Sign Up

Soft U.S. News for Bad Times?

Has U.S. TV news returned to its pre-September 11 sugar-coated ways?

April 12, 2002

Has U.S. TV news returned to its pre-September 11 sugar-coated ways?

To survey the landscape of U.S. broadcast journalism in August 2001 was to take in a sad sight indeed. Entertainment had fully infiltrated U.S. newscasts — often to a point where one could not distinguish between news stories and hype for new products. Tough stories were sugar-coated — and cushioned between features about trends and gossip.

Then suddenly, the September 11 attacks reminded broadcast journalists — and viewers — just how important the news could be. They also reminded U.S. journalists that there was a great big world out there — a world that they were not covering.

The 24-hour cable news networks — and large U.S. commercial broadcasters such as ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX as well — discovered they had news departments. They used them — and created unforgettable journalism about a momentous, if tragic, global event.

The understandable commotion in U.S. news had a salutary effect on U.S. public opinion about the journalism profession. When the Pew Research Center polled viewers in February 1999, 58% believed that U.S. news organizations usually reported inaccurately. When asked the same question again in November 2001, that number had dropped to 45%. Not great, but certainly an improvement.

Do U.S. broadcasters deserve that bump in public approval? By devoting more time to news in the post-September 11 period, the networks were merely reclaiming a vital civic function — and obligation.

After all, the U.S. airwaves are owned by the people. The networks merely lease the public airwaves — and cull huge profits from this privilege. In fact, the U.S. government’s regulations on the networks’ use of them have shrunken to almost nothing.

Now, as the attacks fade into memory, U.S. news is softening up once again. Broadcast news in the United States has gone back to its old schedule — and its old habits. Stories about the Internal Revenue Service granting tax credits for weight loss battle the bloody conflict in the Middle East for news space.

Add to this the fact that only 17 minutes of the half-hour nightly news broadcasts of the major U.S. television are actually devoted to news. The rest is … advertising. Thus, it is truly precious little time which is allotted to informing the American public.

And the morning news shows offer little hope, either. They skew more to celebrity interviews and promoting the entertainment programming of each individual network than news.

The response from critics of U.S. TV journalism’s fluffy, cotton candy approach to the news is simple. If you want to get tough-minded and no-frills news, simply look to the 24-hour cable news networks. After all, those channels are devoted solely to news coverage.

Unfortunately, such arguments are off the mark. First, there are clear limits to cable television’s reach. As of 2001, according to the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, cable television was still available to 80% of the homes in the United States — eliminating a full 20% of the nation’s citizens from choosing to watch the 24-hour news networks.

Second, the U.S. 24-hour news networks have engaged in the same kind of race to the bottom in which the country’s broadcast TV networks have engaged.

These networks consistently shuffle their news line-ups, bringing in younger and fresher faces with less experience — and sending more veteran broadcasters out to pasture.

Aside from CNN’s “Headline News” service (which also loads up its half-hour segments with entertainment news and features), the 24-hour news networks in the United States have increasingly filled their schedules with chat shows and viewer opinion. To call them 24-hour news networks is at times downright silly.

Other places in the world manage to get it right. From Britain to Bosnia, TV viewers get a regular dose of straight news every few hours. These bulletins have no frills and no soft features. These bulletins fulfill an obligation that every broadcaster who uses the public airwaves should fulfill — educate and inform the public.

U.S. broadcasters appear willing — and even eager — to swap news for entertainment. But if the world is indeed as dangerous as the American people are being told that it is, that is simply not good enough.

Giving people a straight dose of the news — and not a broadcast that sugarcoats or over dramatizes the news, in the manner of a Saturday morning cartoon — is a public duty that should be required of all American networks.