Cable News - What A Blunderful World

At one point in the live coverage of last week’s manhunt, a literally breathless CNN reporter saw a canine patrol headed for an address in Watertown.

“There's a dog,” she hyperventilated. “This is interesting. The dog is barking.”

Let's just give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she meant that maybe the animal was trained to sniff out explosives and was alerting its handler (despite the absence of any evidence from the reporter's vantage of any such thing taking place.)  It was still a silly thing to say, and to air.

Yet all in all, the dog-barking scoop was one of CNN's less humiliating moments last week, because at least it wasn't irresponsible or false. The cable channels were predictably abysmal covering the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, delivering veritable highlight reels of worst practices: passing on rumor and speculation, endlessly repeating horrifying video of the crime scene, inflating small details (woof) into significance they did not carry, and of course, reporting as definitive the supposed Wednesday arrest of two suspects -- something that had simply not taken place.



If not for the New York Post (“12 Killed”), which out-wronged everybody by splashing the images of two innocent (brown) guys all over P.1 under the headline “BAG MEN,” the TV coverage would have been rock-bottom.

No surprise there, really. CNN and Fox News Channel have consistently demonstrated incompetence of late. There was Fox's 180-degree-wrong call on the Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling, the nonexistent Texas mass grave confirmed by CNN and the cornucopia of errors -- such as naming the wrong suspect -- after Newtown. There are many explanations for this world of blunder. One is the idiotic value placed on being first with a shard of previously unreported information, no matter how dubious. Another is physics; in the vacuum of understanding that afflicts live coverage after breaking news, anything that fills the gaping void looks irresistible.

The final reason is the most counterintuitive: the news channels have little capacity for actual journalism. A handful of reporters and anchors does not a robust news organization make. It's all the producers can do to line up enough experts and poseurs for the cablecast day's innumerable hype-and-gripe sessions. Actual reporting requires manpower and patience these outfits simply do not have, and cannot afford.

The upshot is that when they matter most -- i.e., in the precious few annual moments when big events command a significant audience -- the news channels are destined to let us down. Fox, of course, is horrendous in an additional way, by routinely giving air to demagogues and liars and pandering to reactionary ideology. (MSNBC is equally politically biased, albeit a lot wittier and more reasoned about it.)

Let’s just say they have an excuse to suck; they exist to infuriate their fellow travelers. CNN, politically nonaligned, purports to be a pure purveyor of news. And since it's clearly not up to that job, why does it even still exist?

That would be a good question for Jeff Zucker to ponder as he attempts to retool the channel. No doubt the strategy will be to pay a lot of money to a few famous faces, on the hope of generating audiences through star power. But Chris Cuomo and Jake Tapper (who was miscast and profoundly awful live on the street) aren’t exactly Brad and Angelina. And nobody else on TV news is, either.

Crazy idea here: what if CNN were to invest instead in inexpensive young reporters and producers to report and produce news, which can now be shot and cut more cheaply than ever before? Dump the fat contracts. Dump the panel shows. Let the CNN mission be the star. Sure, the ratings would be low when nothing gripping is taking place -- but they couldn’t be much lower than the status quo. And when the stakes are high, a real news channel will scoop the pot.

There is such a channel on cable. How perverse that it should reside on HBO, and spring from the imagination -- or more like the fantasies -- of Aaron Sorkin. Sure, “The Newsroom” is idealized. Sure, it overestimates the taste and intelligence of the public. But say this about the fictional Atlantis Cable News: nobody on that channel ever went exclusive with a barking dog.



12 comments about "Cable News - What A Blunderful World".
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  1. Brett Stern from Longboard Marketing, April 22, 2013 at 10:27 a.m.

    Well said, Bob. CNN has become unwatchable as far as I'm concerned and their coverage of the Boston bombings cemented that. I'm surprised Fox News was able to preempt their 24/7 commentary on Benghazi to cover the Boston story live.

  2. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, April 22, 2013 at 11:24 a.m.

    Excellent column. Examples of the right way to cover breaking news exist. Unfortunately, you have to go back in time to see how to do it. One that comes to mind is the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist attack. Even Al Michaels' coverage of the 1989 World Series earthquake was better than the crap we're getting from CNN and Fox. Al Michaels and Jim McKay may have been sports reporters, but they were reporters first. Not like the current gang of hacks.

  3. Adam Hartung from spark partners, April 22, 2013 at 11:37 a.m.

    Great column! I especially enjoyed your recommendation of changing the approach by using lower cost staff. The broadcast news has evolved to this strategy of expensive on-air personalities with too few writers and reporters. A disruption is necessary to provoke such change. Perhaps, somehow, a new approach will develop with video on the web, and do to broadcast video what the web has done to newspapers

  4. brittiony borges from, April 22, 2013 at 11:38 a.m.

    Nicely said. I couldn't agree more. We also found that the quality of coverage at times was out right laughable, which was not ideal given the severity of the topic.

  5. John Watkins from Watcom, April 22, 2013 at 11:43 a.m.

    My favorite part is when they interview a person and then spend 20 minutes telling us what we just heard from that person. Of course, the girl at the Texas stabbing who wasn't close by and didn't see anything was the the most stupid interview done that particular day.

  6. Kevin Payne from Marketing Physics, April 22, 2013 at 11:54 a.m.

    Great article. This is why my main source for news these days is NPR. They were more cautious and considered in their reporting. They seem to have some of the veteran news reporters that you describe CNN lacks.

    My personal CNN favorite was when the suspects' uncle was being interviewed, they misquoted the guy in real-time in the crawl.

  7. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, April 22, 2013 at 12:38 p.m.

    I saw some of the CNN coverage too, and I personally thought it was fine. Of course, you couldn't ask for more riveting facts. The NY Post thing was awful, of course, but I already invest the NYP with zero credibility.

    Overall, I doubt the economical feasibility of your "crazy idea" vision, which is why it only exists in Aaron Sorkin's halcyon newstopia. Reminds me of the producers who say: "Crazy idea: The story is the thing: so why do we need to hire known stars for our movie. Lets make a movie for under a million bucks!"

    In practice, this approach barely ever works. When it does we don't take into account that the one great story/movie/content that broke through (like the two man shop that won the Pulitzer) was in fact one in ten thousand.

    People want to hear from authority: We watch Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer -- partially because we know them and mostly trust them, but also because with their fame, we know that they will be held accountable for their mistakes.

    In general, I think we are moving (rapidly) toward an individual model of authority (people trust follow people/stars), and away from the brand model of authority (people trusting news brands and their editorial processes). The "Billy Beane"/Moneyball model of journalism sounds great, but it doesn't take into account the nature of trust. (which is quite different, than say, BABIP)

  8. Jonathan Tavss from Scarlet Strategic, April 22, 2013 at 1:08 p.m.

    All good points and I do agree somewhat with the solution. The thing is... there are already news resources for decent 24/7 coverage gathered by inexpensive journalists - all across the internet. Broadcast and Cable news outlets could have maybe been considered bastion of solid news gathering and reporting at some point - no longer. I felt the broadcast network non-stop coverage was pretty good with their use of sources from the scene and ability to not jump to conclusions. Maybe they were more successful because they have more staff journalists who report news and just needed to fill more space on this special occasion. For the cable news channels, the problem is that they moved from news reporting to editorial long ago and can't ramp up 24/7 news reporting at the drop of a hat. At some point, everyone will come to understand that the cable news outlets are there for your entertainment pleasure. Perhaps a solution to fill that void on an emergency basis is to partner with the Huff Posts of the world for when they actually need to provide real news...

  9. hank close from Close & Co., April 22, 2013 at 4:47 p.m.

    In the interest of "being there," we have sacrificed filters, vetting of sources, and polished on-air voices who can separate wheat from chaff. We've raced to the bottom in the race to get everything on-air first. CNN embarrassed themselves as did MSNBC, with Chuck Todd having to play traffic-cop and constantly chastise his own reporters for guessing and conjecturing way beyond the facts. We now have more "news", but are poorer for it. I imagine Cronkite watching this mess and aching to come back and lead us.

  10. Theresa M. Moore from Antellus, April 22, 2013 at 4:57 p.m.

    It used to be that CNN was great at staying on top of the breaking news of the moment, but now they rely heavily on "hearsay" and third party reporting to pick up their information. Especially aggravating is their habit of speculating from a series of very small facts which have not been confirmed or verified. This is not supposed to be a gossip channel. It's supposed to be a news channel, which means you dot your eyes and cross your tees before you say anything. When events are fluid or taking place live and there is coverage, I would appreciate it if the pundits simply shut up and stop talking about it.

  11. Anthony Argentino from RSD, April 23, 2013 at 12:59 p.m.

    I really liked the column. Great comments as well. As an alternative to the networks discussed, I really like Democracy Now. It provides excellent coverage of major news stories as well as stories that would never see the light of day on CNN, Fox or even MSNBC.

  12. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 7, 2013 at 10:42 a.m.

    There wasn't enough news for 24/7 (or 29/8 coverage as it seemed). They are all working with what they do not have and that needs to be fixed and most of the crap will have to disappear. PS: Less expensive reporting yes; younger is offensive.

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