At this time last year, Michael Copps, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, told a media-reform conference that the broadcast media should do more to strengthen our democracy. He criticized the television news industry for giving the public “too much baloney passed off as news.” Sadly, the evidence since that speech indicates that Commissioner Copps’s critique remains quite valid. From superficial coverage of elections to hyped-up coverage of celebrity scandals, the broadcast news industry continues to give the citizenry a news agenda that degrades the conversation of democracy.
Recent studies clearly indicate the public’s disappointment with coverage of the presidential campaign. A report released late last fall from the Harvard Center for Public Leadership said that about two-thirds of the public does not trust the media’s campaign coverage. Sixty percent of those polled said the reporting is biased, and 88 percent said the campaign coverage focused on trivial issues.
The Center for Media and Public Affairs analyzed 481 election stories aired October through December on the evening news shows of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox News Channel. The CMPA study showed that more stories were aired about the candidates’ campaign strategies than about candidate policy positions. Over a third of all stories focused on polling and the horse-race angle of the campaign.
The public wants a different kind of television election coverage. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 80 percent of Americans want more coverage of where candidates stand on issues and more coverage of lesser-known candidates. This is not likely to happen soon. It is easier and cheaper to cover elections with a template that tells us where a particular prominent candidate is, which celebrity appeared with the candidate, the latest poll numbers, and who feels momentum. It is more sensational to show and analyze Hillary Clinton’s teary eyes than detail her policy initiatives.
So, while the public expects more from its electronic news gatherers, published reports indicate that NBC plans another round of budget cuts for its news division. NBC is countering the decline in journalistic effort with an increase in razzle-dazzle. Evening anchor Brian Williams was a guest host last fall on Saturday Night Live. NBC executives were delighted with the stunt, one of them saying, “It showed a side of his personality that some viewers may have warmed to.”
The most recent NBC novelty is the new voice that introduces Williams’s Nightly News. It is none other than Hollywood actor Michael Douglas, recruited by Williams himself to open the show . . . not that most news viewers would even notice or care. In an interview, Williams spoke of having Douglas intro the newscast, saying, “It’s a terrific way to get the evening started.”
CBS News, not to be outdone in the effort to make the news snazzy, recently advertised a job opening for an Internet reporter to cover the environment. The posting called for applicants who are “wicked smart, funny, irreverent and hip. . . . Knowledge of the enviro beat is a big plus, but not a requirement.” CBS legends Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid must be crying somewhere.
Television’s political coverage might be suffering, but coverage of celebrity scandals marches on. From Britney to Ellen DeGeneres’s dog-adoption problems, television news can’t help itself from reporting “news” about celeb happenings that really just don’t affect us.
On a day last June when oil prices dropped $2 a barrel, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stepped down, the space shuttle was launched, and former national-security adviser Sandy Berger surrendered his law license for stealing government documents, the story that dominated cable news was Paris Hilton’s release from jail.
Former NBC journalist Maria Shriver recently told NBC she wouldn’t return to the network from her current hiatus. She cited the media excesses in covering the death of Anna Nicole Smith last year as the major factor, saying, “It was then that I knew the TV news business had changed.”
While the FCC’s Copps is considered a liberal voice, former Bush White House Press Secretary Tony Snow comes from a conservative perspective. But Snow and Copps share a concern that media underperformance hurts our nation. Snow gave a speech last fall in which he said the media have “embraced practices and policies that actually erode First Amendment freedoms.” He attributed the decline in television news viewership to journalists’ failure to set a news agenda that connects to public concerns.
Democracy requires an informed public. Audiences that rely too heavily on television news may well be ill-prepared to fulfill their democratic duties. Let’s hope that the warnings of Copps and Snow are heard in network television newsrooms.