Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Cable TV coverage of Wisconsin recall illustrates problems with U.S. politics and public discourse

By Al Cross, Director
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

In less than an hour tonight, flipping through cable-TV channels, I witnessed what ails American politics and public discourse.

Seeking results and analysis of the recall election for Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, soon after the polls closed at 8 p.m. Central Time, I turned on CNN, which usually has the best journalists and the most balanced treatment of politics.

But just before enough returns came in to make it all but certain that Walker had won, the network gave the last half of the hour to Piers Morgan (who usually has the whole hour) and replays of that day’s coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee. A couple minutes of the royal family were enough for me, so I switched to Fox News, on an adjoining channel.

Right after Fox host Sean Hannity told viewers that it looked like Walker would win, apparently with the help of a big rural vote (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel map), he got reaction – from a couple of Republicans. Democrats were unrepresented.

Disliking that one-sided presentation, I turned to MSNBC, where liberal Rachel Maddow has been known to give conservatives their due. But she got her initial reaction only from Ed Schultz, a liberal blogger and radio talk-show host who was clearly disappointed, perhaps even upset, that the recall had failed. A couple minutes of that was, again, enough for me. I went back to Piers Morgan.

Soon, though, it was after 9 Central, and CNN had returned to the election. As Dana Bash reported from Walker headquarters, the crowd realized that she was on the air and started booing. On a later report, Walter supporters crowded around her platform and jumped up and down with signs, one saying “Don’t believe the liberal media.”

Bash was playing it straight, as CNN usually does. But neither side seems to think so. When another CNN reporter tried to report on the reaction of recall supporters massed outside the Wisconsin Capitol, they nearly drowned him out with noisemakers and bumped him with small bags bearing dollar signs.

And which of these channels has lost the most audience lately? CNN, apparently because it tries to give viewers what they need – a fair, accurate and reasonably thorough report – rather than what they apparently want, facts that are selectively reported and opinion that confirms their political beliefs.

For more than a decade now, the proliferation of news outlets has made most of them hungrier for audience, so they increasingly give viewers what they want. And the increased competition has made them give an inordinate amount of time to opinion, which is much cheaper and easier to produce than real news, which involves paying journalists to go out and dig up facts.

The market for opinion in this country continues to grow, while the market for facts continues to decline. At some point that becomes bad for a representative democracy, which relies on voters who make informed judgments, not just knee-jerk reactions or echoes of what they have heard or read. I fear we have passed that point.


c. josh givens said...

mr. cross, i agree whoeheartedly.

Unknown said...

I wholeheartedly agree with what you say. MSNBC and Fox News acted like nothing more than cheerleaders for their respective sides, and made no attempt to provide objective, impartial coverage. What really concerned me was how the respective biases of these networks infected their election night coverage, i.e. the segments that are not advertised as "opinion" or "political commentary" by their talking heads.

It is a shame to see CNN, the only remaining channel that aims for objectivity, being derided and punished in the ratings. It should be possible for spirited, lively debate featuring BOTH sides of the political spectrum to be a ratings winner - and part of the blame must fall on CNN for not having found the right formula yet.

My thoughts on the Wisconsin recall election coverage, and cable TV news in general, can be read here:



Anonymous said...

Obviously Hannity's show is a conservative oriented show, but there was very little of that show remaining after the call was made. After that the cover went to Greta Van Sustern for her show for an hour and then a special late night edition of Special Report with Bret Baier. Those providing analysis were representatives of both sides, such as Karl Rove (Republican strategist) and Joe Trippi (Democrat strategist) providing their own analysis of what happened and why, guests such as Governor Martin O'Malley (D-Maryland), Governor Bobby Jindal (R-Louisiana), the Democratic leader of the Wisconsin state house, etc. I don't feel this is a very fair depiction of Fox's overall coverage.

Peter Smith said...

Thank you, Al. Distressingly accurate.


Anonymous said...

Hate to be a partison when dealing with an entry about there being too much partisonship in media , but.. I cant help but notice the author left out the fact that we did used to have laws about fairness on the airwaves in this country until 1987. It was call "The Fairness Doctrine". The Reagan administration, specially his former campaign lawyer who became head of the FCC, decided it was un-needed in 1985. By 1987, they got what they wanted and the law was no longer. That was the end of of 'balanced' news.

Dazzle Rogers said...

Yes, the article talks about some real facts that has been ailing the media industry in the United States. Yes nowadays media channels are forced to revolve around opinions and arguments rather than reporting facts and real incidences... This scenario is Pathetic for a representative country such as the US!!!