There has never been so much news available to so many. So why is it so bad? U.S. news broadcasters are falling short of the mark.
America is a great country. It is a land of endless opportunity, of democratic freedom, and a country that values liberty as its highest virtue. It is a nation of people ready to welcome you with hospitality and warmth. It has the world’s finest military, the world’s largest economy, landscapes that take the breath away and cities that reach up to the clouds. Its constitution is one of the finest political documents written since the Magna Carta and its political system, although often divisive, is one of the best checks against the abuse of power by any branch of government. So why, I ask with incredulity, does it have some of the worst media in the western world?
The growth of 24-hour cable news has forced the majority of Americans to pick between three sources of news from which to garner information. This is a pretty poor showing for a country the size of the United States, and an even poorer showing when we analyse these competitors in closer detail.
To begin, we should examine the most watched – and indeed the most maligned – news organisation in the United States. This is the behemoth of broadcasting that is Fox News. Beamed out from News International’s headquarters on Sixth Avenue, Fox strikes fear into the American heartlands on an hourly basis. It’s tagline for years has been ‘Fair and Balanced’ which is comparable to a shark calling itself a vegan. Fox has become over several years the mouthpiece of America’s conservatives. Obama is, according to a few of Fox’s regular contributors, a Kenyan socialist with Muslim ties who is quite possibly seeking to establish a tyranny that will hurl the United States into an Orwellian dystopia. One of their favourite tactics is making wild and scandalous accusations and getting away with it by posing it as a question – please youtube some of Glenn Beck’s finest moments when he was on Fox to see what I mean. Sean Hannity and Fox’s panel show ‘The Five’ will also provide you with some examples of a more sensationalist approach to news. Fox’s hard news segment can be good, Chris Wallace for example is a journalist with a very good pedigree although he does tend to stick to the Party line.
On the other side of the political spectrum sits MSNBC, Fox’s angry liberal cousin that’s favourite activity seems to be playing clips of Sarah Palin and clips of Fox news. The best place to watch Fox, apart from actually on Fox, is on MSNBC. MSNBC’s vision of President Obama is slightly different to their conservative counterpart’s due to the fact that MSNBC is the mouthpiece of the other side of the political spectrum and its coverage of the news is as subjective as Fox’s. It is a station that likes to paint itself as the moral heart of the nation, but in its attempts to garner greater ratings it has become a carbon copy of its rival with the political agenda being the only difference.
Civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who was famously parodied in Tom Wolfe’s ‘Bonfire of the Vanity’s’, presents a show so one sided that it’s a surprise he can stay upright whilst presenting it. Lawrence O’Donnell, who presents MSNBC’s late night show, has that self satisfied arrogance that makes people really hate liberals in the US. Again, there is plenty of both available on youtube to demonstrate my point. NBC does have Brian Williams who is an exemplary journalist, and Hardball with Chris Matthews is watchable. MSNBC does, however, damage its reputation by trying to be the liberal equivalent of Fox. The worst thing is that their defence when this is put to them is ‘well we’re not as bad as Fox’ which, for a news organisation that is supposed to be promoting truth and honesty, is like a disciple saying: ‘Well I’m not as bad as Judas Iscariot’. This all makes complaints about BBC political bias look rather frivolous.
The last of the big three is CNN, perhaps the best equipped of the three to do real news. Yet CNN, despite its worldwide network of reporters, stellar talent and first class reputation, still falls well short of the mark. This does not refer to CNN’s international news, which is on the whole very good, but to the domestic US operation. The problem with CNN is that, in recent years, the network has been plagued by inaccuracies and often facile reporting. This is caused by the pressures of being a 24-hour news station.
In their attempts to make news exciting 24 hours a day, CNN put’s too much emphasis on things that are irrelevant. During the Boston bombings they released inaccurate reports of arrests and reported every incident of a car driving past or a dog barking. In an attempt to seem impartial they hire commentators from the left and the right who then proceed to shout at each other leaving the viewer none the wiser to what the issue being discussed is really about. They have some excellent journalists. Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper are some of the finest reporters in the US and their shows are generally the highlight of cable news. However, the odd moment of excellence is not enough to override the inaccuracies and the irrelevance that is often on display on this network. Another criticism is that CNN often overuses new technology. Recent reports on North Korea have seen correspondents pointing at large holograms of missiles without actually revealing any real news; again all this is available on youtube. It is a real shame because of all the major networks, CNN has the ability to be the impartial and moderate news organisation that people can truly trust. But until they realise that hard reporting doesn’t mean reporting everything at the expense of accuracy, then this once great organisation will continue to spiral.
Other news organisations are better, and satire like the Daily Show is often brilliant. Yet Americans probably shouldn’t have to depend on getting their news from a comedian, even one as fine as Jon Stewart. Blogging sites like Politico are excellent and have revolutionised the way that people absorb political news. BBC America also unsurprisingly is beginning to garner a large following in the states.
There is hope for all of America’s major networks. Fox and MSNBC could revolutionise their programming by attacking both sides with the same fervour as they currently do just the one, they should also make accusations less outlandish. Having an agenda can make for better viewing, and it is indeed better for ratings. But they need to make it more understated and go and report all incidences of hypocrisy and political opportunism, even when it is at the expense of their favoured Party.
If CNN reverted back to reporting important news from a studio rather than everything from the ground and hired analysts instead of commentators then they could once again become the torch bearer for news in the United States. All these networks have the resources and wealth to be brilliant but to do that they must look at themselves critically and ask: Are we being true in our reporting of the news and, if not, why?