On Tuesday, June 14 and Friday, June 17, we recorded the evening news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News Channel. To this reporter, with fifty-two years at ABC, CBS, NBC, and Al Jazeera English, among others, the single biggest shock came from former host Cenk Uygur’s 6 p.m. hour on MSNBC (he has since been provisionally replaced by Al Sharpton). One of his hours used all of one minute and ten seconds of video; the other, one minute and forty seconds, and this was video of more talking heads.
“You call this a news channel?” I asked NBC’s Alex Wallace. She replied: “MSNBC is a place for intelligent conversation . . . more than the latest video. If it’s the latest video about a political candidate, MSNBC would want it, but it’s more of a niche market, MSNBC, than a news market.” ’Nuff said.
PEJ measures Fox’s share of news programming devoted to video packages at consistently close to 30 percent, and Fox is often aggressive and original in finding video stories not on everyone’s radar—a manhunt in Montana on June 14, for example. But this was someone else’s video, smartly acquired by Fox. Not that a Fox reporter on the scene always makes a difference: correspondent Rick Leventhal filed a one-minute, twenty-second report on his overnight crossing of the Gulf of Sidra to Libya’s besieged Misrata, on a ferry filled with weapons and fighters. Someone had a video camera, but the report offered only twenty pedestrian seconds of footage.
Still, the big change is at CNN, and it’s not just a few seconds of video here or there, but its whole approach to covering the news. In 2007 almost half its airtime went to packaged reports from journalists in the field. By 2011, that was down to less than a fifth. Jonathan Klein was the president of CNN over that period, until he was replaced in September 2010. If he’s the guy who killed the composed video report, he isn’t apologizing. “I think the art of the package had fallen on very hard times,” Klein says. “Of course, there is still nothing better than a well-crafted 60 Minutes package, but those are not the instantly forgettable roundups that you are talking about.”
As Klein explains his decision to move away from packaged reports he critiques his own employees, comparing the creation of cable news to the expansion of Major League Baseball: “There was such an explosion of outlets that you had people rushed to the majors, to the networks, without a very good grounding in reporting or telling a story, so what they were doing was just mindlessly aping a format they had learned when they first got into the business.”
Rather than fix this sorry level of performance, Klein says, he chose other, cheaper ways to cover the news.
Gosh, did I say cheaper? Yes. To send a reporting team to Alabama for a few days might cost a few thousand dollars, Klein estimates, but to send that same team to Afghanistan, “you’re looking at extensive security, and it runs you into very serious money . . . between $50,000 and $100,000 just to get going.” Instead, Klein explains, “It’s far less expensive to have a reporter do a live top from the Pentagon, where we have a fixed camera, than to send a reporter to the battlefront. The best news organizations find ways to do both. You make periodic trips to make sure your reporting is authentic and informed, but you cannot afford to do that every single day.”
Indeed, “We go to fewer places, a lot less often,” says an A-list network correspondent with years of domestic and international reporting experience, and “finance is one of the reasons.” Does this make a difference? “It’s the difference from seeing something up close and seeing it only from afar,” he says. “It goes to the very essence of reporting.”
More and more, the correspondent says, he and his colleagues report on international stories from Washington, using the money-saving formula described by Klein. “The audience gets a different perspective if the story is seen from the outside looking in, rather versus the inside looking out,” says our correspondent.
But turning the focus of news away from video is not just about pinching pennies. Klein explains: “The challenge that I and a lot of news executives laid down for our people . . . was to break out of the standard formula and think about what the best way to tell a story would be. Sometimes, the tape package is the best possible way to tell a story. But sometimes there are other, better ways.”