My 2019 Cable TV “Breaking News” – (Not Really) Column

My 2019 Cable TV “Breaking News”

Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

It’s certainly not “Breaking News” to those who have read my columns criticizing cable TV political programs over the years that I believe that the political channels have poisoned American politics, as well as providing substandard coverage.

I fault cable news reporters, with few exceptions, for acting like parrots and repeating almost verbatim what politicians tell them instead of actually reporting breaking news that they uncovered.

I fault cable political reporters for not knowing the details about issues they talk about.

I fault cable news political talk show hosts, the exception being Chris Wallace (of Fox) and Jake Tapper (of CNN), and occasionally, Wolf Blitzer of (CNN) of tossing softball questions to their guests.

I fault cable news political shows’ participants for engaging in punditry instead of news gathering.

I fault cable news political reporting for exaggerating the newness of their reporting.

But most of all I fault cable political news shows for engaging in symbiotic journalism, depending upon stories in major print pubs for their show’s content.

In the past, I’ve criticized cable political news programs a few times a year. But since cable political news programs remain the same, I find myself repeating what I’ve previously written about, just as the cableists repeat their same prattle countless times an hour. (Names might change; problems with the programs don’t.)

So, in 2019, I decided to write one year-end column highlighting why I think cable political news programs use of the word “journalism” should be banned by the F.C.C. as being false advertising.

Here’s my incomplete list: (Caveat: There are probably dozens – probable hundreds – of other examples that should be included that I didn’t because of space limitations, I forgot or didn’t see.)

  1. On January 17, during a discussion regarding the government shut down, Ari Melber, host of MSNBC’s “The Beat with Ari Melber” highlighted an opinion by rapper CardiB. Ms. B certainly has a right to express her opinion, but to feature her on a supposedly serious political show makes as much sense as having me on a panel discussing constitutional law with members of the Supreme Court. (Throughout the year, for reasons known only to him, Mr. Melber also featured other entertainers.)
  2. A few cable TV anchors seem exasperated when the Trump surrogates refused to answer their questions or interrupt opposing viewpoints and anchor’s comments but keep on inviting them back instead of cutting them off and not inviting them back.
  3. A typical cable TV political report goes something like this: Reporter: “The Trump campaign has said the following (whatever) about whom ever.” A Democratic spokesperson is asked to respond. And cable considers that good journalism. In addition, all of the questions asked are generalizations without detailing the fine print specifics that appear in major print publications, probably because the cable reporters don’t know the specifics, as Katy Tur showed appallingly on MSNBC’s Oct. 29, 2018, “MTP Daily.”
  4. In a discussion about the horrific Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, just two days after the tragedy Ms. Tur said that HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) was an organization that settles Jewish refugees. She made that statement knowing the shooter said that HIAS was one of the reasons for his terrible act. Ms. Tur’s remarks were wrong, or charitably incomplete. (Nothing unusual on cable news.) As the New York Times said in a story on Oct. 29, “Its clients (HIAS) have often been Jews – its first mission was to aid those fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe – but the agency has also helped resettle many other kinds of refugees, including thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians after Communist victories in Southeast Asia in the 1970s.”A simple internet search would have provided Ms. Tur with correct information regarding HIAS. But just as important as her mistake, no correction was made. (On cable, it seems, corrections are never made because in its synthetic Breaking News universe, even when wrong, it’s considered correct as long as the speaker sounds authentic.)
  5. Another example of cable TV reporters’ ineptness occurred when MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt, shouted to Michael Cohen as he emerged from his second day of hearings before a Congressional committee and asked, “Mr. Cohen. Why did you lie to Congress?” Certainly, that’s not a way to get someone to answer your questions. More important. Ms. Hunt had been covering the story for much more than a year and if that’s the best question she could come up with perhaps she should take a refresher course in journalism 101 (or ask her producers to feed her questions). It was another example of shockingly bad journalism but who ever said cable news is good journalism.
  6. Just when you think cable TV political reporting has hit a low point, along came another Melber comment on his March 7 program. During a discussion while waiting for the judge to sentence Paul Manafort, Melber actually said, I swear, it’s out of the hands of us analysts and observers, as if it mattered to the judge what they said. (For those of you who think I’m picking on MSNBC unfairly, I have two responses. 1) One, it deserve criticism, as does Fox, and, 2) I was a big fan of Lawrence O’Donnell’s commentary until he made a horrendous journalistic mistake that gave Trump the opportunity to emphasize the truthfulness, in his opinion, of his Fake News claims. O’Donnell had to make a public apology on the air after being threatened with legal action by a Trump attorney for reporting that the president had dealings with Russian oligarchs without information to verify the broadcaster’s comments. I also tune in Brian Williams’ wrap-up late night news program on MSNBC; perhaps the second best program on MSNBC, following Nicolle Wallace’s’ show. I award her extra points for not having entertainers on her show, as Melber does and as Chuck Todd, the master f softball questioning, occasionally does. Anyway, who needs entertainers when listening to some of the political people express their rehearsed opinions, as if they were really outraged.
  7. Cable News’ lack of unpreparedness was again demonstrated on Andrea Mitchell’s MSNBC November 4 program, when Ms. Mitchell asked a question that if posed a by PR 101 journalism student would result in a failing grade. She asked one of the panelists (to paraphrase), Given how poorly the Democrats intelligence committee did during their questioning of Robert Mueller, how can Nancy Pelosi be assured of controlling the Democrats (and how the Democrats will act) during impeachment questioning. As Ms. Mitchell should have known, the impeachment questioning was handled differently than during the Mueller questioning. Why should she know it? Because it was reported in the news for several days; many times a day. Then on her November 27 program, during a discussion regarding budget aides quitting over Trump’s holding back previously approved military assistance to Ukraine, White House reporter Kristen Welker said, (to paraphrase), This is a story that broke overnight. I don’t know what night she was referring to because the story had been reported continually the day before. (Unpreparedness on Ms. Mitchell’s and Ms. Welker’s part, or were they instructed to say what they said in order to give the impression that it was breaking news? Either way, bad journalism.) Questionable reporting seems to be a hallmark on Ms. Mitchell’s On December 7, talking about Sen. Warren criticizing Mayor Pete about his money bundlers, reporter Ali Vitali said “frankly” the mayor hasn’t shown the transparency that has been the norm for Democratic candidates over the last few cycles. If Ms. Vitali thinks that Hillary Clinton was “transparent” during the 2016 campaign, I think she is using a still-to-be published dictionary that hasn’t been made available to the public.)
  8. Wolf Blitzer joined cable’s exaggerating reporting club at 6 pm on November 4, when he excitedly announced that they would be reporting on “just released” transcripts regarding the closed door impeachment hearings. Actually, the transcripts were released early in the day and were reported on many times prior to Blitzer’s announcement.
  9. Also, on November 11, Melber said, “impeachment breaking news that just came out.” Like Blitzer’s comment it wasn’t true. The news was reported on earlier programs. (Not good. In fact bad.)
  10. Howard Kurtz’s laughable so-called impartial review of the media program on Fox News Network, “Media Buzz” has had too many incidents to list, so I’ll summarize: His panelists, all but one “must have” Democratic participant, follow in the footsteps of Hannity, Levin, Piro, to name a few. The panelists are so far to the right that having them on a program that supposedly impartially reviews the weeks’ media coverage is a farce. Led by the hard right wing news analysis of very frequent panelist Mollie Hemingway, any unbiased observer of the program can see the obvious conservative bias of the program. A particular stain on the program is the lack of follow up questions to his conservative cohorts by Kurtz when his panelists leave out important aspects of a story. Kurtz also doesn’t mind having proven twisters of the truth on his program. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer is a frequent guest. And “alternative facts” Kellyanne Conway is permitted to give her version of happenings. (Will Donald Trump be next?) The thin coat of veneer that protected Kurtz’ disintegrating disguise as a serious impartial arbiter of news coverage was stripped away on December 8, when his guest was Stephanie Grisham, Trump’s newest White House press secretary. Having the White House flack on his program in the middle of the impeachment inquiry reminded me of the press conference gimmick of planting questions with a few media friends to make sure that the client’s positions would get a hearing.

A flagrant display of ignoring good journalistic practices occurred on Kurtz’ September 15 program, during a discussion of an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by the authors of a book about Trump. Without ever having read the book, Kurtz and his right wing guests slammed the book and the Op-Ed as if they were discussing a hard news story instead of the authors’ opinions. And then again on November 3, when he let two conservative panelists, without correcting them, say that Trump has released the transcripts of his controversial Ukrainian phone call, when in reality he only released his edited version of the call. To use a Trumpian expression, calling Kurtz’ program an impartial review of the news is Fake News.

Other examples from Fox News Network have not been included because much of their programming is nothing but an arm of the Trump White House PR department and is not to be taken seriously, although some Fox newsmen have attempted to defend the network.

Responding to attacks by Trump because the president didn’t like a straight forward interview with a Democrat, Brit Hume said. “Fox News isn’t supposed to work for you.” And Neil Cavuto responded to Trump’s criticism saying: “My job is to cover you, not fawn over you.” But now that Shepard Smith resigned from the Trump propaganda network, it has lost a lot of credibility as a truthful news outlet. However, Chris Wallace still remains as the best interviewer on TV, asking the tough questions regardless of who he is interviewing. Fox is lucky to have him, as was evidenced on his November 3 program, when he wouldn’t let Trump’s propaganda minister, Kellyanne Conway, filibuster instead of responding to Wallace’s questions. (In my opinion, it should be required of journalism students to listen to Wallace interviews.) 

11. On December 10, Ms .Mitchell said that there will not be a single Republican to vote for impeachment. Not only was that conjecture but it is also incomplete reporting. To set the record straight, she should have referenced that Rep. Justin Amash, a five term GOP Congressman, quit the party in July to become an independent. Rep. Amash has publicly said that President Trump’s conduct rose to the level of impeachable conduct. On the same day, CNN’s Brooke Baldwin, one of the best cable anchors, told a Democratic Congresswoman that there wasn’t any chance of the Senate removing the president from office. Probably true, but Ms. Baldwin appeared flustered when the Congresswoman replied, “How do you know?” In any event, the declarative remarks from Mitchell and Baldwin were “pundit journalism,” not expected by hard news program hosts. Later in the day, speaking to a Congresswoman, instead of using a declarative sentence, Blitizer gave a lesson in journalism by saying “almost a certainty. Cables incomplete ‘Breaking News” reporting would be more accurately named if it was called “Cliff Notes Journalism.” In its attempt to fill time slots, cable is also guilty of “inside baseball” reporting. Little known minor news sources like Breitbart News, the Washington Examiner, The Federalist and many other on-line news sources were unknown to the general public before cable news producers weaved them into their programs as if they were major news providers. Most people didn’t know of these outlets before they were highlighted on cable programs, except, maybe, cult followers. Most people still don’t, but that doesn’t prevent their representatives from being featured as the programs desperately try to fill their time slots with different guests.

While most of cable news coverage resembles what I call “Yellow Journalism Headline Talk”– words akin to a :30 sound bite – that omits all the important details, probably because the reporters don’t know them, the ridiculous nature of cable TV is frequently seen during interviews, when the reporter says to a guest, “This is a very important question. You have 30 seconds to answer it.” Sometime even less.

Reporting on the impeachment inquiry, and during the days prior to the impeachment vote, provided a prime example of both cable’s Yellow Journalism and incomplete reporting. For hours on end, the cableists talked about the dangers to Democratic member of the House, who were elected in 2018 from districts that supported Trump in 2016 if they voted for impeachment. Then for a few days they made a big deal about one Democratic Congressman who said he would switch parties because he was against impeachment. Largely missing from the reporting for months was that GOP Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan bolted from the Republican Party after reading the Mueller report to become an independent in July, saying he thought President Trump committed impeachable acts.

Of the three major cable networks, CNN covers the news in a straightforward manner and is my go-to station when I want unbiased cable news. Importantly, their reporters, while being much less detailed than print journalists, know what they are talking about. (But for the complete story read a respected print pub.)

The above were only a tiny fraction all the examples of poor, bad and misleading cable news political coverage that occurred in 2019. Space limitations and not watching cable coverage 24/7 throughout the year made it impossible to detail all the sub-par journalism on the networks.

But Perhaps December 27 saw the low point of 2019 cable’s political coverage, when CNN devoted a full segment about a few seconds of a cameo appearance of Donald Trump being cut by CBC (Canada) from the movie” Home Alone 2: Lost in New York”?  Even the president initially jokingly tweeted twice about the cut. But one panel member shouted, “It’s not presidential.” Showing good sense, her remark was ignored by the rest of the panel. But things quickly changed. Donald Trump Jr., who in comparison makes his father look like Mr. Rogers, posted that it proves that the news media “really are the enemy of the people.” (Maybe he had a little too much holiday cheer before his post on Instagram. What a cut in a movie broadcast for time constraints has to do with the media only Jr. knows.) 

Then the actual media got involved: Ed Henry, the chief national correspondent for Fox New Channel, said on “Fox and Friends” that the cameo cut of Trump by the CBC was an example of “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” whatever that is, because it is not classified as a true mental disorder. Not surprisingly for comments on the morning show, Mr. Henry’s made his remark without checking the facts. CBC said it made the cuts in 2014, before the president entered politics. (I find Mr. Henry’s remark interesting. Trump’s media supporters criticize psychologists who question President’s Trump’s mental status without actually examining him. But when a Fox host decides to become an armchair psychologist, it’s okay. For a change, Howard Kurtz reverted to being a fact-driven journalist by correcting Henry’s comments on the December 29 “Media Buzz” program.)

Before concluding my 2019 cable political coverage column, I must admit that perhaps I was too harsh in my criticism of the pundits. For a few months or so I’ve been hearing them opine on whether Trump’s “perfect phone conversation” reached the level of impeachment. I never knew that the pundits had to be Constitutional scholars in order to get their jobs. The next thing I’ll learn is that the cable reporters don’t base the majority of their reporting on stories that first appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, the Associated Press and other major print news sites.

Of course, there are many people that disagree with my evaluation of cable news political coverage: The cable news community of reporters, hosts and pundits,  augmented by behind-the-camera individuals who make their living working for the cables; the ad agencies that create the often misleading commercials that appear on both broadcast and cable networks, the PR people who promote the “stars” of cable, and, of course, the previously little known political websites that would remain little known except for cable ’s  voracious appetite for having new faces on their shows. (Question: How many followers do they have?) 

The difference between the reporting on cable news and that of a major print pub was best illustrated on page 2 of the December 30 New York Times. The daily published a feature about correcting errors in their stories. When cable news blunders, it takes others to point out their inaccuracies. 

I have many other observations about the inadequate political coverage on cable TV. But my editor said, “You have only 30 seconds left to complete the article.” Maybe she’s training to be a cable news host.


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 or artsolomon4pr@optimum.net.

 

 

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