As noted here news coverage in the US TV media has been faltering badly, with Fox News being allowed to employ blatant lies and distortions while defiantly proclaiming itself as a source of “fair and balanced coverage”. But other networks, seeing Fox anomalous ratings success [the more you prolong and comfort public misconceptions the better your ratings?], are using Fox-like bombacity in their news coverage – think MSNBC’s Keith Obermann and some of CNN’s infotainment shows. Viewers are having to go to PBS or North of the Border to CBC or CTV to get “fair and balanced coverage”.
For those looking for solid news coverage, there seemed to be a last refuge – the Sunday Morning News Analysis shows on the major networks – ABC This Week, CBS Face the Nation, and NBC Meet the Press. But even here the trends are defiantly bad. Face the Nation is down to 30 minutes. But in effect so are the other programs as viewers have to endure 3 and 5 minute ad breaks. Yes, the shows do offer up serious subjects with sometimes excellent outside analysts. But the shortness of time often means key topics and ideas get discussed for 2 minutes tops and then cutoff. Major issues are just left hanging – or left unmentioned as the elephant in the room.
But the most perverse trend is that the major networks are leaning over backwards and then falling down badly in promoting their “fair and balanced” coverage. So that means trotting out one Senator from each party who when asked a tough question quickly diverts to the Party’s PR talking points regardless of relevance and simply does not address the issues. Given time constraints and the insistence of the counter party of getting their “right of rebuttal”, all viewers get is a clear demonstration of how polarized and partisan is Washington politics at a time when a roster of critical problems confront the nation. To make matters worse the “debate” often degenerates into the worst pettiness thus easily justifying the voters exasperation and rancor with their top politicians.
But even the second half of these programs which features 4-7 invited reporters and and analysts covering the week’s top issues is subject to fair and balanced distortions. The invited pundits are often split on 50-50 on their Democratic or Republican leanings. So then George Will tells us that free markets are working just fine despite the fact that the nation is still barely recovering from the financial free markets coming to a halt . Or Cokie Roberts says innocuously all the freedoms granted to women in Afghanistan under American/NATO auspices “have been a great thing” ignoring the great cultural rift and toll it may be creating for troopers in the country. Or incredibly inviting Liz Cheney on as a balancing Republican analyst forcing all of the other commentators to act as buffers correcting Liz and her patently false or less than fully forthcoming assertions.
In the era of the Internet, TV has a critical live video advantage that even blogs and Huffington Posts with their stream of screed commentary are hard pressed to match – that is live and relevant debate among experts. Meet the Press today, with its devoted discussion of the fast morphing Afghanistan issue with its panel of experts who have written, experienced and/or covered the scene in depth was a very good example of how TV News can press its advantage over the press of the oncoming Web Wave. Hopefully the networks will insist on much higher standards for “fair and balanced” political debate and expression. Also, the networks need to tie their own coverage better with the Internet. One simple way – have a short “What You Said”take the 2 best posted commentaries as voted on by the web viewers and as chosen by the show’s editors, also tell viewers what topics provoked the most and the best comments.
In sum, TV has long had the power to clarify and persuade effectively. Given the rapid and perilous change in these times, the major networks should seize the initiative against the avalanche and cacophony that is the Web.