Hillary Clinton, of all people, made my day last week when she said the news in the United States consists of “…a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads…” To add insult to injury, she held up Al Jazeera, the Arab news station, as a model of responsible information dissemination. But Clinton is absolutely right – our national nightly news shows and cable news channels are mostly a waste of time, whether you are looking for domestic news or world news. When you spend as much time on the internet as I do, not only do you already know all the details of stories they run, you can see how little information these elaborately produced newsroom efforts actually impart to viewers.
“Like it or hate it, it is really effective. In fact, viewership of Al-Jazeera is going up in the United States because it is real news.”
These days, when I want to see what is happening in the world, whether it is China, or Egypt, or India, or Europe, I go to these places via the web, bypassing our traditional stateside media sources, who are often content to rely on stale information they already have on file to flesh out their story lines. For instance, when you read the pushback against Mrs. Clinton’s statement from a recent Associated Press article, the writer inserts a paragraph about the lack of availability of Al Jazeera on U.S. cable systems, a fact that is totally irrelevant in the age of broadband, before finally acknowledging a huge increase in Al Jazeera’s online viewers from the U.S.
In fact, Al-Jazeera’s television viewership hasn’t gone up much in the U.S. because it is still not widely available, seen only on scattered cable systems in Vermont, Ohio and Washington, D.C.
But online viewership of Al-Jazeera English spiked during the demonstrations in Egypt — up 2,500 percent at its peak, with nearly half of the followers from the United States, the network said.
And after suffering through another edition of Meet The Press last Sunday, where host David Gregory might as well have been on a coffee break as Bill Daley, the White House chief of staff, and Michelle Bachmann, the Tea Party caucus leader in the House of Representatives, both taped segments that could charitably be called infomercials, I had to wonder if Clinton has simply grown tired of the b.s. that often passes for journalism these days.
For too long, mainstream journalism has pulled its punches. Admirably dedicated to fairness, balance, not picking winners and losers, it too often settled for “on the one hand, on the other hand” stories that left readers in the dark.
Clearly it’s important to be impartial, to represent many points of view, to give each side its say. But that doesn’t mean treating both sides of the argument equally when one is demonstrably false, or even deeply flawed. The world isn’t flat, no matter how many times some misguided soul might say it is.
To treat everything equally is to create a false equivalency. And that really shortchanges the readers.
Reporting to Conclusions American Journalism Review
If you are the editor of a national newspaper, or the executive producer of a cable news show, it might be painful to accept that the way you currently deliver the news could be improved, but the readers you crave and the viewers you covet are tired of being left in the dark. Research by Rodney Benson and Matthew Powers of New York University tell many of us what we already know – that well funded public media in the United States would do a lot to bridge the information gap we currently have.
Put all this stuff on one channel, avoid the deadly PBS voice-over “drone,” make it intelligent, witty, irreverent and, whenever possible, funny. If even tennis, which hardly anyone in America watches, can have its own channel, why can’t the forces that shape the world? True, they tend to be almost invisible, but what’s preventing journalists from admitting the fact? “We know this much about such-and-such a group or person, but that’s all.” Wouldn’t that be better than nothing? And if television doesn’t start offering more of this sort of thing, what are its chances of holding out against the Internet, where fearlessness reigns?