Elsewhere the cuts have been more subtle, particularly the cuts in foreign reporting. You may not have noticed, because the networks are getting better at hiding their retreat behind compilations of video gathered by other news organizations but packaged by familiar network correspondents. Even counting those compilations, PEJ measured cutbacks on video packages of 8 (NBC), 10 (ABC), and 13 (CBS) percentage points between 2007 and 2011 in the category of international stories with US involvement.
One example from that category: “There’s been a stunning lack of coverage of the Afghanistan war,” says Jurkowitz. “Despite the fact that the strategic stakes are high, despite the fact of the scores of thousands of troops we have on the ground, despite the fact of the growing casualty count.”
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.