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“…And This Is The Overkill News Network”: CNN, Put Your Hands Up And Step Away From The Story

Enough, already.

Please, for the love of Cronkite: Give us a break from the missing plane. Yes, we all wonder what happened to it. Yes, our hearts go out to the families seeking resolution. But really, CNN … enough. Put your hands up and step away from the story.

I’m in the doctor’s office the other day, right? I’m waiting for my missus and the TV is on and I’m half watching, half reading and you’re covering the plane. And time passes. And you’re covering the plane. And commercials intervene and you come back and you’re covering the plane. And my wife comes out and it’s time to go and it’s been a solid hour and you’re still covering the plane. Nothing but the plane.

I’m on your website maybe six times a day, CNN, grazing for news. Have you had another lead story in the last month? Has nothing else of importance happened to any of the 7.1 billion people on this planet? I look at you and I want to start screaming like Tattoo on Fantasy Island: “De plane! De plane! De plane!”

And CNN, is it really true your “coverage” includes asking whether aliens abducted Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? Or whether it was swallowed by the Bermuda Triangle? Did you actually wonder aloud if it had flown into a black hole?


You know what, CNN? I don’t even watch cable news anymore. Haven’t for years. Not interested in imbibing MSNBC’s perennially aggrieved liberalism nor Fox’s angry-all-the-time conservatism. Not interested in watching you play with your holograms, either. But there are days when you’ve got no choice. There’s been a school shooting, a terrorist attack, a national election. On those days, CNN, I always turn to you on the theory — or maybe just the faint hope — that there still flickers within you some faint, vestigial notion of what news is — some last bit of fealty to the ideal of getting the facts and telling the story, giving people information they need to understand their world and make decisions about their lives.

Yes, you’re right. That’s so 1978 of me.

Look, CNN, I know that before this happened your numbers were in the tank and you were down to your last dozen viewers or so. I’m not without sympathy. Still, there’s something sadly … whorish in the way you chase the ratings bump this story has given you. One struggles to imagine the aforementioned Cronkite, much less the sainted Edward R. Murrow — peace be upon him — selling their newsmen’s souls so nakedly just so their network might charge a little more for toilet paper commercials.

But then, Ed and Uncle Walter have left the building, haven’t they? And yes, maybe they had the luxury of regarding the news as a public service, a sacred trust, consonant with Thomas Jefferson’s belief that an informed electorate was vital to a self-governing nation. But you have no such luxury. What you have is a 24/7 news cycle and the need to fill it — if not with news, then speculation, if not speculation, then controversy, if not controversy then opinion, if not opinion, then froth.

Fine. But this is not a trend without impact, CNN. We are becoming a stupider people. You see it in test scores, but you see it more viscerally in the way some of us equate higher volume with sounder logic, wear party as identity, refuse new information that challenges old beliefs, act as if everything must entertain us. Even the news.

It seems like somebody ought to take a stand against that. Just saying.

Granted, the missing jetliner is not an unimportant story. But neither is it a story deserving of the kind of round-the-clock-man-on-the-moon-war-is-over-presidential-assassination coverage you have given it.

CNN, that jet isn’t the only thing lost. Have you seen your credibility lately?


By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist, The Miami Herald; The National Memo, April 14, 2014

April 17, 2014 Posted by | CNN | , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Can Political Coverage Ever Get Better?”: There Are Strong Incentives For Reporters To Keep Coverage As Crappy As It Is

As we begin inching our way toward the next presidential campaign, it may be far too early to begin the idiotic speculation with which coverage at this stage tends to be consumed (Can anyone beat Hillary? Will Ted Cruz be the Tea Party darling? Who’ll win the Iowa straw poll? Dear god, who?). But it’s never too early to ask whether anything can be done to improve the news coverage through which Americans see campaigns.

Political scientist Hans Noel points to the uneasy relationship between reporters and scholars, even as the latter work hard to improve that coverage:

Every election cycle, journalists and pundits over-react to early polls that are not predictive of presidential nominations. They get excited about nonsense independent and third-party candidates who have no hope of being elected. They think an increasing number of voters are unaligned independents. They downplay and misrepresent the role of the economy and other fundamentals. And it’s not that they don’t know. They push back against political scientists who try to correct them.

I sort of understand it. As one very smart journalist (who shall remain nameless, as I was on the record for this conversation, but he really wasn’t) told me when interviewing me about a campaign-centered story, their professional incentives cut against social science. He said that if they accepted that inside baseball isn’t that important, they’d have nothing to write about every day, and no reason to follow the candidates around.

Part of the difficulty political scientists have in getting the truths to which he alludes across is the nature of the conversations they have with reporters. Nine times out of ten, when a reporter calls up a scholar, he isn’t looking for an interesting perspective on political developments. He’s looking for a quote that he can use in his story, and he wants it quickly. He doesn’t have time to have a leisurely, stimulating discussion about what research demonstrates, because he’s got a deadline in an hour. As the conversation proceeds, he’ll try to steer it to where that quote might be produced, no matter what the scholar wants to talk about.

Some reporters have a better ear for quotes than others; I’ve been on both sides of that conversation, and on more than one occasion when I was on the scholar side I served up what I thought was a perfect quote—pithy, insightful, not too long—only to find that the reporter decided instead to quote me using some utterly banal baseball metaphor (reporters find metaphors utterly irresistible). A reporters working on a tight deadline isn’t going to call up a scholar and say, “Tell me about the interesting research that’s out there.” And if she can’t give him the quote he’s looking for, he isn’t going to call her back next time. The result is usually a quote from a political scientist that sheds no particular light on the topic.

The good news is that more and more scholars are doing things like blogging to get their ideas out into the non-academic world, and the multiplication of forms of journalism and commentary means that there are more writers, even some affiliated with big media organizations like newspapers, who are interested in what the scholars have to say.

But there’s still the practical problem of what journalists confront on a day-to-day basis. In response to Noel, Jonathan Bernstein gives a shot to articulating a better way to cover campaigns. It’s worth quoting at length:

Let’s say we’re talking about general-election campaigns for the presidency, where overcoverage of gaffes and such is probably the most severe. And let’s say that reporters stopped believing (or pretending) that day-to-day campaigning has massive electoral effects. What would remain for them?

  • Policy coverage: What would the candidate actually do about public policy if she won? Is it realistic? How would it work?
  • Rhetoric coverage: Related, but not identical, to the first one. What is the candidate actually promising? Not just in terms of “issues,” but also about style? How might those promises help or constrain him if he wins?
  • Candidacy coverage: Who does the candidate surround himself with? What does that suggest about how she would act in office?
  • Voters coverage: What are voters taking away from candidate speeches? In-depth voter interviews are no substitute for polling coverage, but are a good compliment to it. What do voters hear when candidates talk about deficits, taxes, jobs and more?
  • Gaffe coverage: Funny, stupid, or just bizarre things that candidates do are interesting, even when they have zero effect on the November vote. Take a page from Hollywood reporting. No one pretends that the various gaffes and foibles of the stars will have any consequences at all, but so what? They’re still fun to watch and to read about.

By the way, if that’s not enough to justify following the candidates all the time (and I suspect it is), don’t forget that there are hundreds of other elections, lots of which are important and exciting, that receive little or no national attention. Just basic descriptive stuff on the best of those campaigns is more than enough to give reporters an excellent reason to stay out of the newsroom.

Bernstein’s list is a good one, but with the exception of the gaffes, the main problem may be that none of these things constitute events. Think about it this way: like a restaurant or a web site, campaigns have a front end and a back end. The back end—raising money, doing polls, managing voter lists, administering a large and dynamic organization—is stuff the campaign doesn’t want reporters to see. The front end is a series of events they put on, the multiple speeches and appearances the candidate does every day. Covering events is relatively easy for reporters. You go there, you write down what happened, you talk to some voters for their reactions, get a quote from a campaign staffer or two, and boom, you’ve got your story.

The other kinds of things Jonathan suggests talking about, as valuable as they are, require more work and thought, which is why they’re much more likely to be done by people like magazine reporters who have longer lead-times on their stories, and much less likely to be done by the newspaper and TV reporters who are out on the trail and have to do a story every day. Events are easier, and they’re always new (we do call it “news,” after all), even if today’s rally is pretty much exactly like the rally they candidate did yesterday and last week and last month.

Also (and I’m sure Jonathan would acknowledge this), the reporters can’t really be trusted to regularly distinguish between the things that are diverting and interesting but not particularly consequential, and the things that actually affect the outcome of the election. That isn’t because they don’t understand it, it’s because there are strong incentives to portray everything as consequential. It’s one of the most powerful biases in political reporting. The president’s approval went up two points? Comeback! The candidate got mustard on his tie? Game changer! It’s understandable, to a point: when you’re suffering through the drudgery of the campaign trail, you don’t want to believe this thing to which you’ve devoted a year of your life is all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

All that means that as long as those incentives remain in place, it’s going to be hard to make large improvements in campaign coverage. But every little bit helps.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, March 4, 2014

March 5, 2014 Posted by | Elections, Journalists, Media | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Here We Go Again”: Democrats Need To Stop Freaking Out About Obamacare And Take Charge

The dawn of the 24-7 news cycle about 15 or so years ago brought with it a few new ways for the media to talk about and cover politics. With all that air time to fill, politics, and certain big news events like your major murders, became part soap opera. Soap operas, to keep the ratings steady, need running themes. What used to be called “Democrats in disarray,” known today in our hurried-up age as #demsindisarray, proved to be a compelling and durable one.

It developed, in part, because that dawn of cable happened to be the era of Clinton “scandals,” real and (mostly) imagined. Remember Craig Livingstone? If you don’t, Google him. If you do, you’re chuckling already, I know, because for about four days there on cable TV in 1996, Livingstone was supposed to be the ruination of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Democrats in disarray!

Yes, Republicans have been in disarray, too, from time to time—the low points of the Iraq War, Katrina, and just last month during the government shutdown. But for a variety of reasons, the 24-7 news cycle era has found Dems in disarray to be a far more potent story line than Republicans in disarray. It’s alliterative, for starters. And it has been, I readily concede, legitimately true at times. Plus, Fox, for many years, drove the agenda that the other cable nets swallowed hook, line, and sinker. MSNBC has been a liberal pushback channel only for five years or so, or less than half the life span of the 24-7 cycle. (Remember when Tucker Carlson was an MSNBC host?) And Republicans have tended to have tougher game faces, march more in lockstep, and not concede those crucial rhetorical inches that Democrats so often feel compelled to grant.

Of course, we are at one of these moments now. Bill Clinton conceded those rhetorical inches to the right on Obamacare, which Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) seized on immediately. At least two blue-state senators, Dianne Feinstein (CA) and Jeff Merkley (OR), have jumped on the “fix Obamacare” bandwagon. A week ago, Majority Leader Harry Reid was not going to allow any changes to the Affordable Care Act reach the floor of his Senate. Now he’s probably going to have to.

Undeniably, a lot of the damage is self-inflicted, and I’ve said that already more than once. It’s a pretty good time for President Obama to crack the whip. Why he evidently didn’t earlier is still mystifying. Or maybe it’s not. He just isn’t a kick-ass-and-take-names kind of guy. But the success of his presidency may be on the line here in the next few weeks, so it’s not the worst idea for him to become one.

At the same time, there’s no need for panic. Even with the continued existence and success of Fox, reality is still reality, and in the end, reality usually trumps cable and hyperventilating reports about who won the morning in Politico. And reality says the enrollment period doesn’t end until next spring, and it’s really not possible to tell how things are going until enrollment has ended and we see both the number of people who’ve enrolled and what percentage healthy vs. sick, because insurers made their guesstimates and pegged their rates to those guesstimates. Reality also says a legislative fix to address the problems faced by those buying insurance on the private market might not be so bad. A bill that allows—doesn’t order, but allows—insurers to keep offering existing policies for one more year while also restricting that offer only to existing customers wouldn’t necessarily blow a big hole in the precepts of the act. I’m not sure why Republicans would agree to it, but the first part of my equation comes from Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI)’s bill, so who knows.

Democrats—especially Obama, but all Democrats—have to take charge of the situation right now. In danger of losing the country’s trust, they must say in essence: “All right, we did screw up Round 1. We’re going to admit it, and we’re going to apologize, and we’re going to fix it, and we’re not going to bullshit you. But we’re also not going to panic. We’re going to make this thing work.”

If they do all those things, they will still come out looking a hell of a lot better than the radical obstructionists. Obama’s approval rating may be down to 40 percent, but that’s four times the Republican Congress’s rating. He can step in and take more control of the agenda here, and he and the Democrats can be seen as the ones sincerely trying to fix these problems, while the Republicans will inevitably be seen as wanting only to kill yet another law and throw yet another wrench into the engine. They will be led once again by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the man who has enticed his party to go down several rat holes already these past couple of years. He is now sitting up on his throne warning that hackers are about to steal applicants’ Social Security numbers, a charge that rings with all the veracity of his earlier accusation that the administration knowingly targeted conservative nonprofit groups.

The current situation is serious. But I remember a lot of other times when it was supposedly curtains for Obama, too, because inside the Beltway, the more disciplined Republicans, who after all are in the luxurious position of just sitting back and firing away, have an easier time winning news cycles. But out beyond the Beltway, the party that shut down the government for three weeks and killed immigration reform and wants to decimate food stamps and can’t even pass its own spending bills doesn’t look very appealing to most people. The fate of Obamacare can be changed. The DNA of the GOP cannot.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, November 14, 2013

November 15, 2013 Posted by | Democrats, Media, Republicans | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Trouble With News Scoops”: If You’re Obsessed With Getting It First, You End Up Not Getting It Right

It seems that every time there’s a dramatic breaking story like yesterday’s bombing in Boston, media organizations end up passing on unconfirmed information that turns out to be false. This happens, of course, because in a chaotic situation where many people are involved in some way and the causes and results of some event are not initially clear, it can be hard to separate actual facts from what somebody thought or heard or believed. News organizations trying to cover it have an incredibly difficult job to do, and we should acknowledge the ones who do it well, even heroically, in the face of those challenges. For instance, The Boston Globe will deserve all the accolades and awards they get for their coverage of this event. And yet, the news media seem to get so much wrong when something like this happens. Why?

I’d argue that the reason is that in the frenzy of this kind of happening, they fail to realize something important: Scoops are beside the point. When Americans are looking to learn about and understand this kind of horrible event, they don’t care whether you got a scoop. They want to understand what happened. I don’t think the news organizations, particularly the TV networks, understand this at all.

Let’s take an example. The New York Post insisted for most of yesterday that 12 people had died in the explosions, for no apparent reason (they’re not claiming it anymore, but today their web site prominently features Mark Wahlberg’s reaction to the bombings, so they’ve still got the story covered). I don’t know what reporter came up with that information, but the fact that they disseminated it despite being wrong shows how useless the search for “scoops” becomes at a time like this. There were lots of other pieces of information circulating that turned out to be untrue (like the story repeated everywhere that the police had found more unexploded devices) as well.

There are two kinds of scoops, the real and the ephemeral. A real scoop is a story that would not have come to light, either at all or at least for a considerable amount of time, had it not been for your reporting. When a reporter exposes corruption, or details the unforeseen consequences of official policy, or even just offers a compelling portrait of people whose story wouldn’t have otherwise been told, she has gotten a genuine scoop. Then there’s the far more common kind, what many in the media consider a scoop but is no scoop at all. That’s when you discover and publish some piece of information that everyone is going to learn very soon, but you happen to be the one who got it out ten minutes or ten seconds before your competitors.

Media organizations, particularly television news operations, are obsessed with this second kind of scoop, despite the fact that not only does it offer nothing of value to their audience, it doesn’t even give them any advantage in the hyper-competitive arena in which they operate. Nobody ever said, “I used to watch MSNBC, but then I heard that CNN went on the air with the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial a full 30 seconds before any other network, so I’m watching CNN from now on.” When everybody is going to have a piece of news in seconds, getting it first doesn’t help you at all. Nobody remembers and nobody cares, nor should they.

But if you’re obsessed with getting it first, you end up not getting it right. That goes beyond reporting things that are false (which happens often enough) to offering second-rate coverage because your reporters are running around trying to find out something, anything, that none of their competitors know, instead of trying to assemble a complete and informative picture for the audience.

When something like the Boston bombing happens, the chaos pushes journalists toward those we-got-it-first scoops, when in fact there’s no time when those scoops are less important. Almost all the big critical facts are going to end up being given to journalists by the authorities, whether it’s about the casualties or the nature of the devices used or the suspects, once they have them. No reporter is going to catch the bomber before the FBI does. Given that, they’d do much better to slow down and worry less about what piece of information they can get a minute or two before their competitors do than about how they can give their audiences something closer to true understanding.

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, April, 16, 2013

April 17, 2013 Posted by | Media, Press | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Progressive “Paper Tigers”: Religious Right Advocating Violence Against “Secularist Left Bullies”

Matt Barber of the Liberty Counsel yesterday on his radio show seemed to advocate for violence by people of faith against “the secularist left” whom he called “bullies.” Barber likened progressive and secular left-wing groups to “paper tigers” and school yard bullies who attempt to intimidate people into silence.

“On yesterday’s episode of the ‘Faith and Freedom’ radio program, Matt Barber stated that groups such as ours and Americans United and the ACLU were nothing but ‘paper tigers’ to whom conservatives must stand up,” People for the American Way’s Kyle Mantyla writes today at their Right Wing Watch blog:

In fact, said Barber, the “secularist left” in general is nothing buy a bunch of bullies who intimidate the righteous and push “religious bigotry” on everyone else. And like all bullies, they just need to be punched in the mouth.

Barber is the Vice President of Liberty Counsel Action and an Associate Dean and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Law at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University School of Law, and also serves on the board of the SPLC-certified anti-gay hate group, Americans For Truth About Homosexuality, and is the Policy Director for Cultural Issues at Concerned Women for America.

Last month, in direct contradiction to FBI published statistics, Barber falsely claimed there is “no evidence” of mass anti-gay violence but the “specter” of violence against gay people has forced churches into the closet.

Last year, Barber said that “at the heart of modern Liberalism is rebellion toward God, is hatred for God,” and also claimed that gays know in their hearts that there is no such thing as two mothers or fathers and that all they really want is to destroy the American family.

Also last year, Barber said gays are terrorists and want to put conservatives in jail.

Unsurprisingly, Barber is one of several dozen anti-gay pundits tracked by GLAAD’s Commentator Accountability Project (CAP). See his entry here.

Transcript and video via Right Wing Watch:

They’re bullies. And we know that we people stand up to the bully on the playground – the bully on the playground intimidates, that’s what he does, intimidates people into silence, into fear, into avoiding the bully. And oftentimes the bully is the paper tiger and when the righteous individual who is being bullied defends his or herself and punches the bully in the mouth, guess what, the bully more times than not has a glass jaw, falls down and then everyone on the playground says “whoa, the bully was a weakling after all.”

That’s the secularist left. The secularist left are bullies. They try to bully and intimidate and push religious intolerance and religious bigotry on everyone else.

Of course, ironically, Barber and his ilk are the true bullies, and are responsible for contributing to an environment of homophobic hate that leads a great number of LGBT youth and teens to suicide.


By: David Badash, The New Civil Rights Movement, April 18, 2012

April 19, 2012 Posted by | Civil Rights | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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