17 Hours of News: 15 Too Many
Justin Fox gets it just right on the current flap between Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and CNBC’s Jim Cramer:
Even with the best of intentions, you can’t be on the air live for 17 hours a day and only broadcast intelligent things. And CNBC’s intention is not to do good, but to get as many affluent people as possible to watch it for as long as possible. So despite the fact that it employs lots of smart people, and they’re not out to do evil, the bulk of what CNBC produces is worse-than-useless noise. Now the bulk of what the news media as whole (myself included) produce is probably noise, but it’s on cable TV news that mismatch between time on air and useful information imparted is most dramatic. Producing 17 hours of live TV a day takes flaws inherent in the way we do journalism here in the U.S. (for more on that, see Poniewozik’s take) and magnifies them 100-fold.
Cramer’s own trajectory makes this case pretty well. He was a newspaper journalist before he went on Wall Street, and in the 1990s he confined his market musings to paper (and then to pixels), and most of what he wrote was pretty smart. My introduction to him was his column in SmartMoney in the early 1990s, and I remember really liking it. He remains an engaging writer: Just check out his autobiographical New York magazine cover story from two years ago. But on CNBC he’s on air so much and is allowed such free rein that he ends up spouting a huge amount of nonsense. Too much even for Rick Santelli, whose silly housing rant a couple weeks ago is what sparked Stewart’s current obsession with CNBC: Santelli went on an anti-Cramer rant one day last year. I think the biggest weakness of TV star Cramer is that he’s unwilling to acknowledge that he’s become a loudmouth entertainer who shouldn’t be taken very seriously. If he had admitted such a thing to Stewart, the conversation would have been a lot less painful.
But the unavoidable truth here is that a large percentage of cable-TV news is really stupid. It can be useful and sometimes even smart when actual big news is happening—CNBC got almost every important bit of news first during the TARP drama in September and October. But when nothing big is going on the need to (a) fill airtime and (b) keep viewers watching leads to the production of hours and hours of mind-rotting junk.
The same is true to a lesser extent of print media and (goodness knows) blogs as well. There’s exactly as many pages in the paper every weekday and not exactly the same amount of newsworthy material. Newspapers can fill space with evergreens or by simply not chopping as much off the end of each story. Bloggers can theoretically post less when “there’s nothing to write about,” but we often don’t.
But at least written media is edited. Even bloggers, who famously have no editors, are are own editors. While I sometimes write and publish things that I wouldn’t upon further reflection, at least the craft of writing causes some introspection.
Live television, by contrast, is stream of consciousness. Good hosts are prepared by good staffs but that only takes you so far if you’re on the air for several hours straight.