The Morning Jolt


A Brutal Assessment of Cable News

A lone television cameraman serving as a pool representative for all television networks sits alone at the State Department in Washington, D.C., April 7, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

On the menu today: An MSNBC producer resigns, and metaphorically nails 95 theses to the doors of cable news, spotlighting how the industry has failed in its duties to inform the public; the president has another pyrotechnic explosion of a television interview; unnamed White House staffers whisper that the president is being poorly served by the team around him; and a quick look at the Senate race down in Kentucky.

Ninety-Five Theses, Nailed to the Door of Cable News

I have no idea if the recently resigned MSNBC producer Ariana Pekary thinks of herself as left, right, or center. I do know that when she describes the problems she saw behind the scenes at MSNBC, I see the same thing on this side of the screen — and I suspect I am not alone:

“We are a cancer and there is no cure,” a successful and insightful TV veteran said to me. “But if you could find a cure, it would change the world.”

As it is, this cancer stokes national division, even in the middle of a civil rights crisis. The model blocks diversity of thought and content because the networks have incentive to amplify fringe voices and events, at the expense of others . . . all because it pumps up the ratings.

This cancer risks human lives, even in the middle of a pandemic. The primary focus quickly became what Donald Trump was doing (poorly) to address the crisis, rather than the science itself. As new details have become available about antibodies, a vaccine, or how COVID actually spreads, producers still want to focus on the politics. Important facts or studies get buried.

This cancer risks our democracy, even in the middle of a presidential election. Any discussion about the election usually focuses on Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, a repeat offense from 2016 (Trump smothers out all other coverage). Also important is to ensure citizens can vote by mail this year, but I’ve watched that topic get ignored or “killed” numerous times.

Context and factual data are often considered too cumbersome for the audience. There may be some truth to that (our education system really should improve the critical thinking skills of Americans) — but another hard truth is that it is the job of journalists to teach and inform, which means they might need to figure out a better way to do that. They could contemplate more creative methods for captivating an audience. Just about anything would improve the current process, which can be pretty rudimentary (think basing today’s content on whatever rated well yesterday, or look to see what’s trending online today).

. . . I understand that the journalistic process is largely subjective and any group of individuals may justify a different set of priorities on any given day. Therefore, it’s particularly notable to me, for one, that nearly every rundown at the network basically is the same, hour after hour. And two, they use this subjective nature of the news to justify economically beneficial decisions. I’ve even heard producers deny their role as journalists. A very capable senior producer once said: “Our viewers don’t really consider us the news. They come to us for comfort.”

Bingo. Viewers of Rachel Maddow do not tune in to hear her say, “Actually, the president made the right call today, I have to give him credit” any more than Sean Hannity viewers tune in to hear, “Boy, the president made a terrible mistake, and he’s going to get a lot of deserved flak for this one.” Viewers know what they’re going to get — reassurance that the viewpoint they had before they tuned in is correct, and that everyone who disagrees is, in the words of a former MSNBC host, “the worst person in the world.”

I hope somebody in the cable-news world heeds Pekary’s assessment — which sure looks accurate to me — and is willing to try something different in another time slot, perhaps with Pekary or someone like her calling the shots of how the news ought to be covered. Just try covering the news with depth and nuance and take a shot at leaving viewers knowing more than before they tuned in. Who knows, some people might like it, particularly people who don’t watch cable news right now, because they find it a predictable shout-fest.

Back in May I observed:

Some corners of our media world have done an excellent job covering this [metaphorical invasion of the pandemic]; others, not so much. We’ve seen journalists offer confident early predictions that the coronavirus would be less dangerous than the seasonal flu, journalists insist that the public should not wear masks before insisting that it should, and journalists continue to take Chinese government statements on the pandemic at face value. Even worse, some media have continued to give their audiences the equivalent of the stock numbers — obsessing over whether it was racist to use the label “Wuhan virus,” relentlessly covering reporters’ fights with the president, giving us in-depth coverage, dissection, and criticism of Chris Cuomo’s coronavirus diagnosis and recovery, informing us of the latest virus-related celebrity controversies.

. . . a roundtable of wonky health experts concluding, “This is complicated, state governments are probably going to make mistakes, and a lot of people will be dissatisfied no matter what” does not make for particularly entertaining television — particularly given an audience that’s been conditioned for a few decades to expect every issue to be settled by a Team Red pundit and a Team Blue pundit going at it like a pair of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots.

The President Has His Problems . . . but Is He Being Well Served?

Meanwhile, President Trump sat down for an interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios and it quickly grew combative, with the president insisting “you can’t do that” when Swan pointed out that the U.S. ranks poorly among nations when measuring coronavirus deaths as a proportion of the population. When asked several softballs in a row about how the late John Lewis would be remembered, Trump responded . . .

Jonathan Swan: John Lewis is lying in state in the U.S. Capitol. How do you think history will remember John Lewis?

Trump: I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know John Lewis. He chose not to come to my inauguration. He chose – I don’t – I never met John Lewis, actually, I don’t believe.

Swan: Do you find [John Lewis] impressive?  

Trump: Uh . . I can’t say one way or the other. I find a lot of people impressive. I find many people not impressive. But, no.

Swan: Do you find his story impressive? 

Trump: He didn’t come to my inauguration. He didn’t come to my State of the Union speeches, and that’s okay, that’s his right. And again, nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have. He should have come. I think he made a big mistake.

Swan: But taking your relationship with him out of it, do you find his story impressive? What he’s done, for this country? 

Trump: He was a person that devoted a lot of energy and a lot of heart to civil rights, but there were many others also.

Over in Politico, some White House officials speculate the president isn’t being well served by the new team:

In March, former Rep. Mark Meadows became the president’s new chief of staff and has slowly reconfigured the president’s White House team. The Meadows era has coincided with the president’s steep decline, a fact that some Trump aides are quick to note.

“I don’t think his newest team is serving him well,” said a White House official. “In fact it’s worse than ever. They came in thinking they know best, and they’ve not bothered to understand the president or West Wing.”

This person suggested the Meadows team is shielding Trump from how dire his situation is. “I don’t know if they’re giving him the whole picture,” the official said. “It’s very much Kool-Aid drinkers and he doesn’t want that. He never has.”

Meadows did start the job in March. But another big thing hit America hard in March, too.

ADDENDA: Those of us with long memories will remember how in 2014, Alison Lundergan Grimes was the latest version of the Great Southern Democratic Hope — a role also played by Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee, Michelle Nunn and Jon Ossoff in Georgia. Stephen Colbert’s sister, Elizabeth Colbert Busch in South Carolina, and most recently, Beto O’Rourke in Texas. Politico wrote of Grimes, “the fresh Democratic face could give the Senate minority leader the fight of his political life.” In 2014, Mitch McConnell won reelection, 56 percent to 40 percent, in what was not the fight of his political life.

Now, Democrats are excited about Amy McGrath, convinced this is the year that McConnell goes down. Don’t celebrate too early, Democrats. “A new survey by independent polling firm Morning Consult shows Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with a commanding lead in his bid for a seventh term in Kentucky, leading 53 percent to 36 percent over his Democratic challenger Amy McGrath.”

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