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Shedding Light On TV News’ Dark Side: Watch Defensively

by John on 11/26/2012

A foundation for this website is this:

You are the most important journalist in your life.

In other words, don’t rely solely on the news media or one aspect of the news media.  You must use your news and journalistic skills to see through the bias of the news media.

Another foundation of this site: I can help you find those news and journalistic skills to use efficiently in your everyday life.

This has been my cause for almost ten years now.  But only lately has the issue become so evident.

Consider these recent incidents involving TV news on the local and the national level.

  • Sinclair Broadcasting forces its news anchors in swing states to host a pro-Romney TV show that appears to ridicule President Obama.  A news anchor in Columbus, Ohio has to tweet to angry viewers that she was “forced” to anchor the show.  She didn’t want to lose her job.
  • Two news anchors in Bangor, Maine resign on-air after philosophical differences with the station management.  The news stories are vague on the reasons for their departure.  I have reached out to one of the anchors to get more info, but so far no response.  If you have any more info, please pass it on here.
  • Fox News on-air talents are befuddled by the results on election night after many of them spent the previous six months quoting polls that only showed Romney leading Obama.
  • MSNBC has more negative stories about Mitt Romney than Fox airs about Obama.
  • Sources within a major cable news organization confided to me that the news outlet killed a major story on a university study linking head trauma and the early deaths and mental disabilities of NFL players.  The news organization did not want to lose access to the local NFL franchise.
  • An on-air anchor/reporter told me that more stations are phasing out photographers.  Reporters will now have to shoot, edit, and produce their pieces.  The one-man band is returning.  It will save a large amount of labor costs.  For a company’s bottom line that is good.  But for news consumers that means the reporter you’re relying on for information is spending more time as a video technician and less time as a news gatherer.

So what’s happening here?

This is the result of corporate ownership of news.  There are very few “Mom and Pop” TV stations.  These media outlets are owned with other news outlets by companies that are for-profit enterprises.

I am not knocking for-profit companies.  They have every right to make profits.  The problem is these profits are being squeezed.  Fewer people are watching TV news; they’re getting news from online.  Most TV stations rely on re-transmission fees paid by cable companies; but many subscribers are cutting the cable and relying on the internet so that means less revenue from the cable outlets.

Bob Garfield, a TV analyst on Media Post wrote this about the falling ratings for the major networks:

The Big 4 are failing because, as has been obvious for almost a decade, they must fail. Fragmentation and ad avoidance have killed their business model — duh. Their inexorable downward trajectory will be interrupted only in outlier years, bumped by such things as the Olympics, close elections and the rare hit reality show. Meantime, the only ratings grabbers beyond competition shows will be sporting events and live awards programs commanding real-time attention.

That trickles down to their news divisions and to their local TV affiliates.

As a result, everyone is cutting costs and service while still trying to convince you to get your news and information from them.

They give us disingenuous slogans like: “Fair and Balanced”; “Lean Forward”; “Where News Comes First”; “The News Leader.”  To me, they’re laughable.   I remember one news producer I worked with, and I have great respect for, telling me the one rule all TV stations live by: “If you’re going to lie, lie big.”

And this has nothing to do with political bias – left or right.  The bias is money.  The stations will take care of their sponsors.  Again, there is nothing wrong with that.  But as a news consumer, you need to know that.  You’re relying on these news outlets for information that could affect your kids, your job, even your life.

In his book The Righteous Mind, which I reviewed here, Jonathan Haidt offers a great phrase about organizations and institutions.  It applies to political parties, but I think it also applies to news organizations.  The phrase is: “they bind and they blind.”

News organizations start out with great intentions of covering or uncovering the news.  But as time goes on, to keep themselves in business, they fall from their ideals and morality.

Are these companies doing anything illegal?  I don’t have an answer to that.  My guess is a good communications lawyer could go through some of the license agreements the TV stations have with the FCC and find something.  But overall, no.

In fact, I liken these news outlets to car dealers.  Sure, car salesmen got a bad rap in the past.  But you don’t hear much anymore of the slick sales guy in the blue suede shoes.  Why is that?  Most car consumers are almost as informed about the car as the car salesmen – thanks to loads of information on the internet.

The same is true in TV news.  You don’t need to take the deal news organizations offer you.  You have the ability to find more credible and better information — on your own.

Should you turn off TV news?  No.  Let me give you two good reasons to keep watching.

First, a TV news outlet’s bias is giving you information.  Once you see it and understand it, then you can use it.  You may use it to avoid taking what they say as gospel.  Or you may use it by looking for an alternate point of view.  Either way, when you watch TV news watch defensively.  Question what you’re hearing.  Watching TV news should be a participatory event.

Second, TV news outlets do a superb job when it comes to warning you about impending danger.  The best example is severe weather.  Local meteorologists have sophisticated tools that can sometimes pinpoint a neighborhood where a tornado might hit.  TV news stations can get you information quickly about disasters in your area and what to avoid or how to stay safe.  Most stations do this brilliantly.

But TV news is like that family member or friend who’s kind of cool but you can never really depend on them – except when things are horrible.  That’s when they come through.

Let me go back to severe weather coverage on TV news to make my point.

I would imagine that recently many of you have probably relied on local TV news for information during a hurricane, a tornado, or a blizzard.  Those stations do wall-to-wall, all hands-on-deck, and even life-threatening coverage.  But also notice that they don’t air many commercials during that coverage.  These news outlets forego the money – to give you the best coverage possible.  The hope is that you will be so impressed with what they have done, then you will always stay as their viewer.

The problem is after the heroics everything goes back to their dead-beat unreliable ways.

And unfortunately, it is not entirely their fault.  Still, don’t get sold.


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