Why American News Networks Stink
Al Jazeera English is kicking the butts of the American news networks on the Egypt story. Why?
David “Doc” Searls argues persuasively that “Al Jazeera in Egypt is cable’s ‘Sputnik moment’.”
The difference is that real news — huge stuff — is happening in Egypt, and if you want live news coverage in video form, Al Jazeera is your best choice. As Jeff [Jarvis] puts it, “Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one — not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media — can bring the perspective, insight, and on-the-scene reporting Al Jazeera English can.”
And it’s very good. Writes Salon, “If you’re watching Al Jazeera, you’re seeing uninterrupted live video of the demonstrations, along with reporting from people actually on the scene, and not “analysis” from people in a studio. The cops were threatening to knock down the door of one of its reporters minutes ago. Fox has moved on to anchor babies. CNN reports that the ruling party building is on fire, but Al Jazeera is showing the fire live.”
In fact six Al Jazeera journalists are now being detained (I just learned). That kind of thing happens when your news organization is actually involved in a mess like this. CNN used to be that kind of organization, but has been in decline for years, along with other U.S. network news organizations. As Jeff says, “What the Gulf War was to CNN, the people’s revolutions of the Middle East are to Al Jazeera English. But in the U.S., in a sad vestige of the era of Freedom Fries, hardly anyone can watch the channel on cable TV.”
Friday afternoon, as things in Egypt were heating up, I was following the news via Twitter. Finally, I decided that it would be worth turning to cable news to get live coverage. (As regular readers know, I’ve long stopped watching television news on a regular basis. But it’s great for election coverage and, historically, for very important breaking stories.) I was appalled by the vapidness.
I started with CNN, since it’s the only one of the American all-news networks that at least pretends to do straight coverage rather than partisan hype. Their coverage was atrocious. Not only were they far, far behind Twitter* on getting important information out but it was mostly vapid analysis by people with no expertise. At one point, they were interviewing random American tourists for their take.
So, I turned to Fox. Their coverage wasn’t any worse, really, but it was more hyped, with constant mentions that they were bringing me “Breaking News” — even though the news they were breaking wasn’t actually new.
Loathe to turn to MSNBC, I pretty much gave up and tweeted, “Do any of the 24-hour news channels do news anymore? Or is it like when MTV stopped showing music videos?”
Several in my Twitter-stream suggested al Jazeera English. I’m familiar with the network, having been on quite a few times as an analyst. But I quickly confirmed that DirecTV doesn’t carry it. And I find watching the news on my computer more distracting, somehow, than having the television on in the background.
When Mubarak’s speech came on, I turned back to CNN and found it incredibly distracting because their translator was simply awful. I mean, seriously, the story had been breaking for three days and we had at least two hours’ notice of what could have been a resignation speech. The pioneer of 24/7 cable news couldn’t get a competent Arab translator lined up?
Part of this is the fact that, as Steven Taylor outlined in great detail yesterday, American television news puts “too much focus on talking to pundits and politicos and not enough of an attempt to talk to actual experts.” It’s a complaint that I’ve had for more than a decade. No matter the topic, they bring on the usual suspects — journalists and political operatives who’ll show up in the studio at the drop of a hat to opine about anything. It’s vapid but comfortable. Fred Barnes might not know anything about Egypt but, by golly, viewers know what he is.
And real experts tend to be bad on TV. First, most are too cautious about being forward leaning, preferring to stay within the zone of what they actual know. Second, they’re not practiced in the art of the sound byte. Real analysis is complicated and nuanced; producers and show hosts want 15-20 second answers that put things in clear, black-and-white terms.
Author and regular OTB commenter Michael Reynolds notes, too, that “Al Jazeera, BBC and NPR are entirely or partly funded by governments. CNN, MCNBC and Fox are private” and adds, “Private industry emphatically does not do everything better.”
And there’s much to this. It’s not exactly that private news channels can’t do a fantastic job. ABC, NBC, and CBS did so within my memory. And CNN did so even more recently. But they did so under quasi-monopoly conditions.
When people had little choice but to watch news programming at the dinner hour, the three networks had strong incentive to compete with one another on the basis of depth of coverage. I recall from my youth the days when ABC had three anchors, including future solo anchor Peter Jennings broadcasting from London. But, with the proliferation of cable, Americans were increasingly choosing to watch something other than news: game shows, re-runs, SportsCenter, or whathaveyou.
With the incentive gone, news programming began to be viewed as an expense, and the networks largely did away with foreign coverage. Not only is it expensive to produce, but Americans generally don’t care about it unless there’s a crisis. But, since by definition we don’t know where crises will break out ahead of time, it’s cheaper to simply parachute in to cover them. And hard news began to soften, including more human interest stories and politics-as-sports coverage.
CNN filled the gap. Ted Turner was viewed as crazy for jumping into what was already a dying industry. If there wasn’t an appetite for 30 minutes of hard news, how could 24/7 news get an audience? But CNN carved out a niche among the relatively small segment of society that craved in-depth coverage of the world around them. There was even the Headline News spin-off, which was essentially a rolling series of nightly newscasts.
But success breeds imitators. Fox and MSNBC jumped in and fragmented the audience. Eventually, Fox became the dominant all-news network by catering to an ideological segment under the pretense of balance and fairness. After years of scrambling, MSNBC decided to do the same thing for the left. CNN, frankly, still hasn’t figured out an identity.
And that’s to say nothing of the Internet, which simply whips the networks at providing detailed, timely news for people who have a real appetite for it.
Returning to the MTV analogy, none of the American news networks primarily does news anymore. They’ve decided that the way to build an audience is through chit-chat and set piece programming. So most of the day is filled with host-driven talk, with some programs newsier than others.
BBC, NPR, and Al Jazeera are free from having to draw a large audience and can simply focus on what they think the audience needs to hear. But there’s a ridiculously small appetite for this most of the time.
Al Jazeera is uniquely situated to cover the mess in Egypt and will get a nice bounce from doing such a fantastic job. Maybe the cable companies will start carrying them here. But they’ll never have a steady American audience; people will tune out until they care about the Middle East again.
As for NPR, I’m glad it exists and don’t mind paying the tiny bit of my taxes that support it. Then again, the audience is mostly listeners like me. (Indeed, they remind me of that often.) So maybe I should have to pay for it, like I do HBO and Showtime.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum responds, making several important points:
1. Al Jazeera is doing so well covering this particular story because it “happens to be something that al-Jazeera is very, very well situated to cover.”
Which is absolutely true. My complain isn’t so much that an Arab network aimed at an English audience is beating American networks at covering an Arab story but that the American coverage isn’t even using the tools available to it. That is, this story is being covered in exactly the same way we’d cover a flu epidemic or a controversy involving Sarah Palin.
2. “The problem is that Americans have voted with their pocketbooks and announced in a loud and sustained voice that they don’t really care about international news unless it happens to be either (a) a U.S. war or (b) some kind of disaster story like Haiti or the Chilean miners.”
Again, exactly right. Indeed, that’s the thrust of my argument here: explaining why the free market is underproducing niche coverage.
3. “Maybe, just maybe, up-to-the-nanosecond coverage isn’t really all that important? If you’re transfixed by this stuff, that’s fine. No one begrudges it. But really, is there any compelling reason why a TV network should be broadcasting continuous coverage of something like this?”
Well, maybe not. Certainly, we got by fine in the days of waiting for the morning paper or the nightly newscast. But the fact of the matter is that, in the Information Age we expect to get our information instantaneously. Furthermore, I’d note that the networks in question already are providing round-the-clock coverage of this. They’re just doing it badly. And, Kevin agrees, that’s a bad thing: “Giving Egypt a couple of hours a day instead of 24/7 treatment seems fine to me, but at the least, those couple of hours ought to be good stuff.”
4. “[D]oes following events on Twitter, where the signal-to-noise ratio is about 1%, really improve your understanding of what’s happening?”
As noted in the footnote below, it depends entirely upon whom you’re following. I follow a goodly number of genuine experts on foreign affairs. I’ve you’re following Ashton Kutcher, The Real Shaq, and the cast of Jersey Shore, they’re not likely to have any keen insights on Egypt.
*I should note that it’s not “Twitter” per se that provides such great coverage but the fact that I follow a whole host of people and institutions who have a passion for and expertise in foreign policy.
You realize that you’re saying that the reason American news stations are broken is because Americans are broken, right?
You mostly do. Public funding for NPR usually just covers the some of the cost of maintaining the station, the actual content (which they have to purchase) is funded through listener donations. To that end their programming is influenced by the wallets of their audience. Thankfully what their audience mostly wants is straight forward news coverage. That’s why cutting public funding for NPR is absurd, all it does it provide the means for a community to broadcast the content it wants to have broadcast.
Interesting that this piece, even though it names quite a laundry list of broadcasters, never mentions Voice of America.
You know, that one is the organization that is supposed to be funded by US taxpayers to “get the truth out.”
(And amusingly, Republicans will usually want to kill NRP, while funding VOA.)
The VOA is explicitly prohibited by its charter from broadcasting to a US audience. It can only broadcast to foreign audiences.
Has Gretchen Carlson Googled “Egypt” yet?
I’ve listened to it on shortwave. I see live streaming on the website, though it isn’t working with Ubuntu right now.
I wouldn’t be surprised if VOA was Windows only :-\
Pretty good analysis of the situation, James, but what do we do? The free market has spoken, and this is the result. Can you imagine the howling from your side if someone were to propose a BBC-like entity here?
BTW. of what DC says is true, that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.
We fund media that we shouldn’t listen to, or fact-check on. So much for an open society.
FWIW, I think the Federal government should fund a _small_ operation to put out news in public domain (or creative commons style licenses). That public domain media should be free for broadcast, re-broadcast, streaming, twittering, whatever, everywhere.
This is possibly more important than, and possibly should displace some, National Public Media operations. After all “National Public Media” has decided not to be that.
Note that the BBC is trapped in an intellectual property creation model as well. They don’t publish to the public domain. They try to generate ongoing revenue streams, with their British tax funds as a funding mechanism.
It seems to me that a BBC-like entity (and I mean just news) here should publish to the public domain, as you say. Something like that is the case for most or all government-sponsored work, right? Being free from the need to generate revenue is what would separate it from the rest of the profit-driven herd. I’m sure there would be other problems, of course…. To make it easy, let’s just call it CSPAN News.
It seems to be just the “Latest Newscast” MP3 that’s broken. The Global Live stream works just fine for me in Chromium.
Nor would I. However, given that it’s a .MP3 link, I’m guessing that it’s more of a site problem than a compatibility problem.
Hmm, if I download the .MP3, all I get is 5 minutes of static.
That is the old rule, but we’ve diverged a lot over the years. Consider the National Film Preservation Foundation
They preserve out-of-copyright films, from the Library of Congress, etc., but they also Copyright the result. They are “intellectual property builders.”
The VOA prohibition to broadcast to domestic audience was due to fear of it becoming a mouthpiece of government propaganda. I’m not saying that it’s good or bad, but that’s the original thinking.
I can see that. In the modern age, with it as just one “feed,” it’s less of an issue.
Note that I love for-profit media. In my idea world government funded public domain creators would be minority players in a wider, mostly for-profit, ecosystem.
@Christopher Bowen: Sure. In fairness, though, we’re a continental superpower. We’re simply less interested in the goings-on in the rest of the world than our Western brethren because 1) we rightly see ourselves as the dominant player in the world and 2) we’re more geographically isolated. What happens in Germany impacts France more than it does us for both reasons.
@john personna: At the end of the day, VOA is a propaganda outlet, not a news network. That’s not to say that it’s deceitful; it’s not. But its function is to convey the American government’s message to citizens of targeted countries. It’s not an analogue to BBC.
@reid: I’m not sure there’s anything we can do. BBC, NPR, and various broadcast outlets exist for those who want that type of coverage. And there’s the Internet. Broadcasting, almost by definition, aims at a mass audience. And it just doesn’t exist for hard news, especially foreign affairs news, absent exciting, sporadic events.
Then kill it. Twitter does more, and costs the government less.
NPR is already picked up and re-broadcast by the majors, when they have the video. Even now, without my proposed public domain changes, it doesn’t just feed “listeners.”
(Note also that Planet Money is a feed for me, not a radio show.)
@john personna: I’m afraid I have no insight as to how successful VOA is at its mission or even by what metrics we’d judge. My default position is to be incredibly skeptical of these efforts. Especially now that, as you say, there’s Twitter and various other viral means of sharing information. Host governments simply don’t have the monopoly on information they did even 20 years ago.
From various things I read, VoA, Radio Free Asia and such propaganda stations still have tremendous impact in countries that are closed to US media, and where internet access is very limited or controlled. High powered MW or SW broadcasts still manage to get through to cheap receivers.
James: So you’re okay with the current situation; it’s not just that there’s nothing we can do, but there’s nothing we SHOULD do? I guess the internet is turning into a great equalizer since it’s pretty widely available and content-neutral, but other than NPR, it seems strange to rely on foreign news sources.
Broadcasting doesn’t necessarily have to aim at a mass audience. Look at CSPAN. It’s a niche thing, but it’s probably accessible to over 90% of the population. The need to appeal to a mass audience and get big ratings is what’s caused the race to the toilet, as you’ve described. Obviously, a BBC-like news organization here would cost a lot more than CSPAN, and that won’t fly in this climate.
Reid: You’ve about summed it up.
Am I happy with the current situation? Decidedly not. But there really is no reason to hope that American networks are going to spend a lot of money providing a service its intended audience has repeatedly demonstrated it doesn’t want.
And we’re surely not going to launch a BBC-type network in the current environment. Not only would it be expensive, it would have a niche audience. One that can damned well afford to pay for its own news or get it elsewhere.
The option for people like me is to do what people like me are already doing: Shutting off the TV news and going to the Internet and elsewhere. There’s more great coverage out there than I have time to consume. The challenge is in finding it.
James – I disagree that the audence has shown they do not want real news. Have they been given a choice? I bet a real news 24 hour news station would take off, but we have to distinguish between entertainment news and informational news first. It won’t get the ratings of Fox or CNN but it wouldn’t be intended for the same market anyway.
Internet news is just as biased (OTB is a bit unusual because it has diverse contributors which is great), what are the other “informational news” web-sites? I actually had someone tell me news max, drudge report, and rawstory all fit bill, but I can’t find any I think are really news.
CNN International has had good coverage and is available on at least some Time Warner outlets.
CNN International used to be on DirecTV but was purged a few years back for I forgot whatever reason they gave. Probably to free up bandwidth for their PPV channels. Same for News World which I loved because of its nightly CBC “The National” broadcast.
But you admit that a “straight news” network would get even lower ratings than the current news networks. Which get abysmal ratings.
Oh: They’d also be much more expensive to run. Having bureaus all around the world staffed with competent journalists is expensive. Sitting in a studio and yapping with people dying to be on TV is cheap.
We did have straight up news coverage, but the problem is that the networks have diverged from their intended goal mainly because that’s what viewers want. Viewers don’t want a boring face staring back at them telling them what’s going on. They want Bill O’Reilly telling them what they should think, and explaining why Liberals are bad people. Much like how MTV saw how music videos weren’t as popular with people as their shows, they phased out the former in favour of more of the latter.
When you try to play false equivalence by asserting that MSNBC is just the Fox of the left, you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution. MSNBC may tilt slightly left, but they have never gone to court to defend their right to lie in newscasts, for instance.
@M1EK : I’m not interested in weighing the comparative evils of Fox and MSNBC, since I seldom watch either. My point is merely that Fox pioneered ideological targeting of cable news and MSNBC has tried to imitate. Mostly, in terms of its prime time line-up. That renders both of them generally useless for my purposes, unless I’m looking for post-event commentary.
I call bs. Msnbc dabbled but never went whole hog. And, with “lean forward” they have repositioned as diverse opinion. Scarborough balances Matthewd, Olberman is out.
How much information can really be communicated from a fluid situation with many variables? Maybe we are asking too much of our own news services? As for Al Jazeera isn’t it true their English language broadcasts and Middle Eastern broadcasts are very different in content and tone? How can that be a good source?
Sometimes it’s best for expert’s to analyze rather than reporters on the ground to analyze. How many burned out cars do we need to see to get the picture? Angry protesters? Old footage of Mubarak? I’ll take some serious analysis.
MSNBC is Fox News of the left not because is evil, but because it relies on the same model of paying people to talk on television instead of doing real reporting.
I have been watching this unfold via the BBC and TOL mostly, but I did hit Die Welt a couple of times. There is a reason why I get e-updates from The Age (Australia), the Moscow Times and the Guardian. There is so much important news out there that our media refuses to cover…..
That’s a key point. I call it the David Cross Rule: “That’s the f***ing irony, I have to read other countries’ websites to find out what’s happening in my own country”
> Sometimes it’s best for expert’s to analyze rather than reporters on the ground to analyze. How many burned out cars do we need to see to get the picture? Angry protesters? Old footage of Mubarak? I’ll take some serious analysis.
That’s what the CIA thought when they started to move away from HUMINT and towards more analysis of ELINT. Many intelligence failures ensued. If all a reporter is doing is getting video of him/herself in front of a riot, yea that is kind of useless pretty soon. On the other hand, there is a dying art called journalism that helps you to actually learn things and be informed. Certainly, it;s not something practiced on Fox.
“Sometimes it’s best for expert’s to analyze rather than reporters on the ground to analyze. How many burned out cars do we need to see to get the picture? Angry protesters? Old footage of Mubarak? I’ll take some serious analysis.”
Another problem is that you don´t see any serious analysis in most cable news in the US.
What, did you just find out what “vapid” meant this week and couldn’t wait to litter your story with it?