By Arthur Solomon
For people interested in in-depth news coverage, television news has always been overrated. I’m not referring to the occasional exceptions like Edward Morrow’s take down of Sen. Joe McCarthy or Walter Cronkite’s reporting on Viet Nam but to the daily news reports, which are normally nothing more than extended sound bites or synopses of happenings.
But the superficiality of TV news reached a new low with the extensive coverage of two stories – one of a serious nature; the other a hoax:
For months on all cable news shows, network news programs and Sunday political shows, the dire consequences of going over the fiscal cliff, a made-up phrase, was discussed as if not preventing it from happening would be the end of the world, or at the very least the termination of civilization as we know it. Immediately after the fiscal cliff was avoided, TV’s talking heads found a new disaster that would befall on the U.S. unless it was prevented -- the sequester.
According to some economists, no one really knows how disastrous it would be for the economy if sequester became a reality, but the Renaissance people of TV, as usual, have the answers and keep reporting the dire consequences that will occur across the country if sequester become a reality. A few, fearful that the sequester might not have a disastrous affect, have recently changed their tune, saying the really important battle between the President and the GOP will be fought over the Continuing Resolution, which would allow money for the government to remain in business until a budget is passed. Since the deadline for a CR to be passed is at the end of March, it’s safe to wager that we’ll be getting a daily earful of the catastrophe that will happen if the government shuts down unless a budget is reached before April Fool’s Day.
As they say on TV, stay tuned to us.
The other news story that was widely reported on Today, Nightly News, Good Morning America, Fox News and Anderson Live was a video showing a pig helping a baby goat that was stuck in a pond.
With the world in turmoil and so much important news that could have been reported and was neglected because of time restraints, staffs of the various programs didn’t take the time to check the veracity of the animal story, which too often happens on TV news reports. It turned out that the story was crafted for Nathan for You, a new Comedy Central program.
The New York Times reported that 20 people were involved in the creation of the video, obviously more people than checked upon the authenticity of the story.
So, let’s start at the very beginning, which is a very good place to start, as the lyrics in The Sound of Music declares.
The central casting performers on the morning shows of the cable and news networks offer mostly opinions expressed by these self appointed Renaissance people, who become instant experts of everything that occurs, even having ludicrously serious discussions about who might be the new Pope just hours after Benedict XVI announced he would resign.
I began watching these morning TV semi-news shows while exercising on my stationary bicycle, hoping to learn at least an abridged version of overnight news happenings before my daily reading of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, which not only provides in-depth coverage of news but also, unlike the TV offerings, puts it in context. But if you are seriously interested in news that occurred over night, a person has to read the scrolls while the TV opinionaters are talking about something else.
The trouble with trying to learn something from the scrolls is two-fold: all the cable networks run commercials at the same time, meaning that it is often impossible to read a complete scroll and often the scrolls repeat what they said the previous night.
The afternoon news telecasts are a little better but there is little to learn from the evening programs, which are mostly feature and personality driven with little hard news updates.
The Sunday political shows are a complete waste of time for someone who takes politics seriously. For many years they have been nothing more than propaganda outlets for Democrats and Republican spokespeople.
Few, if any, hard questions are asked. (After all, you don’t want to upset the guests because you need them for subsequent programs.) And the round-table sessions at the program’s conclusions are nothing more than pundits expressing their opinions, which are often wrong. (Right George Will and Peggy Noonan?) I’ve always said that the most secure job available is to be a political pundit because it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong as the regulars on the Sunday shows prove.
When I was a practicing journalist before becoming a public relations practitioner, when papers went out of business, news had to be checked for accuracy before being printed or broadcast. But the business has changed, and not for the better.
The rush to be the first to report breaking news on TV often results in misinformation, followed by numerous corrective stories. Punditry is presented as facts. Politicians deliberately give half truths or even completely false statements without being corrected by TV hosts. TV hosts, who are mostly generalists, pose as experts and give opinions on matters that they have little if any background in, like economics or foreign affairs. Where the beautiful young women of TV news programs have obtained their so-called expertise in subjects that before TV took journalists years to acquire is beyond my knowledge.
The sad fact is that the only place where a person can obtain news in depth provided by journalists with expertise in beats that they cover is newspapers - and they are fast disappearing.
The airing of the story about the pig helping a goat was a created for a new Comedy Central TV show. So you might as well watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to get your news. It’s often more insightful than what is on the TV news shows.
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Arthur Solomon was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, handling national and international sports and non-sports programs, including the Olympic and Asian Games organizing committees and sponsors. He can be reached at [email protected]