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October 09, 2007

As Much News As They Can, While Still Making Money

Atrios writes:

It seems that every day is dominated by some fake news event - a school lockdown, a missing child, a truck accident, a workplace shooting - with a brief hour of television from another planet when they broadcast CNN International at noon.

It isn't that these stories aren't news at all, but they're local news stories. They're broadcast only because there's some sort of voyeuristic lure in them. This was brought home to me when the fake news story of the day was an armored car heist in Philadelphia. People were killed and it was certainly a valid local news story, but there was absolutely nothing about the story to make it have any national relevance at all.

But armored car heists are interesting, the sort of story on which a bored channel-flipper may let his remote rest. And that, after all, is CNN's highest priority: Not informing its viewers, but capturing a maximum share of television's total viewers. As George Saunders says in his essay "The Braindead Megaphone," asking the media to tell us the truth is not the same as asking the media to "tell us as much truth as you can, while still making money." The latter is what they're doing, and it's why interesting stories so often overwhem actual news.

October 9, 2007 | Permalink


Exactly why I one day -bang- never watched CNN again...
Apart from Wolfie/King/Beck/Dobbs et al

They canceled an entire International segment...
-the reason I was watching, in fact-
For a truck accident in Georgia.

Slow learner, for sure, but
Never did - or will - again.

Posted by: has_te | Oct 9, 2007 1:34:45 PM

My cable service just added CNN in HD. Like I really needed to watch CNN in HD. From the brief look I gave it, it seems like regular CNN with more crawling text.

Posted by: Binky | Oct 9, 2007 1:45:06 PM

The need to feel we understand the world around us, even when it distresses us, can lead to making excuses for stupidity in others. That's how I feel about these facile explanations for the failure of the news Media to do their jobs adequately or seriously.

There's no doubt that there are serious problems with the economic structure of advertiser-supported video news delivery in a 500 channel universe. By all means, analyze them and suggest alternative structures, which might become goals for effective reform. But, let's not pretend that what the news networks are actually doing is, itself optimal or smart, even given the challenges faced.

The news channels, like most newspapers, are doing the easy thing, the thing the "others" are doing, playing it safe. But, there's not much evidence that they are even doing obvious things to improve their situations.

Look at the advertisers CNN has to rely on, and you get a sense of the audience quality they achieve with their car-wreck focus. Head-on, apply directly to the forehead.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Oct 9, 2007 1:53:42 PM

They want to be first with the next Columbine or horrific accident, so they take 'live, breaking' bullshit local stories with their fingers crossed for just enough horror to get the scoop, but not too much. They want car chases but not on-air pile-ups. They want panic but not blood.

It's like Denis Leary's line about how the networks showed Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, and no-one ever wanted to change the channel.

CNN International is there for digital cable and satellite viewers. It caters to an audience of global travellers, golfing expats, non-voyeurs and yacht owners.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Oct 9, 2007 2:00:49 PM

First of all, it's really "tell us as much truth as you can, while still making money hand over fist", which is a bit different.

I've been thinking a bit about the media crit beat a bit more lately. As best I can tell, all the complaints boil down to pushing news more in the direction of news magazine coverage as opposed to local dramas, headline regurgitation and instant "spinalysis" [a word I just made up, but I really like it.] In other words, the meaty hours on CNN would be more like reading Newsweek or Time, while the fluffy hours might be like reading Vanity Fair or GQ. This gets you out of the market for channel flippers and more into the market for people who are going to watch one program religiously.

There are no guarantees, but whoever is third in the ratings really might want to try differentiating themselves along these lines. I guess that's MSNBC, except for Olbermann [not exactly for channel flippers!] and whoever is opposite Glenn Beck's Jingoism Hour.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Oct 9, 2007 2:17:32 PM

I think this "all we want them to do is tell the truth" stuff is nonsense - what we want CNN to do, really, is thrash Fox News soundly around the face and neck. Call it what you like, but it's not, exactly, "truth." (and further, this definition of "truth" is the real problem with the request.) I'll be the first to admit that without some sort of "breaking news" the 24 hour news channels are pretty dull. And it's either bank heists in Philly or a "liberal" and a "conservative" yelling at each other, apparently as a programming choice; I don't like it either, but if there's an alternative, I haven't seen it. In which case... I'd rather have bank heists.

As for Cnn International... yea, yacht owners, I suppose. My last trip to Europe was a blast just cause I could laze around the hotel room alternating between CNN Intl and BBC World. But there too... basically headline news, frequently livened by a plane crash or some other disaster... or the fact that it was raining, somewhere. I think the really ugly secret is that we really don't need "news" round the clock.

Oh... and I think the only other potential solution is CNBC - which has a continuous news story following the daily ups and downs of the market. And which is about to be eaten alive by Fox Business.

Posted by: weboy | Oct 9, 2007 2:24:14 PM

Is Hardball really any different?

Posted by: wisewon | Oct 9, 2007 2:34:08 PM

CNN in the morning is unwatchable. Believe me I've switched to ESPN and feel better informed and like my intelligence has been afforded greater respect.

And John Roberts is a Ted Baxter for the new millennium. (You kids will have to look that one up on that googly or wicki thing that you're all into.) What an arrogant, empty headed buffoon. (But great anchor hair.)

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Oct 9, 2007 2:45:06 PM

What weboy said ... the real issue is that we don't need instant updates on most news.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Oct 9, 2007 3:00:13 PM

Jack Shafer at Slate has an article on this topic of junk news.


Posted by: Quiddity | Oct 9, 2007 3:10:54 PM

It is not so much that people crave it so much, it is that it is so cheap to broadcast and people don't care enough to turn it off usually.

Posted by: Doug | Oct 9, 2007 3:40:42 PM

Laugh if you want, but when I get disgusted with the Tee Vee news I switch to Current TV. Short blurbs about a variety of different topics -- just like CNN -- except without the BS. Yesterday I learned more about bodybuilder's steroid use in one short "pod" than in all of CNN's sensationalistic coverage of Barry Bonds.

I'm pretty sure I'm not their target audience since I'm well over 40, but there you have it.

Posted by: Southern Beale | Oct 9, 2007 3:44:21 PM

In the olden days the news didn't have to entertain. I'm not sure if that wasn't the better model of disseminating relevant information. The market-driven principle isn't terribly well suited for all human endeavors and learning about current events that matter might be one of those endeavors which are better done in a different framework.

Of course the problem is that as long as news are provided by corporations they want money for it.

Posted by: Echidne | Oct 9, 2007 3:47:50 PM

Just as newspaper publishers tolerated writers only because they needed something to keep the ads from bumping together, from time-warner's perspective, the purpose of newscasts on CNN is to keep the viewer from switching channels between the ad for the turnip twiddler and the ad for the little blue or purple pill.

Posted by: justawriter | Oct 9, 2007 3:49:16 PM

Is Hardball really any different?

Yes, it is. It's formulaic, right down to the shouty left/right thing in the 30-45 segment, but it's not dependent upon 'cat! up! tree!' local feed-based stuff that drives the news channels during office hours.

I'll be the first to admit that without some sort of "breaking news" the 24 hour news channels are pretty dull.

BBC World has a decentish model, as does CNN International: half an hour for a bulletin, and the other half for more in-depth reporting on a particular topic or focused on a region. (The UK-based BBC News 24 isn't as good.) It's a similar format to BBC World Service radio, which is such a great way to get smarter about global news, almost passively.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Oct 9, 2007 3:50:19 PM

Just the other day, when channel surfing, I came across Faux Noise by accident, and they had a "developing story" blurb about some guy who broke his ankle on a hillside near the Hollywood sign in LA.

This is national news?

Posted by: Apprentice to Darth Holden | Oct 9, 2007 3:51:31 PM

But armored car heists are interesting, the sort of story on which a bored channel-flipper may let his remote rest.

This is, by far, the biggest reason that televised news is so useless - all the decisions made for it, from the topics reported to the spoken delivery, giant moving graphics, and loud theme music, are done to grab the attention of drooling mongoloids whose brain stems light up at the sight of bombs exploding, celebrities arriving, soldiers opening fire, missing white girls in bikinis, angry people yelling at the camera, and the latest crazy YouTube video. And if a news item isn't stimulating that lizard brain every certain number of seconds, it's not making it on the air. It's a small miracle any information can get through such a nonstop tribute to the human id.

Posted by: a1 | Oct 9, 2007 3:53:09 PM

If CNN were so focused on / good at grabbing ratings, then they'd you know, not get such shitty ratings.

A network that actually focused on reporting actual news would kick the shit out of CNN in the ratings, it's just that all that would take hard work and money and oh yeah, interfere with the interests of CNN's well-heeled corporate parentage.

Posted by: Dan | Oct 9, 2007 4:38:38 PM

"Is Hardball really any different?"

Yup. MSNBC actually has a few political shows on their schedule. CNN cancelled all their political shows because car chases get better ratings.

Tuesdays on MSNBC are all day politics this year, which is pretty fun. Watch Gene Sperling blinking nervously into the cameras...

Posted by: Petey | Oct 9, 2007 4:45:29 PM

Dan, I think if you're going to go the "if they just reported the actual news" route, you need to a) define "actual news" and how it differs from what we have now, andb) give some example - really, anything - that fits the bill. Because I think the sad reality is that what CNN is doing is actually news. It may not be presented well - I'd second the John Roberts is Ted Baxter note above, and add that Wolf Blitzer makes my teeth itch - but I think the people who aregue for different content need to define what content they think that is. Because I think what many smart liberals want is round the clock McNeil Lehrer. And if you think that's going to fix the problem, then you may want to realize that the original article is itself not widely watched. So, again... what is "actual news"? I'm really curious.

Posted by: weboy | Oct 9, 2007 4:45:37 PM

If CNN were so focused on / good at grabbing ratings, then they'd you know, not get such shitty ratings.

I was just coming over from Atrios's post to say this very thing. So-called "ratings-chasing" TV news outlets get awful ratings compared to the pre-CNN or pre-color eras. The mean age of cable news viewers (and I think network, too, but I can't say for sure) is in the high 50's, which is not what you might call a key demo. Additionally, Glenn Beck is still on TV, which I think disproves the notion that ratings are all organizations such as CNN care about.

Posted by: Aaron S. Veenstra | Oct 9, 2007 4:47:27 PM

"So, again... what is "actual news"? I'm really curious."

I think folks are looking for less tabloid and more broadsheet.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 9, 2007 4:53:51 PM

I stick mostly with C-Span, C-Span 2, and the Pennsylvania equivalent. Actual news, actual discussion about the news by people who know what they're talking about, actual newsmakers making speeches or having press conferences instead of soundbites, Book TV weekends. Great stuff.

Posted by: Joyful Alternative | Oct 9, 2007 5:01:17 PM

Wow, 23 comments in and no one's used the word "teevee" yet?

Posted by: The October Fool | Oct 9, 2007 5:13:09 PM

Look at the upside. If there was a real news network running in depth reporting on news of national and international significance, we would probably be reading blogs a lot less.

Posted by: Chuck | Oct 9, 2007 6:26:04 PM

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