Friday, April 02, 2010

Fringe; The Daily Show and Its Criticism of News Media

Hello! Hope everyone is having a...... Good Friday! (yeah. sorry about that)

Well, Mom and Dad are in town this weekend, so I'll be hanging out with them some this Easter holiday. I'm on the lookout for large bunnies and colored eggs!

Also, I watched a pretty good episode of Fringe last night. That show has a few flaws from time to time, but it's been doing a really good job of developing its characters and carrying off an interesting, trippy, somewhat complicated story arc over multiple seasons (I especially appreciate that while it has some mystery to it, it hasn't relied on the same sort of "hide the ball" gimmickry that we've been dealing with for years on Lost).

There was a bit on The Daily show last night in which they talked about the falling TV ratings for CNN and where Jon Stewart criticized CNN pretty harshly for it's news coverage and analysis. Stewart's criticism was essentially based on complaints that CNN's version of "journalistic objectivity" has devolved down into little more than providing a forum where wingnuts and crankpots from both ends of the political spectrum can meet up to duke it out on live TV. With Fox News creating a successful niche for itself among conservative viewers (by way of its analysis and the slant in its reporting) and MSNBC essentially doing the same thing for viewers who lean to the left, CNN has declared itself to be the only independent, objective cable news outlet in the game. And I sort of agree that CNN might be the only news outlet that doesn't really blatantly pander to one end of the political spectrum, but their approach in "staying neutral" involves simply taking the kind of biased, argumentative pundits that might appear on these other networks and then combining people from both ends of the spectrum onto one forum.
Stewart's (or more specifically, The Daily Show's) main complaint is that CNN doesn't really engage in a whole lot of investigative journalism, fact checking, or research on its own. It relies far too much on bringing biased pundits to the table (many of them possessing extremely dubious credentials), letting them spit out extremely questionable facts and figures (which typically aren't fact checked and which, more often than not, go unquestioned and unchallenged), and then lets the two sides battle it out. Unfortunately, this isn't always the best way to get to the facts and the truth (I might go so far as to say this usually isn't the best way to get at the truth). When you're just relying on talking heads and pundits to sort this sort of thing out, then your audience often ends up creating a perception of "truth" based upon the varying skills of the pundits who are making their respective cases. If a particular speaker is unskillful, inarticulate, unprepared, or doesn't bring the necessary facts and figures to back up their claim, the audience will often get a completely misleading piece of coverage in terms of the actual facts involved with a story. Just because a certain pundit or analysis does a poor job of making their case doesn't mean that there isn't a case to be made.
We've all seen this, right? We've seen arguments between pundits on TV where the person who is supposed to be representing a particular point of view just does a terrible job and fails to bring up relevant, pertinent facts and information that could support their argument and/or fails to challenge misleading or false claims that are made by the person arguing on the other side. Sometimes it's truly mind boggling at how bad these supposed "experts" are at conveying a particular point of view. Equally troubling is the fact that people who are coming to the table with little or no facts to support a given position often seem able to "win" the argument through the simple use of charm, speaking skills, or by presenting a more likeable onscreen persona.
Stewart wants CNN (and hopefully other news agencies as well) to step up and do some of their own honest to God reporting. He wants program hosts, reporters, and moderators to have done their research and to have some facts at their command. He wants them to have enough knowledge to challenge guests about their claims and the "information" that they're presenting. He wants reporters to actually go out and do some investigating- to try to find out what the actual facts are about a given situation and to report these facts back to the viewing audience without filtering them or modifying them with political bias.
I know there are people out there who claim that it's impossible to report stories without any bias, but I just strongly disagree with that- or I guess that, at the least, I think reporters ought to be able to do a much better job at remaining objective than the current generation of television reporters and anchorpeople have been doing. Personally, I think that the political bias seems to come from the fact that CNN and other news outlets want to dumb down news stories, cutting out important facts and details so that they can present important stories as small, easily digestible soundbites and headlines. In the attempt to simplify these stories, news outlets want to be able to sum the stories up with a particular "this is good" or "this is bad" sort of sentiment, and when conservatives and progressives can't agree about whether a story will ultimately have a good or bad impact, they put opposing pundits on the air to fight it out.
I guess I respect The Daily Show for wanting better, more in depth reporting with more facts and more details, but the problem, of course, from CNN's perspective (and the problem that The Daily Show is reluctant to acknowledge) is that it's not at all clear that the American public really wants in depth, fact intensive journalism. Fox's ratings have been going through the roof, and they're not exactly a bastion of unbiased, in depth, "just the facts" style news coverage. The American viewing audience seems to like watching its newspeople argue and fight, and it seems to like all of the bias and melodrama. Programs on Fox News have been steadily gaining viewers for years now, while the more fact driven, detailed reporting done by programs like NewsHour (on PBS) seem to struggle for viewership (at least in a relative sense).
Anyway, it's great to see Stewart make a plea for more objective, fact driven reporting that with deeper analysis and a finer attention to detail, but in reality (and hopefully I'm just being too cynical), I'm not sure that a news network could survive if it stuck with a more informative, more objective, less sensational presentation of the news. Some of the failure in reporting surely comes from budget squeezes and a 24 hour news cycle which just doesn't allow for proper research and preparation. But an even bigger problem, at least in my mind, is the fact that the American audience just isn't content with being informed. Like a classroom full of sleep deprived school children on a sugar rush, the American audience has to be constantly entertained- even if that means watching charismatic and/or abrasive people argue about things that they haven't really studied up on.
Kudos to The Daily Show for having the faith in America to believe that we deserve better from our news coverage, but I'm just not sure I'm convinced. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that some of these cable news channels are giving Americans exactly what they want.

Well, have a good weekend everyone! Have a nice Easter!!


The League said...

What's most surprising to me about CNN's approach is that it abandoned the audience that grew up watching CNN as a voice for news in favor of the "everything is a topic for pundits" style of TV.

There was an audience that was there, and they gave up on them. It would be interesting to see what would happen were CNN or any other network take the tack of "no, seriously, we don't just hire good looking desk jockeys" and actually try some journalism. That audience might still be out there.

J.S. said...

Well, I guess that's the real question- whether the audience is still out there. The same people who grew up watching a different (less pundit heavy) style of CNN are undoubtedly still out there, of course, but the potential problem is that their viewing habits have changed in a substantial way. Our current media environment (including all kinds of different TV and internet) just seems geared toward entertaining instead of informing and seems specifically designed to cater to (pander to?) an audience with a very short attention span, one which constantly requires spectacle and sensationalism in order to keep people engaged. I hope that the audience doesn't require this sort of journalism, and maybe people could rediscover an appreciation for a more traditional style of journalism, but right now CNN and the other news companies seem fairly convinced that the American audience, despite what they might claim to want, seems most drawn in by people having heated arguments with each other. (McDonald's and the other fast food chains have dealt with a similar form of this self deception on the part of their customer base- people express disappointment and anger and claim that they want healthier foods on the menu, but whenever those healthier foods are introduced, they sell quite poorly, and people continue to eat the junk food. The news audience is also showing a strong preference for junk food, even though there are people out there demanding something better).
Still, it would be nice to see someone at least try to reinstate an older form of journalism. It might have to start out as a smaller news organization than CNN with a smaller budget, but hopefully it could grow in sort of an organic way as people came to appreciate it. (I think that to some extent, CNN is a victim of their own success- their large size and operating expenses mean that they have to chase the audience to compete for ratings- not always the best place to be if you're a news organization).