Sometimes I watch TV news programs in the evening, the much-maligned “mainstream media”. Lately the main subject has been scandals involving Donald Trump: adultery with a porn star and a Playboy model involving mysterious payoffs, and the long-running investigation of his and his campaign’s Russian connections. These are both complicated issues, involving his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, the “National Enquirer”, Sean Hannity, and many others.
Scandals involving an American President are genuine news. And these are genuine scandals. Although Trump and his allies constantly cry “Fake News!” the reporting about his ever-increasing problems has been professional and factual. The only things that have been fake have been the lies told by Trump and Co., which keep collapsing under the weight of new disclosures.
These are certainly headline stories. But the major TV news programs focus nearly exclusively and obsessively on the latest revelations, no matter how inconsequential. The announcement that Rudy Giuliani would be joining Trump’s defense team prompted countless long-winded speculations about why Giuliani was selected, what he might do, etc., etc. I’ve watched as one news hour with Famous Reporter A faded into the next news hour with Famous Reporter B, each inviting Expert C, D, and E to comment on the same bit of news.
Isn’t anything else happening in the world?
Contrast this TV “news” experience with reading a national newspaper. After Page One’s top stories, an international section offers a look at the world, where wars in Syria and Afghanistan and Niger involve American soldiers risking their lives. Remarkable political changes are happening on the Korean peninsula between North and South.
A national section offers stories about a day in American life, mostly outside of Washington, not involving famous politicians, but important to our own lives. Public school teachers are waging an unprecedented nationwide battle for decent school funding. In every state, local politicians are preparing for elections in November, which might result in an historic shift in national politics. Violations of the privacy of millions of people threaten to bring down some of the biggest companies on earth. The economy, whose fluctuations affect us all directly, is booming now, but warning signs are scary.
Not to mention all the interesting and sometimes significant news about popular culture, sports, housing, and health that might interest you and me.
The weakness of mainstream TV news is the obsession with scandal, the endless repetition of information, and the stretch into speculation in order to keep talking about one all-consuming story.
Although the folks around Trump seek to kill the messenger with accusations of fake news, lack of evidence is not a problem with the major news channels. The weakness of mainstream TV news is the obsession with scandal, the endless repetition of information, and the stretch into speculation in order to keep talking about one all-consuming story. The relatively new format of warring political commentators offering openly partisan remarks about every issue does a disservice to those of us who just want to know what’s going on. These “experts” give us contrasting spins, rather than reasoned analysis. The newscaster has become a host asking questions, rather than a voice who can be trusted to tell us all sides of an issue based on the latest facts.
It may be no surprise that I prefer a newspaper as a source of real news. Instead of celebrities who have just come out of the make-up room to center stage, real news is better conveyed by journalists on the ground, not anonymous but not famous, not glamorous but well informed, trying to convey the truths they have discovered. Instead of TV producers with ratings on their minds deciding which few stories to broadcast, newspapers give us a wide choice of readings, each with much more information than anything broadcast on TV.
Long ago, Pew Research Center contrasted TV and newspaper news stories. They found that TV news offers more personality and less policy, and focuses more on the media themselves.
But the news about newspapers is discouraging. Since 2000, the number of newspaper firms in the US has fallen from 6200 to below 4500. Advertising revenue has dropped by two-thirds. I know that most of the best newspapers are shrinking in coverage as their staffs get cut. The “Denver Post” recently announced a 30% cut in newsroom staff, after many other recent cuts. There have been significant staff cuts at papers in Los Angeles, Montana, Jacksonville, FL, San Francisco, San Jose, Portland, OR, andChicago, just to mention this year’s bad news.
I get my news from print journalists whom I read on my computer. The internet allows me to sample good writing on whatever topic I am working on from all over the world. I can easily check whether some story or piece of evidence has been made up by somebody or is being reported by many reputable journalists. I also subscribe to my local newspaper and to the NY Times. Wherever I am, I buy a newspaper.
That costs more than my “free” TV news. But you get what you pay for.
Taking Back Our Lines