The Business of the News is Business
"We are a cancer and there is no cure,"
Ariana Pekary, an MSNBC producer of whom I’d never heard, has resigned from the network and wants you to know why.
I don’t know what I’m going to do next exactly but I simply couldn’t stay there anymore. My colleagues are very smart people with good intentions. The problem is the job itself. It forces skilled journalists to make bad decisions on a daily basis.
You may not watch MSNBC but just know that this problem still affects you, too. All the commercial networks function the same – and no doubt that content seeps into your social media feed, one way or the other.
It’s possible that I’m more sensitive to the editorial process due to my background in public radio, where no decision I ever witnessed was predicated on how a topic or guest would “rate.” The longer I was at MSNBC, the more I saw such choices — it’s practically baked in to the editorial process – and those decisions affect news content every day. Likewise, it’s taboo to discuss how the ratings scheme distorts content, or it’s simply taken for granted, because everyone in the commercial broadcast news industry is doing the exact same thing.
But behind closed doors, industry leaders will admit the damage that’s being done.
“We are a cancer and there is no cure,” a successful and insightful TV veteran said to me. “But if you could find a cure, it would change the world.”
Pekary has been in the news business for eighteen years. It has been thus much longer than that.
I’m about a decade older than her and vaguely remember the final years of nightly news programs anchored by the likes of Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner, and John Chancellor. In those days before cable news and, indeed, widespread cable television, the shows were akin to eating your vegetables. There was 22 minutes a day of news and, by golly, it was going to be the news they thought you should have. Why, there were even foreign correspondents.
But that was some four decades ago. Now, not only do the networks have to compete against one another, they have to compete against niche shows on cable that appeal to ideological biases. (Frankly, MSNBC was making no bones about that well before Pekary signed on.)
More importantly, they’re competing against everything else that’s on television at the moment. And everything that’s on the Internet.
Still, I don’t disagree with Pekary’s assessment of where that leaves us.
As it is, this cancer stokes national division, even in the middle of a civil rights crisis. The model blocks diversity of thought and content because the networks have incentive to amplify fringe voices and events, at the expense of others… all because it pumps up the ratings.
This cancer risks human lives, even in the middle of a pandemic. The primary focus quickly became what Donald Trump was doing (poorly) to address the crisis, rather than the science itself. As new details have become available about antibodies, a vaccine, or how COVID actually spreads, producers still want to focus on the politics. Important facts or studies get buried.
This cancer risks our democracy, even in the middle of a presidential election. Any discussion about the election usually focuses on Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, a repeat offense from 2016 (Trump smothers out all other coverage). Also important is to ensure citizens can vote by mail this year, but I’ve watched that topic get ignored or “killed” numerous times.
Context and factual data are often considered too cumbersome for the audience. There may be some truth to that (our education system really should improve the critical thinking skills of Americans) – but another hard truth is that it is the job of journalists to teach and inform, which means they might need to figure out a better way to do that. They could contemplate more creative methods for captivating an audience. Just about anything would improve the current process, which can be pretty rudimentary (think basing today’s content on whatever rated well yesterday, or look to see what’s trending online today).
First off, journalists can’t “teach and inform” if nobody is watching. Second, most of the people on MSNBC’s air aren’t journalists; they’re entertainers. And that’s true or the competition as well.
The obvious exception is public broadcasting. PBS and NPR don’t have to worry much about ratings. They do, indeed, tend to produce a lot more of the sort of coverage for which Pekary pines. But they cater to a very small, niche audience that would seek out quality coverage from elsewhere if neither of those networks existed.
Further, while I don’t match much in the way of television news these days and really haven’t since starting this blog 17 years ago, there’s no shortage of the type of analysis Pekary wants. Indeed, there’s far, far more of it than there was in Cronkite’s day. It’s just not on the nightly newscasts.