Saturday, March 03, 2007


I can always remember thinking this about news: like cookies or Stephen King novels, the news keen and glorious and gratuitous and addicting ... and it MUST, therefore, BE TAKEN IN MODERATION.

Walter Brasch got me thinking today. He calls himself a "social issues journalist," but I'd describe him as a genius old guy who takes issue with the American situation -- everything from Katrina to -- . He writes these brilliant condensed (but not reductive) diatribes that poke sardonic little holes in a zillion different aspects of life that have probably got you pissed off, whether or not you know it.

Check out this short column -- from the Atlantic Free Press today -- in which Brasch addresses how 24-hour news stations cover wacky weather. He presents his frustrations by simply transcribing his impressions of their coverage, what it sounds like to him.

We've talked before about 24-hour news stations -- the pressures of remaining competitive and profitable without compromising the integrity of what's on the screen.

And we've identified the are barbs and snags that make it so hard. Like the Anna Nicole extravaganza ... or when CNN totally called out FOX News on air ... or when most of us admitted that we, too, would probably have sent the news 'copter to cover Mr. Rifle sans Reasoning on the LA freeway.

But what about the ethics of having such immersive super-coverage in the first place?

You could argue it's important to have news available at all times. I'd buy it, too, except for one thing: the content that is so clearly guided by ratings. Yes, FOX News, you're gonna have AWESOME ratings. People are GONNA watch.

But that doesn't spell success, and it doesn't mean you're giving viewers what they really want.

I think we're all watching because you've made us terrified not to. When you step back a bit, 24-hour news sounds a lot like this: OMG Y2K, OMG SARS, OMG IF YOU MISS THIS EXCLUSIVE SPECIAL REPORT ON AVIAN FLU, YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN and NEW PUPPY MAY JUST DIE HORRIBLE DEATHS by way of AL-QAEDA, RANDOM SCHOOL SHOOTINGS and CHINESE SUPER-ARTICULATED PUPPY DEATH THROMBOSIS, respectively.

Isn't life scary enough, people?

Plus, I don't have specific knowledge of this, but it seems practically inevitable that news quantity tramples news quality. Any smart station manager would force the same people who deliver the bare bones news to spend their time coming up with outrageous filler and fluff.

Being intimate with the business, each of us get why 24-hour news stations exist. We can grasp the nuance of why certain things are reported and decide for ourselves what will sway our thinking. But we're the lucky and the few. Everybody else will be (understandably) confused and scared by what's presented to them. Some will be glued to their TVs; others will throw shoes at their TVs.

That's why I think, on the whole, 24-hour news channels undermine the authority of broadcast news. Twenty-four hour news is not, generally, edifying or thought-provoking. It's rarely balanced. These days, we're just lucky if it's accurate.

Look, boys, the First Amendment that permits fear-mongering is no carte blanche. It came out of the founders' desire to develop an informed citizenry capable of carrying out the tenets of democracy by sifting through the whole gamut of ideas and then deciding how to act in its own best interest.

With great freedom comes great responsibility.

P.S. I am reluctant to target CNN because [1] I'm addicted to it myself; [2] there are many (and some far worse) perpetrators; [3] it's Jon's baby (or does Jon belong to it? not sure). Nevertheless, the graphic won me over.


At Saturday, March 03, 2007, Anonymous VLD said...

Posted by VLD.

At Saturday, March 03, 2007, Blogger Medill Media Watch said...

I like being able to know that there's always a watch-dog awake and ready to report but I agree that 24-hour news coverage is want for more dependable accuracy.

Society pre-internet and pre-broadcast was incredibly radio-oriented. But even then, ratings mattered (or at minimum, public approval). I'd go as far as to say even the Roosevelt's fireside chats seemed drama directed and divisively pitched toward Dick, Jane, their two kids and a puppy.

But on another note, I believe there is a direct correlation between story coverage, time of day and the public's emotional meter. If I can sleep, I'll turn on CNN or MSNBC and look at their coverage--light news is much more prevalent. Hard news isn't ignored but there's a noticeable effort to water it down. Primetime news, on the other hand, is tougher, quicker and more hard-news driven...even the music of some station networks has been given a boost!



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