Television News or Entertainment?
Other than PBS and BBC World News, the rest of the cable news networks seem uncertain if they are offering television news or entertainment programming. As news networks drifted from good old-style news reporting, their professional ethics have faded away. The flight from factual reporting to ratings-driven entertainment programming has eroded the public trust. There are other forces at work, but it is easier to partisan attacks when the emphasis on sensationalism and controversy blurs the lines between news and entertainment.
It seems like everyone hates the media these days. The Democrats mostly hate just Fox News. The right everyone else. Life is too short to waste any making the case against Fox News. That would be as useful as making a case that the earth is round, and not flat. Fox News is what it is; the Republican Party Broadcast Network. Do the rest of the news networks deserve the abuse they are get?
They have been brunt of a Fox News strategy that Fox, and only Fox, is telling the truth. Aimed at insulating themselves from fact checking of their Republican Party propaganda, it has been very successful in keeping their base viewership. Much of the criticisms by Republicans on the main stream media are unwarranted. They would like it if everyone was just like Fox News. That does not mean all criticism is partisan. Cable news, in particular, has drifted from good old-style news reporting, towards ratings-driven entertainment programming.
Instead of just informing us of the news, they spend most of their time with a panel of talking heads giving us their opinion of the news. Most of talking heads are so partisan that we already know their opinion before they open their mouths. Apparently we are incapable of forming our own opinions. There is a big different between experts like Former Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo, and political surrogates. The experts do contribute to our understanding of certain news events. The surrogates inform us that everything their candidate does is great, and everything their opponent does is bad. If their candidate does something indefensible, then they tell us their opponent is even worse. Even in the expert area, CNN is now moving toward the most angry, sensational and controversial, instead of the most knowledgeable.
When a police shooting occurs we get experts like the angry, bald New York cop who never saw a police shooting he didn’t like; the racist police union leader from Missouri; or the angry, loud, black sheriff from Wisconsin. These “experts” are not scheduled to inform us. They provide controversy and increase the entertainment value.
Entertainment tonight always used teasers before every commercial break, pushing the lie that the most dramatic story of the night was coming up next. It would never appeared until the end of the program. Dishonest, but we weren’t depending on Entertainment Tonight to inform us of the important issues of the day. Now MSNBC has adopted similar tactics. They avoid saying “coming up next” to avoid outright lies. They used “coming up after the break” instead. When it doesn’t come up right after the break there is plausible deniability as the rest of the show is after the break.
These deceptions are annoying, but they were the beginning of a slippery slide into outright lies. The right would have you believe that they tell partisan lies. Like most people, and organizations, they lie mostly for self-serving reasons. When Rand Paul was struggling to meet the CNN criteria for an upcoming Republican presidential primary debate, multiple anchors covered the story. Both the details of the criteria to participate and the fact that Paul was coming up short of meeting it. The criteria were candidates had to average 5% or more specified national polls and no averaging up. By the eve of the debate Paul have polled under 5% in all the specified polls and there was only one remaining. In that poll he came in just over 5%. Jack Tapper promoted the announcement at the beginning of his show. It was never mentioned again.
As CNN executives apparently huddled in their offices, everyone over the age of 8, who could do basic math, had already figured out that 4 polling results well under 5% and the latest one just over 5% meant that Paul had not qualified to participate in the main debate. Next morning CNN finally announced the participants, and Paul was one of them. One by one the anchors of all the morning shows announced that Paul had qualified to get in the debate. These were the same anchors who had reported on the criteria all week, and knew that Paul had not met it. All CNN had to say was that he did not meet criteria, but they had decided to include him anyway. Instead they decided to lie, and all the anchors towed the company line and set their professional ethics aside.
Sometimes it is not lies, but totally unprofessional dramatics in an attempt to boost ratings. On the night of the Wisconsin primary for Paul Ryan’s congressional seat, Erin Burnett opened up her show with a dramatic teaser, “Could Speaker Paul Ryan really lose his seat?” The problem is she already knew there was no possibility of that happening, as the polls showed Ryan up by 60 points. Just like all the other incumbent primary landslides across the country that no one ever covers. Later, just before the polls closed, she said to her guest, “No one would ever have believed this would have been a story.” Very true, but the reason it became a story was because she made it a story.
It wasn’t like this was a slow news day. This was the same day that the story broke about the Orlando shooter’s father standing behind Clinton at the Florida rally. The same day that Trump suggested that his 2nd amendment people might want to assassinate Clinton if she won. It was just another instance of the main stream media creating a story instead of reporting the news. A further erosion of the publics trust in journalists. Ryan won in a landslide, by more than 60 points, as everyone, including Erin Burnett, knew he would.
Television News or Entertainment is not a question we should have to ask. The fact the question is asked explains a lot about where we are now. The only substantive news in is the failing newspaper industry, which may answer the question. Maybe most Americans prefer being entertained, rather than informed. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. It lets you believe whatever you want to believe.