Network television news executives wanting to know why ratings continue to decline can find the ready answer in a growing string of professional blunders within their industry. Polls show public confidence in network television news is eroding. Audiences leave to get news from the Internet, or worse yet, just don’t consume news at all.
Cable news outlets have suffered deep losses across the board in the last year. CNN and MSNBC have lost half of their prime-time audiences in a year. Fox News Channel is down more than 20 percent in that time. The Big Three broadcast networks no longer receive wide attention at 6:30 p.m., now reaching fewer than 25 million viewers on any given night. That 2013 is not an election year explains only a fraction of the decline. This year has had plenty to fill a news agenda, with international problems in the Mideast, NSA snooping, the health care rollout and continued economic concerns.
Consider these journalistic mistakes, all of which occurred in the last few weeks:
• CNN morning anchor Chris Cuomo did a news interview with his brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, about the recent train derailment. The topic wasn’t political, but CNN had plenty of other reporters who could have done the interview and avoided the conflict of interest.
• CBS’ Lara Logan was put on a leave of absence for improperly vetting a story that ran on the venerable news program “60 Minutes.” Logan aired an interview with a security contractor who claimed to have witnessed the attack at the U.S. compound in Benghazi. But the guy wasn’t really there.
• MSNBC anchor Martin Bashir finally “resigned,” almost three weeks after he engaged in a gross on-air verbal attack against Sarah Palin. MSNBC president Phil Griffin released a statement that accepted the resignation; however, he passed no judgment on the vile comments by Bashir, and instead complimented Bashir as “a good man and respected colleague.”
• NBC “Today” show hosts Matt Lauer and Al Roker received digital prostate exams live on national TV. Thankfully, cameras stayed outside the examination room. Promoting awareness of men’s health is one thing, but doing on-air stunts to sensationalize the process is another.
These problems aren’t merely technical glitches. They are serious errors in journalistic judgment that accumulate in the public mind, creating a corrosive effect that ultimately scares sensible news consumers away from the television medium.
The television news industry has plenty of solid journalistic talent eager to provide the nation’s citizens with a news agenda of substance. The disturbing component of this decline in television news professionalism is that corporate executives in tall towers deprive these professional reporters from doing their jobs.
Corporate big shots, many with no understanding of news or its function, look at television news divisions only as revenue producers. Out-of-touch consultants are allowed to drive the journalistic bus, literally tracking ratings minute by minute and overlooking the bigger picture. Thus, cable channels go with saturation coverage of Jody Arias and stranded cruise ships to generate artificial ratings jolts, while ignoring stories with broader relevance. For example, the new health care overhaul got on the TV agenda only when the rollout problems became too big to ignore. There was scant coverage of the matter, however, in the three years from passage to rollout, when some watchdogging might have been helpful.
Longtime CBS reporter Daniel Schorr was hired by the legendary Edward R. Murrow in the early days of television. Schorr later criticized television news of blurring the line between fantasy and reality by using “the tools and techniques of entertainment.” Television news as entertainment does a poor job at both functions. Audiences need TV news with a purpose that goes beyond stunts and crass ratings grabs.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle. Contact him at jeffmccalldepauw.edu.