COMMENTS: An Exasperatingly Stupid Day of News

Fair enough, these are the dog days of August. Fair enough, Fridays are the most feature heavy day of the week. Fair enough, the regular anchors took the day off with ABC's Kate Snow and CBS' Harry Smith substituting. Fair enough, NBC is preoccupied with sports, rather than news, as anchor Brian Williams remains in Beijing for the Olympic Games, which yet again qualified as Story of the Day. Still, after the lead items on frictions with Russia--ABC and NBC on the Georgian flashpoint, CBS on Poland--this was an exasperatingly stupid day of news.

ABC's Sharyn Alfonsi (embargoed link) tried to tug at our heartstrings by recounting the fate of a premature fetus kept alive by emergency c-section when a school bus crushed a pregnant New York City traffic officer to death…CBS had Hari Sreenivasan cover a local story on draconian police tactics in a tiny Arkansas town in the Mississippi Delta…ABC sent John Berman (no link) to the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania where instant replays will help call home runs…NBC had anchor Brian Williams brag that his online videostreamed newscast is used to teach English in China…CBS assigned Debbye Turner Bell to report on the dispute that is roiling Dallas--over the next home for its mentally-ill zoo elephant.

And that does not even count Friday's weekending features. ABC's inspirational Persons of the Week were Hawaiian amputee veteran Wally Fanene and his physiotherapist Betty Michalewicz. John Donvan floated with Fanene as he is learning to surf again, paddling out to the break with one arm and trying to stand up on one leg. CBS' weekender on Steve Hartman's Assignment America was amateur organist Jack Moelmann, who forked over $118,182 of his life's savings to hire Radio City Music Hall in New York City to stage a three hour concert of his own stylings on its mighty Wurlitzer.

Please! Features are supposed to add a dash of flavor, highlight, personality, mood to the hard news diet. They should never dominate the menu.


Always fine analysis Andrew. I'm looking at Harris Interactive polling, which consistemntly shows that American think the most important issues for government and our elected leaders are: 1. The economy. 2. The war and Iraq 3. Energy, Gas and oil prices 4. Healthcare and 5. Jobs.

Yet when I turn on the network and cable news they seem simply obsessed with the horse race: Who's up, who's down according to their latest surveys? Who scored the latest gotcha on the campaign trail, etc.

Do you have any data that compares their coverage of the issues that Americans say are most important against their coverage of horserace?

It would be good to catch up since our 2004 successes with public surveys of the debates.


Tim--Great to hear from you. I have two points in response.

First, the accurate way to characterize network nightly news coverage of the issues you list is not that they are ignored but they are disconnected from Campaign '08.

For example, look at the number of stories filed on each topic this summer so far--I selected the last six weeks, since the Fourth of July. Energy was covered by 43 different reported stories; Iraq was covered 22 times; the MacroEconomy (it is silly to break Jobs out as a separate issue from the economy) 18 times; Healthcare 11 times. Of those four, you could only make the argument that healthcare has been undercovered. In that same time period, Campaign '08 was covered by 79 different reports--so the issues you listed turn out to have been more newsworthy than the campaign this summer.

The point is that they are treated as two separate tracks. Only 12 of those issue stories was also a campaign story (five on Energy, four on the MacroEconomy, three on Iraq, none of Healthcare). The vast majority of campaign stories are not issue-related; the vast majority of issues stories are not campaign-related.

Second, Tyndall Report argues (you should link through to the Huffington Post update) that the Horse Race is an inaccurate metaphor for the dominant school of campaign journalism this year. Sure there are plenty of opinion polls and horse race Websites--personally, I consult and most frequently--but that style of journalism is increasingly reserved for political junkies not the electorate at large.

Campaign '08 coverage is better described as Reality Gameshow Journalism--a style where the candidates are portrayed as large-than-life personalities, casted to represent distinct demographic and sociological groups, locked in a contest consisting of a series of ordeals that will reveal their authentic character.

It is portrayed as a who contest not a what contest…not what should the next administration do? but who should the next Leader of the Free World be?

Let's see what we can do for the debates in '08.


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