Air Apparent

TV news in the post-election world, part one

There are two general assumptions about the media that have become so common it’s stopped occurring to us to question them: first, that newspapers, and those who remain in their employ, are to be pitied; and, second, that TV news is, on the whole, to be derided. TV news is vapid, we say. Its programs are “prisoners of demography and cultural shifts that are as irreversible as the physical laws of the universe.” Hell, we say, it’s not even real news anymore. “It’s official,” The New York Times’s Alessandra Stanley declared back in March, “the networks no longer cover news, they slap it onto the bottom edge of their regular programming like Post-it notes.”

Stanley was describing some networks’ decisions, on the evening of the March 4 Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, and Vermont primaries, to offer scrolling “crawls” rather than live coverage of the states’ returns—but, then, the details here hardly matter. Stanley might as well have been talking about the cable news’ channels decision to air hours and hours of punditry each night; she might as well have been talking about the countless hours the cable channels devoted to Sarah Palin’s wardrobe or SNL’s latest skit or Hillary Clinton’s hairstyle or the disappearance, nearly six months ago, of Caylee Anthony; she might as well have been talking about the relatively few hours those same channels devoted to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the crisis in the Congo. TV news, both on the nets and on cable, is certainly ripe for accusations of Post-Itism.

Nevertheless, during the 2008 election season, the Big Three cable news networks set records for viewership; their ratings success, you have to think, signals that the news programs have been doing something right. In some ways, they have. To the extent that TV news succeeded in covering 2008’s campaign, it did so in doing what it’s always done: very broadly, putting the news in a human context. Live TV depicts public figures in a manner much more essential—and, occasionally, authentic—than print or even blogs, at this point, can do; the filter of text is at once much higher and much wider than the filter of the screen.

Compare Sarah Palin’s televised interviews—with Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson, Sean Hannity—to the many profiles published in newspapers, blogs, and magazines in the days since her nomination. Those interviews might not have contained as much information—or, more specifically, facts—as the profiles; their advantage, rather, is in the conveyance of those little habits, of movement and of mind, that don’t always make it to the page: Palin’s defensive discomfort with Gibson, her tension with Couric, her ease with Hannity. These are, as journalism instructors like to term them, “telling details”: useful information that helps voters comprehend the candidate as not merely an amalgamation of policies and a spewer of sound bites, but also as a human being. It’s not make-or-break information, but it’s valuable nonetheless.

And then there’s the corollary to the “telling detail” benefit: capturing unscripted moments that are, often unintentionally, revelatory. (See “Bachmann, Michele”—and, for that matter, “Jackson, Jesse.”) Live TV is, obviously, best at this—but even when prerecorded, televised news has a quality of personal serendipity that other platforms still lack. Sure, YouTube and other Web-based platforms may certainly be moving in this direction; but, for now, the best mechanism we have to elicit and record those elusive Moments of Humanity from our public figures is the lens of a TV camera.

And yet. As we’ve seen over and over again, during this election cycle and beyond it, TV is also quite good at seizing those moments of humanity and flogging them to death, day after day after day—not only lulling us with the sense-dulling and complacency-inducing repetition of loop coverage, but also tacitly endorsing the notion that “authenticity” is not merely illustrative, but also revelatory. (On Bachmann: Did you hear what she said?! Will it cost her her seat? How is she McCarthyesque? How isn’t she? What does it mean to be patriotic? Because did you hear what she said?! Will it cost her her seat? Et cetera.)

Thus, TV news’s oft-discussed (and oft-disgusting) tropism toward both repetition and its corollary: sensationalism. This is most often attributed to the size of the news hole—Well, we have twenty-four hours of air to fill, after all. Of course we’re going to need to be repetitive, and to be interesting—but I’d argue that the problem isn’t merely one of size. It’s also—and maybe more so—one of speed.

Because loop coverage, for all that it’s derided, is the least of TV news’s problems. Repetition, generally, is only an issue when what’s being repeated isn’t, you know, any good. And though low-quality coverage can have myriad sources, one of the most common is news outlets—which are, by and large, populated by smart, committed journalists—simply falling victim to time pressures. One reason problems—misinformation, to be sure, but more generally the shallowly sensationalized coverage for which cable news, in particular, is infamous—arise is that outlets often fail to take (or, to be fair, simply lack) the time to step back and consider what they’re throwing out on the air.

Or, for that matter, to fact-check it. To wit: David Shuster, two weeks ago, repeating the false claim that one “Martin Eisenstadt” (actually, the serial hoaxer Eitan Gorlin) was the source of Carl Cameron’s “Sarah Palin doesn’t know Africa is a continent” reporting. And Rick Sanchez gleefully—and, as turned out, incorrectly—reporting that, during last week’s G20 summit, world leaders had refused to shake President Bush’s hand. Time considerations don’t excuse the reporters’ errors (in Shuster’s case, a mere-seconds-long Google search would have been enough for a fact-check: The fact that he that he was a hoaxer was on the first page of the engine’s search results on the day Shuster made his ill-advised “Eisenstadt” report). But while journalism may be deadline-oriented as a general rule, TV, in particular—even more than blogs—often demands that journalists who use its platform make split-second judgments about what information to distill, how to distill it, etc. A “twenty-four-minute” news cycle, as Time’s James Poniewozik had it, tends to rob TV reporters of the breathing room required to think before talking—to the air, if you’re an anchor, or, if you’re a producer, to the ear of your anchor. The speed of the current news cycle turns televised journalism’s chief asset—its immediacy—into a liability. A big one.

When TV anchors and reporters “break” news, what they’re really doing, 99 percent of the time, is regurgitating information that is already (and readily) available on the Web. Which is not only redundant—it turns news reporters into little more than script-readers—but also, in today’s split-second world of news consumption, inefficient. Why spend fifteen seconds listening to Kyra Phillips announce Obama’s latest cabinet appointment when you could ingest the same news, as an online headline, in two? The thirteen-second difference may not mean a huge discrepancy on its own, but multiply it out over several days or weeks or months…and the result is a lot of wasted time, on the part of audiences and journalists alike.

TV’s current method of news-breaking filters two-dimensional information into a three-dimensional platform, which manages to undercut both the information and the platform in question. The whole system is approximately as sensible as Michael Phelps chucking the whole swimming thing for a career in astrophysics—or Barack Obama deciding to give up politics to play pro basketball. Indeed, to watch many news shows is often to feel that one is watching a radio broadcast whose participants happen to be wearing a lot of makeup.

So, then. Looking ahead—past these years of adolescently awkward transition in our journalism, past this period that finds us growing into the Web, past the period when “a digital world” is a prospect rather than an established fact—here’s one thought for TV news to serve its audiences and itself: Stop thinking in terms of immediacy. Put another way: Stop trying to be a platform for breaking news.

Now, granted, that may seem impractical at first, even foolish—the whole live-air thing, after all, would seem to make TV a painfully obvious platform for of-the-moment news-breaking. And occasionally it is. But not overall. Because (sorry, Luddites of the world, but) the Internet’s expansion in use and relevance is not an opinion, but a fact. Journalism, going forward, will have the Web to contend with. And the Web is simply superior as a platform for breaking news. It’s superior to newspapers. It’s superior to radio. And, yes, it’s superior to TV.

While a TV reporter simply reads a breaking-news headline—and perhaps, when audiences are lucky, offers a few sentences of context (and, when they’re really lucky, an accompanying graphic or photo…and, when they’re really, really lucky, accompanying video footage)—the Web can offer the same headline (again, in efficiently readable text) accompanied by: links to related stories, maps and other graphics, any video that may be available, etc. And as the news item follows the normal trajectory from headline to report to foundation-for-analysis, a Web page can archive that evolution, providing context at every step.

Watch a TV news broadcast while a story is breaking, and you’ll likely have to wait—in some cases, quite a while—for the cycle to loop back to the story you’re interested in. And, even if you happen to hit it just right, timing-wise, you’ll still miss out on the depth and context that only the Web can provide. While news on the Internet reaches, nearly infinitely, both horizontally and vertically, news on TV is is constrained by the limitations of its own segmentation. It offers finite points to the Web’s ever-expanding lines.

So, then, when it comes to efficiency, it’s Web: 1, TV: 0; and when it comes to context, it’s Web: 1, TV: 0. And, importantly, it’s also Web: 1, TV: 0 when it comes to accuracy. Because when errors, of fact or judgment, are introduced in Web stories, their corrections, once noted, become part of the story’s textual record. An “update” notation, when done correctly, displays at once the original error and the correction. In this way, the evolution of fact-finding and narrative-building is made transparent. When errors are made in TV news reporting, on the other hand, their corrections often get lost in the ether. If you were to hear an erroneous fact in a morning TV report, it would take nothing short of a stroke of luck for you hear a correction to that same bit of misinformation later in the day.

In other words: the Web celebrates and fosters the organic, context-driven nature of news. Television, confined as it is by the dual constraints of time and technology, fights it.

But that’s not bad news for TV news—or, at any rate, it doesn’t have to be. Back to what TV does well: providing context, humanizing the news, expanding news stories past their text and into the realm of the communal. So, TV news executives, producers, reporters: Take advantage of all that. Play to your strengths. In your case, be to the Web what magazines have been to newspapers. Take ’Net-based reporting to the next level. Do even more of what you do now: Serve as a platform for people in the news—politicians, businesspeople, anyone—to have their say. Interview them. Dig deep. Provide context to their stories. Invite experts—with an emphasis on academics and intellectuals, and a decided de-emphasis on partisan spokespeople (and—dare I dream?—a ban on “body language experts” of any kind)—to provide context and criticism. Run segments of explanatory journalism pegged to the news of the day. Curate that news. Analyze. Provide context. Think. Stop thinking of TV news as a kind of visual version of a reported blog, and consider it instead more as a visual version of a magazine of ideas. (Or, at least, of a newsmagazine.) Treat here’s-what’s-happening-right-now news summaries not as the end point of a broadcast, but as the foundation.

In liberating themselves from the caprices of the breaking news cycle, a new generation of newcasts can capitalize on the opportunity TV offers for community-building. Their resources and their air time freed from the constraints of breaking news, broadcasts will have the opportunity instead to focus, for example, on assembling panels of expert guests and on preparing questions for those guests that will lead to lively conversation—and they can enjoy the luxury of having those panel discussions last longer than five minutes. They can invest in the newsmagazine-style segments of reporting and criticism—mini-documentaries, even—that audiences both like and need. (For evidence of both, see the surge in ratings that 60 Minutes has enjoyed for the past two weeks.) They can, overall, serve as a kind of national town hall, in which leaders—political and intellectual and cultural—come together to talk to their constituents. What these newscasts would lack in terms of the Web’s democratic give-and-take, they’d be well positioned to compensate for in providing smart curation, and analysis of, the major stories of the day.

But wait, you may say. When it comes down to it, aren’t you really arguing for more punditry on TV news? And, well, yes. But advocating more punditry need not, on its own, be journalistic heresy. Because what I’d like to see, specifically, is a kind of PBS-ified punditry: smart, thoughtful, valuable analysis that contextualizes the news. That even—hey, let’s go crazy here—has fun with the news. More news analysis need not, after all, mean less news; more punditry need not mean less reporting. I’m simply arguing for an efficient and intelligent allocation of resources. I have confidence that newspapers and their descendants will continue to develop the mechanisms and the models that will produce, in the aggregate, more reporting—and quality reporting, at that. The citizenry of our digitized future, largely via the Web, will be more informed about our world, not less. But TV shouldn’t cede all reporting to other outlets—again, I’d hope that freedom from the vagaries of the split-second news cycle would leave more reportorial resources for enterprise work—rather, simply the snippet-style reporting required to regurgitate breaking-news stories from the Web.

Nor am I arguing for the blanket PBS-ification of all TV news. Because, first, well, snooze. (Blanket-anything is rarely a good idea, not only because uniformity is unproductive, but also because it’s boring.) And also: networks, obviously, are and should be free to develop their own individual voices. If that inches some closer to the NewsHour and others closer to Inside Edition, well, so be it. But I am saying that much of TV news right now, in its mix of breaking alerts and half-hearted analysis, is somewhat akin to daily helpings of broccoli with Cheez-Whiz, the healthy stuff made more palatable to audiences by virtue of its blanket of neon-tastic ooze. And since the Web already serves up broccoli (rendered, to belabor the metaphor, both tastier and more nutritious to consumers because of the Web’s freshness-assuring packaging), TV news might as well focus on the tasty stuff. And given a choice between Cheez-Whiz and, say—sorry, last metaphor-belaborment—a nice, aged, melted Gouda…wouldn’t most of us prefer the latter?

In other, non-metaphorical, words: Punditry need not be a bad thing. Smart need not equal boring. There’s a way to marry reflective, thoughtful journalism with the personality-driven setup that the modern TV Zeitgeist seems to require. Take, for example, shows like Countdown with Keith Olbermann and The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. They’re partisan, sure—nakedly so—but ideology, I’d say, is subsidiary to their success. Because in them, overall, you have two informative, entertaining, and smart shows that offer a deliberative and often quite delightful mix of reporting, analysis, criticism, and commentary. Their guests are almost always true experts about a given topic—no “body language experts” in sight—and the hosts are smart enough both to ask good questions and to know how to follow up on them. (Maddow’s October interview with Obama, for example—which focused on wonky details like infrastructure improvement—was perhaps one of the best I’ve seen with the then-candidate.) Watch each show—or even part of each show—and a viewer will come away not only with knowledge of the biggest news stories of the day, but also with a relatively sophisticated sense of why those stories matter. And of how they fit into the greater context of the world.

These hour-long, thoughtful shows are a model that works from a quality-journalism standpoint—and one that, again, from a business perspective, has proven immensely popular with audiences. There are other models, too, of course, for this mix of televised reporting and commentary (The Situation Room, The NewsHour, the generally fantastic Bill Moyers Journal, the soon-to-be-erstwhile Hannity and Colmes, and on and on and on)—and, on the radio, NPR’s overall mix of deep-diving reporting and smart analysis and fun features offers is a fantastic example of how an entire network can use the day’s news as a jumping-off point for more expansive programming. Few of these shows and outlets, however, are as purely entertaining as the MSNBC pundits’ products.

Yet it shouldn’t be commentary uber alles. There are some stories audiences deserve to learn as soon as news producers do. If there’s been a terror attack, for example—or a disaster of any kind, or any bit of important news—by all means, TV news organizations should dust off their BREAKING NEWS chyrons. But break news judiciously; don’t cry wolf with that glaring BN tag. Think of this year’s campaign coverage: Very little of what passed (laughably) as BREAKING NEWS leading up to the election—Breaking: Palin in Pittsburgh! Breaking: McCain to Give a Town Hall in Toledo!—was actually, you know, breaking. (Nor, for that matter, was it really news.) So use anchors and correspondents for a higher purpose. Let the Web handle the dynamic stories, the stories that require constant updates and changes and shifts and corrections. Let television be the home of journalism that is rigorous and well-researched and thoughtful and deeply reported, of journalism that benefits from the editorial restraint that comes from thinking through ideas before they’re aired. Let the Web be about process; let TV be about product.

Tomorrow: part two

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.