I really didn’t need that annual “State of the News Media” Pew survey a couple of weeks ago to tell me how badly TV has fallen out of the news business.
If you missed it, the gist is this: “In local TV, our special content report reveals, sports, weather and traffic now account on average for 40% of the content produced on the newscasts studied while story lengths shrink. On CNN, the cable channel that has branded itself around deep reporting, produced story packages were cut nearly in half from 2007 to 2012. Across the three cable channels, coverage of live events during the day, which often require a crew and correspondent, fell 30% from 2007 to 2012 while interview segments, which tend to take fewer resources and can be scheduled in advance, were up 31%.”
Like I said. Pretty much what you already know. Only with hard-edged percentages.
Local TV news was particularly notable for a substantial reduction in government reporting and a heightened emphasis on “live reports” which translates into “stuff we can shoot this afternoon and have on the air tonight”. What has been sacrificed is dissection and analyses of what government and business news actually means to viewers. (No wonder you thought that Vikings stadium funding package was such a wonderful idea, if all you know about it came from TV).
To follow this devolution in “community service” to its natural conclusion, restaurant reviews and Lindsay Lohan sideboob will soon replace what is left of relevant civic issue coverage.
The cable story was notable for MSNBC being declared the clear leading perpetrator in the cheap and easy “interview” segments that have replaced what we used to think of as “news”. Why? Because actual reporting, international style, requires reporters and crews on airplanes and in faraway hotels running up a tab that diminishes shareholder value.
The shot at MSNBC is legitimate … as far as it goes. Never mind that MSNBC never was much a competitor to CNN, much less NBC News, (which seems to spend more money on medical segments for geezers and women than rattling cages on Capitol Hill).
But the Pew survey played in the same cycle as MSNBC was rearranging its primetime line-up (again), and this time for the (much) better.
Unless and until the USA adopts a BBC model to properly finance actual news, the trends Pew highlighted this year are only going to continue. Namely, fewer actual reporters, more “stories” (i.e. visually impactful stuff that can by grabbed off YouTube or shot in their backyard), less enterprise work digging through boring documents and grilling possibly nefarious characters with friends in high places … and more ditz, (lifestyle inanity, sports, water skiing squirrels). Given the profit-making/taking demands of commercial news, the best you can hope for is that the cheap and easy interview substitute stuff is intelligent, factually accurate and not entirely beholding to pack group-think’s story-of-the-day.
This is a long way of saying that replacing Ed Schultz with Chris Hayes is a remarkable upgrade.
When MSNBC got into the game of competing with FoxNews (still #1 in cable “news” after 45 straight quarters), the assumption was that liberals wanted the same heavily antagonized bluster, controlled rage and partisan venom as Roger Ailes’ dream team. But as time has moved on the real sweet spot for MSNBC is … nerds. Rachel Maddow is the channel’s unquestioned star. Lawrence O’Donnell, his Donald Trump obsession aside, is far more deeply comfortable (and credible) discussing congressional protocol and policy than slinging cheap invective and the young Hayes, along with semi-regulars like Ezra Klein and Melissa Harris-Perry, could be teaching a grad school course in history or economics.
Beyond casual/irresistible mocking of the latest counterfactual conservative obsession — “more guns make safer schools”, “getting the government out of health care will reduce costs”, “Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi”, “not intended to be a factual statement” … and on and on, MSNBC’s nerds have very little if any affinity for Ed Schultz’s old school talk radio-style bluster. And thank god.
Their game, and it is clearly by network design, (most likely clued by the potent, extraordinarily loyal and educationally upscale audiences for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), is for thoroughly to obsessively researched dialogue and debate. Hayes may not yet be a silky smooth TV performer (lord knows he’s no Sean Hannity) but the guy really is like the daunting polymath, this close to overpowering every other argument in class.
In some ways we are living in a Golden Age of TV. “Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men”, “Game of Thrones”, “Homeland” and “Justified” (I’m told) are among the best dramas the medium has ever produced. They exist of course in stark contrast to what for lack of a better term I’ll call The Hillbilly Carnival of manic-depressive hoarders, storage locker raiders, swamp coots, duck-lipped “real” housewives, bratty boo-boos, chefs with stage-directed anger management issues, pawn shop shysters and detention documentaries, (a weird, lingering MSNBC fascination).
I’ve often argued that the cable channel I’d love to have (and would happily give up 60 or 70 others) would be something like NPR-TV.
Give me the video version of the breadth and depth of subject matter I hear there (with more skeptical bite) and I’d be a happy, loyal audience. This latest “new MSNBC” isn’t going to get into the expensive proposition of creating visuals for reports on Syrian massacres and the Hadron Collider, and it won’t stray far from politics, but with the primetime lineup it now has, Hayes-Maddow-O’Donnell, you can’t watch it and make a credible argument that it is, like FoxNews, nothing more than dime-deep partisan polemics.