Measure twice, cut once: How cable news has failed America

Originally published in the Rutland Herald on July 5, 2012.

In their haste to report on last week’s Supreme Court ruling of the Affordable Care Act, CNN and Fox News Channel got one key part of the story wrong: all of it. This most recent failure underscores exactly what is wrong with the 24-hour cable news channels: Simply saying something — anything — is now enough. On Thursday, CNN and Fox performed the journalistic equivalent of a commenter writing “FIRST!” on an Internet message board.

This ratings-driven motivation comes at the expense of both organizations’ credibility and devalues the importance of factual journalism. Viewers would have been better served if the reporter had simply read the document or just held it up to the camera and slowly flipped the pages.

While the court’s ruling was indeed an important story, there was no exclusive to be had. It was the scheduled release of a public document. Every news organization that chose to be there received the same information at the same time. In this case, being first really wasn’t that important. The real service of the networks, then, was nuanced analysis — a function that, despite having ample (ample!) time to perform, they do with remarkable ineptitude.

Maybe CNN and Fox were suffering from FOMO — a fear of missing out. As social media has come to dominate people’s lives, obsessing over what is going on online is becoming an issue. Friending, tweeting, texting, tagging, pinning, posting — the demand is overwhelming and the importance is overblown.

And it, apparently, affects media organizations as much as it does individuals. CNN and Fox, in their misreporting, exhibited symptoms of FOMO: Aware of how fast information now moves and not wanting to miss out, they got ahead of themselves and reported without fully understanding that which they were reporting.

And there is the dilemma. Information now moves faster than ever. This development is a blessing and a curse. How amazing is it that we can watch democracies being born in real time half a world away? That through social media, we can participate in and effect real world change, working in concert with people around the globe? The Internet is a powerfully impressive tool.

But technologically speaking, we are letting the tail wag the dog. Having access to near-instantaneous information has become an expectation — a demand that is both impossible and unnecessary to meet.

“Too much,” my father says when confronted by the daily avalanche of information and the technology from which it comes. He recalls when news was delivered each night with authority by men like Murrow and Cronkite; when it was read the next morning in the paper. Today, news stories are born and die in that span.

While my father may sound like a Luddite, he does have a point. My car has a top speed of 150 mph, but that doesn’t mean I drive that fast all the time (or ever). Similarly, just because a news organization can report at the speed of a tweet, doesn’t mean they should.

Take for example, The New York Times’ tweet upon receiving the health care ruling last week, which stated that its staff was analyzing the decision and would report on it when they felt they understood it sufficiently. The ruling was complicated, a fact demonstrated by the Times’ deliberate restraint.

Finally, at 10:20 a.m., the Times accurately reported that the court had upheld President Obama’s health care overhaul — 13 minutes after CNN and Fox reported the opposite.

“It’s almost stupidly obvious to say, ‘We want to be right,’ but we want to be right,” the Times assistant managing editor Jim Roberts, told the Associated Press. (Read the AP’s excellent post-mortem of the whole mess here.)

Apparently, it’s not that obvious.

In the last decade, traditional news organizations have struggled to keep up with the Internet’s quickly evolving landscape with mixed results. Cable news channels are constantly attempting to co-opt the latest online trend. Turn on CNN on any given day and you will see someone reading a Twitter feed or streaming a viral video. Sadly, both attempts to be relevant only prove the network’s obsolescence — any viewer can do the exact same thing; the network is an unneeded middleman.

Rather than find a way to adapt and leverage their expertise and resources to do something innovative, cable news has chosen the easier and less fruitful path passing off entertainment as news in the form of yammering talking heads and partisan nonsense — at best, fodder for late-night TV; at worst, talking points for the ignorant and under-informed.

The rise of the 24-hour news networks has come at the expense of providing valuable content. Noise is presented as news. Pundits are presented as experts. Fiction is presented as fact. The networks put themselves before the story. Personality and style trump information and objectivity. No one who watches an episode of “The O’Reilly Factor” or “Hardball” should I ever say, “I just watched the news.”

But all is not lost. Hope is only a click away, amid that avalanche of information. Now more than ever, we have options on how to get news. We have choice. While that choice can lead us to be poor information consumers — choosing overly partisan, biased or flat-out false sources for news that reinforce or wrongly influence our worldview — it also gives us the opportunity to access a diversity of information.

Americans have always struggled with media literacy. We tend to be overconfident and under-informed — to our detriment. With the Internet, we now have unprecedented access to not just information but knowledge, which when consumed wisely, can enlighten and help us to not only demand more from the press but to, ourselves, be better, more informed citizens.

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