Cable TV ‘Breaking News’ 2021: Not Really

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My 2019 Cable TV “Breaking News”

 

Arthur Solomon

The opening paragraph of my column about the evaluation of 2020 cable news political programming read in part, “It’s been several weeks since program changes have been made by the major cable TV networks. My question is, “Will it make the products any better?” My answer, based on past changes at the networks is, “Probably Not.”

As in all the past years of its existence, cable news programs broke a minimal number of stories. Instead, they  continued to opinionize about news that they had no part in bringing to the public.  In reality, cable news reporting is talk radio with pictures, except for Fox News, whose reports are largely are akin to someone who had too much to drink.

It didn’t take me long to see that the formula that has made cable TV political programming a disgrace to the journalism profession didn’t change.

Providing “headline type” newscasts, instead of fully reporting on a story; not correcting misinformation; pretending news that was reported by other media outlets hours before is “Breaking News;” allowing unsubstantiated remarks of guests to go unchallenged by program hosts (Fox’s Howie Kurtz’s Sunday Media Buzz program is the prime example of this on a major network) and stretching a relatively minor story into a week-long one if there is video to accompany the report.

It was early in 2021 that I saw the first example of a Fox personality who is either delusional or deliberately misleading, when on January 3, I tuned in Media Buzz, Kurtz’s supposedly unbiased look at the news. Kurtz closed his program by saying he believes in journalistic balance and journalistic fairness. As someone who watches his program every Sunday, I can unabashedly say his statement has no relation to the truth. The majority of his guests and panels are always right of center, sometime very far right like frequent Trump apologizers Mollie Hemingway and Ben Domenech of The Federalist, a pro-Trump propaganda publication. But that’s to be expected on a Fox program. So I’ll give Kurtz a pass on that. But what is nothing short of journalistic malpractice is Kurtz permitting his right wing guests to have an open mike without him correcting their frequent falsehoods. 

On March 7, the hypocrisy of Kurtz saying his program is an analysis of the week’s news was never more evident. The big story of that day was the passage the previous day of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief packageBut Kurtz led with a commentary criticizing the networks for down playing the allegations of sexual harassment against New York Governor Cuomo, pivoting into a lengthy discussion of the situation featuring the extreme right wing commentator Hemingway of The Federalist, the far right wing publication, that lasted almost 12minutes. Kurtz didn’t mention the passage of the coronavirus bill until into 17 minutes of his program and then only with a one line comment. On the same program he didn’t correct Glenn Greenwald for saying that MSNBC’s Joy Reid is a Democratic spokeswoman. A far left supporter of Democratic policies yes; a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party, no.  Instead of labeling Media Buzz an analysis of the week’s news, the program should be renamed Incomplete Fake Right Wing News. (In my opinion, Kurtz is the biggest fraud on television. He positions himself as a media analyst when, in reality, his program is a conduit for right wing propaganda. Even though I disagree with their commentary I have more respects for the Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity types; at least they don’t pretend to be other than what they are.)

One of Kurtz’s most ridiculous comments was when he opined on March 21 that the words of a president have no bearing on what others may do and that presidents are not responsible for any actions that results in violence. That’s like giving a get out of jail free card to the twice-impeached former presidential instigator Trump for his more than five years of inflammatory remarks that encouraged white supremacists to storm the Capitol on January 6 and has led to the country being more divided than ever.

One of the lowest of many lows by Kurtz occurred on his July 25 program, when he defended Fox News and the conservative media against accusations that they have downplayed the need to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and said the increase in Covid infections was because of the refusal of minorities to get vaccinated, dismissing the refusal of citizens in Southern GOP states, despite evidence to the contrary.

There are so many low points in what is theoretically objective journalism on Kurtz’s shows that’s it difficult to point out the worst. But here’s one for consideration:  On August 8, Kurtz mentioned that CNN had a problem because Chris Cuomo was still allowed to broadcast during his brother’s harassment investigation proceedings. But Kurtz never mentioned that his follow Fox broadcaster Sean Hannity spoke at a Trump re-election rally and was allowed to continue broadcasting. He also didn’t remind viewers that the dean of conservative  TV and print columnists, George Will, helped coach Ronald Reagan for his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter and then told television viewers after the debate that Mr. Regan had performed very well. It took a guest on the program to “remind” Kurtz of the happening.

Kurtz also is guilty of frequently interrupting the comments of his liberal guests and questions what they are saying while permitting his conservative contributors to complete their thoughts, even when what they say are controversial half-truths, to put it politely, and fictional.

I have to stop watching the Kurtz show or I’ll run out of room for criticizing it. But on his August 15 program he let Robby Soave, the libertarian author, say “kids have a tremendous national immunity to Covid…,” without Kurtz pointing out that hospitals are reporting their pediatric ICU beds are at capacity. Just another example of Kurtz’s journalistic malpractice.

But this is not a Howie Kurtz column, so…

Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz’s trip to the sunshine of Mexico while citizens of his state were without heat or water was a prime example of cable stretching what should have been a one day story into a week long saga, not because Cruz made a dreadful situation worse, but because tape was available to accompany the coverage. It’s true that Cruz‘s going to a fancy resort during the Texas freeze was a limited PR disaster for him. And his doing so deserved a day’s coverage. But cable’s credo seems to be, “make a ripple in a pond into a tsunami” and that’s what they did making the ridiculous claim that the senatror should have stayed in Texas to pressure the feds into sending help. And how was he to do this? Via telephone, they said, which he could have done even if he was on Mars. What would have made more sense was if the cable commentators said that Curz should have flown to Washington to button- hole senators face-to-face. (Full Disclosure: I am not a fan of the senator’s politics. I find him encouraging the divide among our population. But it is the cable political shows that convey his remarks to the public. They are the bullets for Cruz’s gun.)

General Observation # 1: I’ve long said that Chris Wallace is the hardest hitting TV journalist and his targets are not determined by the political leanings of his guests. However, when a host subs for Wallace on his Fox News Sunday program, it becomes just another Fox GOP propaganda outlet.

A few other cable TV lowlights:

An example of getting it wrong without correcting a statement occurred on February, 23 when Nicolle Wallace said on her MSNBC Deadline: White House  program that Tiger Woods was involved in an automobile “collision,” when just a moment before the on- the- scene reporter said several times that a collision was not involved. Wallace’s misstatement might seem trivial but it was wrong and maybe confusing for viewers. But it highlighted a major cable TV problem: This is just another example of what occurs hundreds of times a year on cable news programming – misinformation that is not corrected. Worse than misstating the cause of the mishap was the time devoted to the accident. Ms. Wallace committed the first 45 minutes of her 4 p.m. program to the situation, as if it was more important than the Congressional hearings about the lack of security during the January 6 Capitol insurrection, the continuing Covid-19 situation or the Supreme Court ruling that former President Trump couldn’t keep his tax records from being turned over to Manhattan prosecutors. She also led with the Woods story on her 5 p.m. hour, spending 37 minutes of not reporting anything newsworthy before turning to the Congressional hearings about the storming of the Capitol. The program opposite Ms. Wallace’s on CNN, The Lead With Jake Tapper, had a more balanced take on the day’s news.

Wolf Blitzer on his CNN 6 p.m. show added to the lameness of cable TV news coverage by asking the networks s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, to discuss the medical problems facing Woods without the doctor examining him, something most psychiatrists who witnessed former president Donald Trump’s behavior on television for many years wouldn’t do when they were asked by cable hosts to give their opinion regarding Trump’s mental condition. Shepard Smith led his program on CNBC with a about a six minute Tiger Woods story, and then returned to it later on for about a minute. But unlike the other cable shows, the bulk of the program was about the Congressional security hearings, the Covid-19 situation and other non-Tiger news. But for the remainder of the night cable kept reporting on the golfer’s accident as if it was the equivalent of the discovery of the anti-Covid vaccines, some programs with lengthier reporting than others.

The deficiency of cable news was evident again during the trial of George Floyd.  Instead of reporting it as one of many important stories, the coverage dominated some networks as if the entire world was taking a time out during the trial, leaving other important stories with minimal coverage.

Also earning a place on this list for letting her bias replace facts was Rachel Maddox on her March 31 MSNBC program. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might be the darling of the far left of liberal wing of Democratic Party but to introduce her as one of the most influential members of Congress, as Maddow did before interviewing her, is the equivalent of saying a seedling is a full grown oak tree. This is just another example of why comments by cable TV political hosts should not be taken seriously.  A better description of AOC would be “one of the most outspoken and publicity-seeking members of Congress.” Some day AOC might be able to dominate Democratic policy, but not this year. Proof: The candidate she backed for mayor of New York City in the primary, progressive candidate Maya Wiley, was defeated in the primary election.

June 16, the day of the Biden-Putin summit, should be remembered by cable watchers as the day CNN resembled, more than ever, Groundhog Day, the movie where repetition was the theme. After the press conferences by the two presidents, CNN, the channel I was watching, spent more than an hour of having its commentators all repeat the same thing in different words. 

(It was as if they were reading from a thesaurus.) None of the reporters shared original insight or presented additional news about what happened. The only thing that was different was the name of the reporters. But that’s to be expected from all the cables, talk without substance. I didn’t tune in Nicole Wallace’s MSNBC program until 5:16 p.m. because I was certain I’d get more of the same. I was correct. At 5:20 p.m. I checked on Wolf Blitzer’s show. More of the etcetera, etcetera comments. I didn’t check on Fox or Newsmax TV because I wasn’t in the mood for fiction, I tuned in Blitzer’s program again the following day. It was as if Groundhog Day was extended. His lead story was analyzing yesterday’s summit.

CNN’s Jake Tapper joined the “let’s make something out of nothing” cable crowd on June 22 by devoting an extended segment on President Biden missing his goal of having 70 percent of Americans vaccinated by July 4, as if the president did not keep a promise. Perhaps Tapper should have consulted a dictionary on the meaning of the word goal. Merriam-Webster defines “goal” as “something that one hopes or intends to accomplish,” not as Tapper continually said that the president is moving the goal posts.

A prime example of what’s wrong with cable TV hosts is when they try to create a controversy when there is none, like Joy Reid did on July 5 during a segment about a Black U.S. Olympic athlete being banned from the Tokyo games for failing a drug test.

An excerpt from MSNBC’s The ReidOut: (The complete transcript is available on the internet.)

REID: All right. Well, coming up the latest controversy surrounding American Olympics athletes of color exposes the sneaky little racism these athletes are encountering at every turn. ESPN`s Bomani Jones joins me next.

REID: In an Olympic year when black women athletes are posed to become the faces of Team USA, gymnast Simone Biles and Jordan Chiles and sprinter Allyson Felix to name just a few. The biggest topic right now is the star athlete who potentially will not appear at the games.

Sprinter Sha`Carri Richardson, the 21-year-old American track star, following her one-month suspension after testing positive for THC, the chemical in marijuana.

Richardson has accepted the suspension. She won’t appear in her solo event, the 100 meter dash and told the “Today” show she takes full responsibility for her actions. But a lot of people are questioning why weed, of all things, which to my knowledge has never made anybody faster, is keeping her out of the games.

REID: I mean, Bomani, her mom had just died. She found out from a reporter. What is going on here?

BOMANI JONES, SPORTS JOURNALIST: Well, I mean as far as the suspension itself, it’s kind of textbook and hard to get around. If you fail that test in that time when she did, these are what the consequences are. This is not one that I think the drug testing people had the luxury of being able to be like, okay, let’s act like we didn’t happen. That was not going to be it.

REID: Am I reading too much into that?

JONES: I don’t feel like this is the example of that. I think that there’s certainly room for empathy for her. Again, I don’t think anybody — when I hear her apology, the worst thing to me is she feels like she has to apologize to us when she certainly does not. I haven’t seen a great deal or a measure of judgment. There seems to be a lot of understanding about how those things could come together and lead her to where she is.

Reid went on to state what she thought was deliberate discriminatory actions against Black athletes, which is ridiculous to anyone who follows the Olympics and knows that Black Ameerican athletes have been celebrated as  Olympic heroes on U.S. teams since Jesse Owens performance in the 1936 Nazi Olympics. Perhaps Ms. Reid should have taken a course in Olympic history before she broached the subject on national TV.

What Reid did was an example of what happens much too often on cable news. A host of a program reads a story in the New York Times, Washington Post or other respected publications, and attempts to use it as an “issue,” without fully understanding about the situation. Journalism Grade: A gentlewoman’s “F.”

General Observation # 2: It’s long known that hosts of cable TV political programs are “homers,” meaning their commentaries favor the political leanings of the hosts who act as journalists. The same is also true about the announcers on sports events, but unlike the political shows it doesn’t matter what sports announcers say.

One of the most misleading and incomplete reports that I ever heard on cable news occurred on July 23. It was by Paula Reid, the CNN senior legal affairs correspondent’s report on bail granted to indicted Trump ally and friend Thomas Barrack Jr. Ms. Reid kept repeating that it was because of the outstanding lawyers defending him that he was granted bail but failed to mention that he was released on a $250 million bond,  that  his movements were restricted to Southern California and New York, he had to wear a GPS monitoring bracelet and surrendered his passport awaiting trial for illegally lobbying the U.S. government for the United Arab Emirates and lying to the FBI. Barrack, who was chair of former President Trump’s inaugural committee, was also ordered to have no contact with UAE or Saudi officials. 

A story in the Wall Street Journal on August 23 highlighted one of my biggest complaints about the cable news pundits of the left and right –attacking other people for their comments while refusing to answer questions about themselves. The Left: A WSJ article, about Rachel Maddow’s new contract with MSNBC, ended with “Ms. Maddow didn’t respond to a request for comment.” The Right:  Tucker Carlson, who has been criticized for his anti-vaccination rhetoric, refused to say if he has been vaccinated, when asked by the Time reporter Charlotte Alter. But both hosts expect others people to answer their questions.

An Op-Ed column by Nicholas A. Ashford, a professor of technology and policy, and the director of the technology and law program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the New York Times on March 31, 2021, was titled “The Lies on Broadcast Media.”

The article said, in part, “Television and radio are often full of misleading information, both on news programs and in advertisements, and the broadcast gives the information a whiff of legitimacy.”

After listening to thousands of hours of cable news broadcasts over the years, I would add “and in most cases a lack of knowledge about what is being reported, incomplete reporting and incompetency, plus the inability to admit that what was disseminated was incorrect and issue a correction.”

And I would also add, it’s funny how cable TV news programs can only find the “story of the day,” to feature, even it it’s the same story that they have been reporting for several days, in contrast  to major print newspapers that find several new important stories every day.

But one of my main criticism of cable news political shows is that they give an open mike to liberals, conservatives, radicals, fanatics and extremists without doing due diligence on the person, allowing  them to deliver false statements as truths, without the host correcting  them, adding to the crevice that divides the American public.  A prime example of giving a hot mike to anyone who says something that might attract viewership is Michael John Avenatti, who was a darling of Ari Melber on MSNBC and Brian Stetler on CNN, until he wasn’t.

There were many other examples that I could have included about my negative feelings regarding the great majority of cable TV programming. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to two of the excellent news programs on cable – Shepard Smith of CNBC and Brian Williams of MSNBC, who will end his show this year. He will be missed. 

Once again cable news proved that in order for people to be informed that they should read a respected print publication.


The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur SolomonAbout the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.