When opinion replaces TV news

Were he alive, Abraham Lincoln would not likely be a regular viewer of the major cable news stations. The former president is reported to have remarked that, “it is the man who does not want to express an opinion whose opinion I want.” Given that a great many of the programming slots offered up each day by cable news stations are forums for nothing more than the incessant and repetitive offering of opinions, it is unlikely Lincoln would be tuning very much to the opinions so eagerly offered up by those networks.

Students of and experts on journalism and broadcasting certainly will argue over the causes for the explosive growth of opinion programming on cable news stations. Opinion shows, which rely less on in-depth reporting in favor of scanning the day’s stories already reported for those most likely to generate “buzz,” are – perhaps aside from the salaries of their stars – cheaper to produce than hard-news shows. Whether financial concerns are the primary cause of this phenomenon, or simply the changing viewing habits of viewers, the bottom line is that so-called 24/7 news increasingly translates into “less news, more opinion.”

It is not simply the plethora of opinion programs that is raising concerns, but the style and conduct of those offering their opinions. As noted in a recent article by former CBS evening news anchor, Dan Rather – one of the far-right’s favorite punching bags – television news has been reduced largely to “opinion, commentary and marketing masquerading as news.” This has, in turn, says Rather, led to “more in-studio shouting matches between partisans, moderated by openly partisan talking heads.”

While many Republicans and conservatives will discount these observations by one of television’s longest-serving former news anchors, few could legitimately argue that such antics breed understanding. The more likely result is hardening of opinions already settled, while advancing neither understanding nor tolerance. This “ceaseless blowing of hot air,” so described in a recent op-ed eulogizing news anchor Walter Cronkite, has created what that writer termed an “infotainment nightmare.”

Perhaps nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the programming schedule for CNN’s HLN (formerly, “Headline News”). For nearly half of each 24-hour news cycle, HLN bounces between “showbiz” stories, pulp crime reporting by Nancy Grace, and “Issues” with fast-talking newcomer Jane Velez-Mitchell. From 7 p.m. in the evening until 6 a.m. the next morning, HLN viewers have only those three options for their viewing pleasure; a line up interrupted only once, during the 4 to 5 a.m. hour, for “Prime News.”

The impact of these constant “opin-news” programs on traditional, non-cable network news has been profound – and negative. Since 1980, the year CNN launched as the country’s first all-news, all-the-time station, evening news viewership has fallen by well more than 50 percent and the ratings of the three network channels (ABC, CBS and NBC) have dropped even more precipitously – some 64 percent. Perhaps even more ominous for the networks is the fact that during that same period in which their ratings and viewership have dropped significantly the median age of its viewers has risen, to more than 61 years.

The fast-talking, high-volume pace of cable opinion shows may be having effect beyond the TV screen. Attendees at recent town halls, for example, and at other forums, mimic the sloganeering and rudeness so perfectly honed by cable commentators.

Solutions will be difficult to come by if we as a nation are to reclaim a focus on true news reporting that educates and enlightens; and which CNN promised 29 years ago. While many may not agree with Dan Rather’s call for a presidential commission “to assess the state of the news as an institution and an industry,” at least he is proposing a process of deliberation rather than entertainment.

96 comments Add your comment

michael jackson's corpse

August 17th, 2009
9:42 am

michael jackson's corpse

August 17th, 2009
9:43 am

Spin it Saul, spin it.

michael jackson's corpse

August 17th, 2009
9:47 am

The libs wanted the Doctrine re-instated in order to get all of their fantasy men on fox an Rush off the air. They failed. Then they came up with air america. It failed. Then Al Franken used voter fraud and false lawsuits to get into Congress.

You keeping up Saul?

michael jackson's corpse

August 17th, 2009
9:52 am

Gotta go work. Have your two daddies tell you about the fairness doctrine Saul. Later

Goober

August 17th, 2009
10:01 am

Michael Jackson’s corpse: I had a feeling there would be a failure to communicate. ;)

uh huh

August 17th, 2009
10:05 am

More Strother Martin! LOL

uh huh

August 17th, 2009
10:07 am

SpaceyG on Twitter

August 17th, 2009
10:17 am

Have you watched network news lately? No one has, because the audience is already comatose from the drugs advertised on the nightly news. And if they’re not in a Big Pharm stupor already, they will be after 2 minutes of network news content. It’s THAT old and dull.

Network news just can’t do the Internet age. I give ‘em another 2 years or so before they shut the whole dino down. We don’t seem to need another anchor-hero.

Matthew Cole

August 17th, 2009
10:22 am

Bob is absolutely on point here. I ran an independent newspaper back in college, and getting hard news was like panning for gold. Student writers were much more interested in writing opinion and commentary on national events already widely covered – since opinion requires only reflection, while hard news reporting requires actual work. Not that all commentary was bad – but valuable commentary requires actual work and research as well. It made sense, full time students who were business or engineering or pre-med majors didn’t have time to spend chasing down a story except occasionally.

Translate that time into money – and I think we’ve hit on the dilemma Bob identifies at CNN, HLN, FoxNews, and MSNBC. Every once in a while, the cable networks do real, actual, and in depth reporting. Fox News was the first to report on Hurricane Katrina, and predicted that it would be the worst ever. Haven’t seen much since then.

The unforgivable thing is that the sensational big stories are out there today – with a little digging and courage the big networks could find them. At least the students I worked with had the excuse that they were students – hard news reporting is supposed to be the cable news networks raison d’etre.

uh huh

August 17th, 2009
10:23 am

When the anchors got caught in their lies the country lost faith. I cringe when I come across rather on HDnet. Of course he lied from Vietnam onward.

booger

August 17th, 2009
10:24 am

Most of the news media, not just TV, has adopted the mission of not just reporting, but setting the agenda for this country. They, led by the New York Times, choose which issues are important, and fall into lock step. The decide who should be elected, and once again fall into step. And more incidious, lately they have decided who to destroy, and fall into step.

I agree that FOX is biased, but the only reason they exist was that someone saw a huge vaccum in the media world which they could fill.

Ga-Guy

August 17th, 2009
10:36 am

Well said, Mr. Barr. A column in this morning’s AJC by David Galloway also notes the need for civility in political discourse. He closes with this observation:

“With freedom of speech comes the obligation to listen. Else we are left with nothing but the freedom to make noise.”

SpaceyG on Twitter

August 17th, 2009
10:39 am

It’s not the audience. Look at the participation level here on this yet-another opinion piece! Blogs and open forums and discussion boards and Facebook, Twitter, etc., any interactive participatory tool really… are bee hives of engagement and activity. The broadcast product on a network has no interactive, participatory function. Their audience, other than me, is bed-ridden anyway.

Droves of people, millions, engage in “hard” news issues online and in a participatory fashion all day long, online. The fact that journalists and editors can’t make money off of it much anymore is really THEIR problem – hardly an engaged populace’s problem.

JF McNamara

August 17th, 2009
11:17 am

I agree whole heartedly with you on this Bob, but this is a country of free speech. The prospective news networks are going after viewers who want their viewpoint reinforced and self esteem constantly stroked. There’s nothing criminal about that as Rush Limbaugh has done it for as long as I can remember. Until people turn the channel, it’s going to continue.

While not mentioning Fox news is dubious, I think he mentioned HLN because they used to be 30 minutes repeats of all hard news. It’s a big shift.

Dan Ross

August 17th, 2009
11:33 am

Bob, Having met and talked with you several years ago, I find it very hard to believe that you could even hint that you may be for Dan Rather’s idea of the Fed Gov sticking it’s long nose into the news, etc. Don’t we have them in our lives way to much now? Also, why ‘not’ mention Fox cable news as a one that has doulbled it’s viewers while the others have lost theirs. Maybe they are doing something the others are not doing. Fox may seem right winged to some, but in my opinion, that is probaqbly because many of these people are leaning so far left that anything remotely being reported in the middle seems far right to them.
As you have often said, try and keep an open mind. Thanx Bob.

Dan Ross

August 17th, 2009
11:33 am

Enter your comments here

Coach

August 17th, 2009
11:40 am

bobfromacworth, the name says it all. Cherokee County, home of the closet klansman Chip Rogers. We do consider the source.

Mikelo

August 17th, 2009
11:43 am

I’ve always felt that TV news people and networks were less there in the mental department growing up. Things that I knew and took for granted every day were treated like it was this huge, mind-blowing thing. CNN in particular seemed to get less relevant as time went on.

I can remember the day when I lost complete respect for CNN: April 11, 1996, the day that preteen pilot Jessica Dubroff and her father died in a plane crash. For those who need a reminder, Jessica was the youngest pilot to attempt a transcontinental flight. The media went nuts over this, and when they weren’t prematurely sentencing OJ Simpson to the chair, CNN, Bobbi Batista in particular, were going nuts over this story. This was such a wonderful thing, so amazing, that this little girl was flying a plane. They had nothing but encouragement for her.

Then the tragedy happened, when the plane (being piloted by flight instructor, not Jessica) took off, hit a wind shear, and crashed outside of Cheyenne Wyoming moments after takeoff. Suddenly, the news had nothing good to say about the feat. It was irresponsible what the parents did and the flight instructor. I remember seeing Bobbi sitting there and literally crying on the air, screaming “Who’s responsible for this?! Who encouraged this? There should be an investigation! This should be illegal!” And on and on she went. Now this little girl was a victim of fame and yadda yadda yadda.

I’d always taken the news with a grain of salt. But after that, I’ve never been able to look at the TV news seriously again. I don’t watch the news. My SO’s mother calls the people there “news actors” and i think the descriptor fits. Personally, I find professional wrestling more reliable. At least there, they’re reporting on what you’re seeing.

When Fox News was launched, I took a gander at that, to see if they were any different, I found that they were worse. Especially when being promised “fair and balanced” and seeing whatever talking head saying “You shut up you stupid liberal! You just shut up!” I knew that the bottom had been reached.

There is always the Naked News…

Rabble rules

August 17th, 2009
12:07 pm

Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.
H. L. Mencken
US editor (1880 – 1956)

JF McNamara

August 17th, 2009
12:30 pm

Dan Ross said:

“Fox may seem right winged to some, but in my opinion, that is probaqbly because many of these people are leaning so far left that anything remotely being reported in the middle seems far right to them.”

This statement is a bold assumption/allegation since you probably don’t know anyone else posting. An observer might say, Its probably more logical that you’re just so far right leaning that Fox News seems centrist.

Hillbilly Deluxe

August 17th, 2009
12:33 pm

In Dan Rather’s quote, he failed to mention the role he played in all this (remember his stint in Afghanistan dressed in robes?).

For all practical purposes journalism is dead.

The only difference in Fox, CNN, MSNBC, CBS, NBC, ABC, or any others is which side they are slanting towards; otherwise they’re all playing the same game. If you didn’t catch on to this game when they started hawking books, t-shirts, and coffee mugs on their programs, you’re never going to see it.

jconservative

August 17th, 2009
1:13 pm

SpaceyG on Twitter …”Network news just can’t do the Internet age”

All cable combined has about 4 million viewers for the 6 to 8 PM news time slot. All broadcast combined has about 20 million viewers for the same news time slot. Just the news shows.

Just trying to keep the facts straight. I never watch broadcast news.
But their audience is huge & is where most folks get their news.

Hillbilly Deluxe

August 17th, 2009
1:22 pm

jconservative

Your point is well taken but isn’t the highest cable news viewership in the 8-9pm slot?

what?

August 17th, 2009
1:22 pm

If Dan Rather has a beef with new media, it should be that he fell into this trap himself. And that he doesn’t seem clear-headed enough to admit it.

I don’t like all the opining, but the alternative of shutting down cable news is unconstitutional. People have the right to opine and we have the right to listen or not. Commissions don’t need to be created unless we want to change the notion of free speech.

bobfromacworth

August 17th, 2009
1:42 pm

coach, you have shown your ignorance. I have lived in Acworth in three different counties, Paulding, Cobb, and Cherokee. So there neener, neener….. You must be from Fulton or Clayton, just by your response.

Marcy from the West Side

August 17th, 2009
1:54 pm

I am an American – Dems nor Reps have a hold on me. I never thought that I would agree with Sean Hannity on anything, but he is right on this point, “journalism is dead in America”!!

gabriel

August 17th, 2009
2:52 pm

Opinion passing as news has always been around. Remember “yellow journalism”? I think th with cable, talk radio, the internet make a more informed public. Why not just throw all the stuff out there and let the public sift through to find what the meat of any subject is. I refuse to accept something put out as “real news” from PBS, CBS or AP as anything but the opinion of the writer or news reader. Had it not been for the peeling back of Obama care and the ongoing questioning, criticizing , and yes theatrics of the alternative media , that pile of s— would now be law, without any debate. The Townhalls are noisy and rowdy because Congress and the Administration are arrogant and will not listen to the taxpayers who will have to fund this monster. As Rush has said for several months now ” the msm is nothing more than stenographers for Rahm Emanuel. ” The alternative media is now the only thing standing between our democratic republic and Marxism. Thank God for it.

LOLO

August 17th, 2009
2:53 pm

BBC World News America has less opinion infused in the news than all other American news networks

Saul Good

August 17th, 2009
3:31 pm

MJC,
You failed to answer my question… name ONE single person who has been taken off the air or muted because of this BS you go on about called the FD.

JF McNamara

August 17th, 2009
4:49 pm

gabriel,

The problem with opinion based news is that there is no code of ethics meaning that often times what is conveyed is simply a lie. When Lou Dobbs give credence to birthers, is that helpful? When Sarah Palin is constantly replayed discussing death panels, is that helpful?

I agree with you that it has the potential to be informative, but many people won’t take the time to research the actual facts behind the opinion based statements. They are misled by someone that they trust who has given them factually incorrect information.

If they were all truthful, holistic opinions, there wouldn’t be an issue. Instead, its just Democratic and Republican propaganda machines taking pieces of facts out of context and using them to sway their audiences.

HDB

August 17th, 2009
5:10 pm

The problem is that Americans color the truth with their politics….

Let’s look at what’s really going on: MSNBC and Fox counterbalance one another..but FOX is worst, for it panders to the racist/xenophobic fringe that controls the GOP. MSNBC, while unabashedly liberal, DOES look at some issues that FOX doesn’t desire to touch, for by doing so, it’ll put their political viewpoint into question.

CNN is the world wide distributor of American news….can’t always get FOX overseas….but you can always find CNN; therefore, CNN has to have a global..albeit liberal….viewpoint! Of the three cable outlets, CNN is the most moderate of the three!!

Network news is caught in a changing paradigm, having to compete with cable in a new news model….and is having trouble adapting.

What Americans DON’T do is to diversify their intake of the news to determine where the TRUTH really lies; not only should they view multiple American news outlets….but take in news from the WORLD view…BBC, Le Monde, London Daily Mirror, et. al. The more informed the electorate is, the better decisions the electorate can make!! Right now, Bill Maher MAY be right in saying that Americans ARE stupid……

LOLO

August 17th, 2009
5:36 pm

HDB just colored their analysis with their politics… way to be the anti-bias there!

coach

August 17th, 2009
6:49 pm

No bobfromacworth….E. Cobb. But thanks for making my point. The Fulton/Clayton remark gave you away. Going to a cross burning tonight bob?

boots

August 17th, 2009
7:04 pm

In the absence of intelligent discourse, scare the heck out of the ignorant. That’s what O’Reilly, Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter and their ilk depend on.

Mikelo

August 17th, 2009
9:15 pm

I have to admit that I found it funny that Dan Rather was begging the government to help the dying news industry. I have a better idea: old media should adapt to what’s going on or just pass on.

Les Caldwell

August 18th, 2009
12:27 am

What’s the matter Bob? Are they ignoring you? There is a reason for that.

bobfromacworth

August 18th, 2009
6:31 am

Coach, everything is not about race. I know the left wants it to be, but the left has been far more racist this last election that the right ever hoped to be. Just continue down that road to nowhere and see where it takes you. No one is listening to you now that it is racial on your side of the political spectrum. So are you really afraid some rightwinger is going to burn a cross in your yard? That is so ’50’s coach….

lovelyliz

August 18th, 2009
9:47 am

Maybe it’s that calling out Fox as 24-hours of opinions is too obvious. At least I hope Bob Barr has some filter that tells him that.

Mrs. Norris

August 18th, 2009
9:54 am

The cable channels must make a profit. They give the people what they want. The masses must be told what to think. It’s all explained in “Idiocracy”.

Rita

August 18th, 2009
11:18 am

As H.L Mencken said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” FOX Cable news has built a successful business model by elevating the loud, crass, poorly-educated and dim-witted to star status on their network. As evidenced by some of the entries above, FOX knows the “regular folks” are too lazy or stupid to think for themselves.

Boy Who Cried Wolf

August 18th, 2009
12:15 pm

Why is it the left has a hard time believing that ABC,CBS,NBC,CNBC,PBS,CNN swing strongly to the left,but don’t have any problem criticizing FOX,Limbaugh,&Hannity as being biased. News is stictly about the opinions of the editors, read to us by tool’s. If you want to find the total truth about just about anything you have to do your homework,you can’t rely on just one source.

Boy Who Cried Wolf

August 18th, 2009
12:34 pm

Rita: And as Dan Rather said when talking about his audience “A sucker is born every minute”, or was that P.T.Barnum? Either way it speaks volume’s of the easy manipulation of the “non” thinking,easy lead left. Case in pont your half-brained attempt above to pigeon hole the right to only FOX.

chris broe

August 18th, 2009
1:13 pm

If Lincoln were alive he wouldn’t watch cable……oh brother.

clyde

August 18th, 2009
5:23 pm

If Lincoln were alive he’d be old.Very old.

kaycee

August 18th, 2009
7:37 pm

Walter Cronkite, Douglas Edwards, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Harry Reasoner, John Cameron Swayze, Bernard Shaw,Max Robinson, Charlayne Hunter-Gault……….am I giving away my age???? How I miss “hard” news. I always thought that I was more than capable of developing my own opinion about current events. What passes for news now–CNN, Fox, MSNBC–is an aggravation. It’s all about them–the anchors. I don’t care about them. I care about the news.

Just shut up and report the news….

Mrs. Norris

August 19th, 2009
9:29 am

Wolf Boy,
I don’t think Rita’s comment was “half-brained” at all. I think it was well stated and she makes a very good point. By the way, it was P. T. Barnum that said that. Dan Rather would never say something like that. hsss