’s tits, Obama Vs Fox, and the tragedy at Ft. Hood I have been giving even more thought than usual to the state of 24 hour news and what it should be. Here are my suggestions for making the 24 hour news cycle more palatable – or at least more likely to include a warning sticker that it is not palatable (“In the case of outrage lasting more than 4 hours, please call your doctor as this may be a sign of a much more serious condition called a moral center”). Take a look, then share your five.
1. GO AWAY
The whole reason for numbers 2 thru 5 is that this is a lost cause, but I honestly believe the world would be a better place without the 24 hour news cycle. I admit that as an information and politics wonk/addict I was besides myself with joy when CNN first came on the scene. I also admit that there are times when a story requires that level of coverage. I will even admit that there is 24 hours worth of news (see #2), but that is not what 24 hour news serves. Instead it chooses one to three stories and covers them to death. Since they all choose the same one to three stories they have to come up with more and more information to fill the time. The result is dozen of talking heads judging every aspect over and over again to the point that people just tune out. Also, stories are chosen more by how much time you can fill than they are by actual importance. If they only had an hour a day they would have to offer new information, compactly presented with the relevant facts, in order to compete with each other. As a result people would have more information and less bullshit. Yes, Pat Buchanan is entitled to his warped opinion that Sotomayor was an affirmative action appointment, but I don’t really need to hear it ten times on ten different programs. Plus, the 24 hour news leads to intellectual laziness. “Experts” feel remarkably comfortable getting facts wrong, since they will have a chance to either clarify or obfuscate what they said an hour from when they said it. Political spokesman are offered the opportunity to easily float “trial balloons”, adjusting their argument from one hour to the next depending on reaction to it rather than having to actually decide on a stance in advance knowing that, for at least a day, they will be held to it.
2. SINCE YOU WON’T GO AWAY, TRY COVERING MORE NEWS
Darfur, anyone? Palestinian self-policing successes in the West Bank? Massive increase in local protests in China? Transformation of Russia into a Kleptocracy? Contradiction in US Foreign Policy in treatment of Saudi government Vs refusal to speak with Taliban? Refugee situation in Western Pakistan? Women’s issues all over the world? Poverty in the United States? yadda yadda yadda. Seriously, is there so little news that MSNBC has to spend its weekend re-running Lockup a gazillion times? Which brings me to…
3. IF YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE A POINT-OF-VIEW, DON’T YIELD TIME.
This is directed specifically at MSNBC. As a liberal/progressive/socialist/communist/America-hater (I am defining myself as FOX News would), I am glad to have a national news outlet that counters FOX. So why do you give them the floor for the entire weekend? I often work late and want to be entertained when I get home, so I and many like me are most likely to pay attention to the 24 hour news on the weekend. Unfortunately, all I get from MSNBC on the weekends is Lockup or To Catch A Predator. Are you really going to force me to turn on CNN or FOX to find out anything current and relevant? MSNBC, has it occurred to you that the reason you have lower ratings than the other news station is that people who first turn into you on the weekends might not know you are a news station?
4. END THE ECHO CHAMBER
Seriously, don’t any of these hosts know more than 5 people? Every show, every day, has the exact same experts commenting. Each host has found a cadre of people who think like them along with one person who thinks differently but is easy to beat up. These are the people you see on their shows day after day. Enough of the same talking head scientist day in and day out telling me what all of the other scientists agree on. If they all agree on it can’t you find someone else to say the same thing the next day? The worst offender is Keith Olbermann who literally has the exact same people on every day without exception. However, I find it more annoying on FOX, where the guests on each show are often the hosts of other shows on the same network. The morning show has Beck, Beck has O’Reilly, O’Reilly has Geraldo, and Geraldo has someone from the morning show. It is one giant self-affirming circle jerk. The one exception to this rule, and outstandingly so, is Rachel Maddow. Not only does she mix up her guest list from day to day, she actually has …wait for it…opposing viewpoints. Not only that, but those opposing viewpoints are often those of the very people she held to account on her previous broadcast. Her coverage of the “astroturfing” of grassroots protests by the right has included live discussions with the heads of the very organizations she has accused of being behind it. Furthermore, these discussions have been exactly that – discussions. No talking over people, no turning off their mics if they start to disagree vehemently with her. Actual, real journalism folks.
5. DECIDE WHAT YOU ARE AND OWN IT.
Quick Quiz. Match the 24 hour news network with its slogans
CNN, MSNBC, FOX
“We Report. You Decide”, “We’re Talking Politics”, “Fair and Balanced”, “The Most Trusted Name In News”
CNN: “The Most Trusted Name In News”. Seriously? According to who? It is hard to think of a network that jumps to conclusions without facts quicker. The motto should be “Because if we can’t be right, we can still be first.” These are the people who started the stampede to ruin Richard Jewell’s life over the Atlanta Olympics Bombing and who do more speculation reporting than anyone else. How many times do they have an “eye in the sky” image with three or four experts just guessing at what is going on? On top of all of this you have Lou Dobbs, who struggles so hard to hide his blatant fear of all things “other” behind economic worries, all to no avail. The man’s show is one solid hour of hate. Finally, who exactly is it we are supposed to trust? Half of their coverage these days consists of reading emails and tweets from viewers. “Let’ see what DemonHunterX of Nebraska is saying on twitter”. No, let’s not. If I want to get my reporting from twitter I have a way to do that. It’s called twitter. Seriously, this got so out of hand during the Iranian election street protests that people were calling into CNN begging them to take down the live twitter feed because it could be used by the Iranian police to identify and round up protesters. It took them 5 minutes to start showing them, but over 90 minutes of protests to stop. Also, I don’t trust anyone who thinks they can make a valuable informational point via a pie chart spinning in their palm or “beaming in” a holographic will.i.am.
MSNBC: “We’re Talking Politics”. Well, this is a breath of fresh air. By not claiming to be “trusted” or “balanced” or even “news” I find myself trusting them most. The reason is the lack of pretense. All three networks have wandered far from the reservation when it comes to straight news coverage. At least MSNBC admits it. The irony is that when FAIR and Media Matters both take the time to fact check the three news networks, MSNBC is consistently the most factually accurate. You may not agree with their conclusions, but at least they start from an honest premise. Again, I have to tip my hat to The Rachel Maddow Show. This is, as far as I can see, the only news show that takes the time after showing a claim by a politician, left or right, to discuss if the statement itself is true or not. If you want to know the page and paragraph in the health care bills where a politician’s statement is proven or dis-proven then watch Rachel. She will show it to you right after showing the politician’s statement. No one else is doing this. The rest are all so caught up in process (how will the other side react to the statement and then how will the first side counter-react) that they forget to tell you if there is a discernible truth to be had. Unfortunately, you can also find the opposite extreme on MSNBC with Ed Schulz. Now here is a man I agree with 90% of the time but still can’t stand to watch. Why? He doesn’t make the argument. He simply attacks the person who said something he disagrees with and points out every reason that they are not to be trusted. Often this is all true, but it does nothing to address the issue. He simply kills the messenger. Walking the line perfectly between the two of them is Keith Olbermann. He methodically debunks the ridiculousness of a statement, and then he needlessly kills the messenger – or sometimes vice versa. Now if he could just get over his obsession with shooting down reporting by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. Honestly, does anyone watching Keith Olbermann believe a word that comes out of the mouths of Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh? Keith, make better use of the time then reminding us every day that they are dangerous demagogues who can not be trusted and are potentially dangerous. We already know that. Seriously. Plus, it can’t be doing anything good for your blood pressure.
FOX: “We Report. You Decide” and “Fair and Balanced”. That loud banging sound and mumbling you hear is George Orwell pounding on his casket door and screaming “Let me the fuck out of here so I can ring Roger Ailes’ pudgy neck!” I would like to think that what I have written so far makes it clear that I have problems with all of the news channels, and the concept of 24 hour news itself. I hope that I have earned enough trust as an open, honest broker that you will not see it as a partisan attack when I say that FOX news lies its ass off 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They decide, then report. They decide what they want the audience to believe, then they report it as fact. I am talking about statements about how much health care will cost or what path it leads us down. I may disagree with their conclusions but the future is conjecture no matter who is predicting it. John Stewart pointed out the science behind Fox’s approach the other night, with examples, and it bears repeating here.
First, Fox’s few actual reporters cover an event in a straightforward manner, than wonder aloud how others will react to it. This is followed by 12 – 18 hours of Fox commentators reacting to it, which is followed in the next news cycle with those reactions being reported as news (“Many experts are saying….”). This leads to the followers of those commentators, and the politicians on the right who want to expand on the narrative, chiming in so that 24 hours later the news arm is reporting the wide spread reaction of various organizations to the initial event – again without noting that these organizations get their talking points from the very commentators they referred to the day before as “experts”. Even Fox itself practically admitted it last week. When asked about Obama’s charges that they were not news, Rupert Murdoch responded by differentiating between the news shows and commentary during the week. By his own count, there is 5 hours of news broadcast each day. The other 19 hours is commentary. Also, the 5 hours of news is during the least watched periods of television overall, not just for Fox but on TV.
If that is how you want to play it FOX, no problem. Just be honest about it. Drop the “fair and balanced/we report you decide” crap. But they can’t. They spend so much of their time on the air spreading outright lies (Death Panels? Seriously, you want us to believe that someone seeking re-election some day is supporting a panel that can choose to kill grandma?), that they can’t drop the slogans. Dropping the slogans would be honest. But they are Fox. They can’t be honest. So they can’t drop the slogans that say they are honest. OK, now I am making my own head hurt again.
I think I’ll lie down now and turn the TV on. Maybe there is something on C-SPAN.