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.