News you can lose, or what I hate about cable TV journalism.

News you can lose, or what I hate about cable TV journalism.

News you can lose, or what I hate about cable TV journalism.

Media criticism.
Sept. 4 2005 2:48 PM

News You Can Lose

What I hate about cable TV journalism.

When al-Qaida attacks, the United States invades, or mother nature strikes, I increase my newspaper, Web, and TV diet to stay on top of events. So it's during times like these, as I surf from CNN to Fox to MSNBC and back again, that I comprehend how truly, deeply, madly I hate TV news.

Not to take anything away from  the reporters and producers slaving away on Katrina and the corporate owners who've spared no expense to capture the story, but the medium's conceptual blinders and stupid conventions keep it from projecting the story in a coherent way.

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In no particular order I …

… hate it when the news networks pair music with montages of newsworthy footage. The broadcasters usually avail themselves of this gimmick when they're wrapping up a day or half-day's worth of coverage. If I want emotional cues that music provides, I'll hire a therapist to coach me on when to sniffle and cry.

… hate the use of undated footage, especially when it's two or three days old, that runs as "video wallpaper" as the anchors talk about looting, the breached levee, death, destruction, or what have you. It's TV news if it's live or happened recently or is placed in context. But if I have to look at that shirtless guy with the extravagant butt-crack trying to shatter the store door one more time, I'm going to fly down to New Orleans and arrest him myself. Likewise the footage of the rescue helicopter blowing roof shingles into the air.

I offer this easy remedy: If the talking heads need a visual backdrop, let them run the footage as they gab. But all footage that's not live or taped "today" should be date- and time-stamped conspicuously.

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Why won't the networks do this? My friend Mark Feldstein, a recovering broadcaster who now teaches journalism at George Washington University, explains that this video ambiguity is deliberate.

"Labeling the video as a few days old draws attention to just how stale the most dramatic shots are and thus makes it harder to hype for ratings," he writes in e-mail. While undated footage often confuses viewers about the who-what-when-where-why basics, it helps the news networks by concealing how much of their "coverage" consists of cheaply produced talking heads in New York studios speculating on what's happening, rather than more expensive in-the-field reporting, he continues.

… hate the conspicuous lack of maps illustrating where the camera and reporters are in New Orleans, Biloxi, Baton Rouge, Mobile, or elsewhere. Not being New Orleans-savvy, I've had to rely on newspaper maps to orient myself as the action moves from the Superdome to the Convention Center to the French Quarter. Not even Slate's New Orleans-born and -bred Josh Levin could figure out which neighborhoods the heli-cams were observing.

Every reporter and aerial camera should be equipped with a GPS unit that reports to a visible map of the region that the producers routinely inset at the bottom of the screen. Knock out the running ticker at the bottom, if need be, to make room for good maps. (While we're on the subject of the ticker, the producers should delete it whenever they go to split-screen.)

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Feldstein says my yearning for geographical grounding reflects my shortcomings, not the news networks'.

"You're looking for information rather than emotion. Graphics are often considered 'bad TV' that can't compete with the gripping spectacle of flattened homes, tearful families, and the horrific if sneakily satisfying melodrama of others in life doing worse than you are," he writes.

… hate the fundamental dishonesty of 24/7 coverage. Because it's in their economic interests to keep you watching as long as possible, the networks never allow the possibility that the story has zenithed and that you can stay informed if you check back in a couple of hours. Instead, every new fire and helicopter mission—anything that looks "disastery"—is treated with the same urgency as the first news of the levee giving way. Today, Sunday, Sept. 4, the networks are panning the empty streets with the same intensity as they did the crowds of victims lined up outside the Convention Center a couple of days ago.

… hate the opportunism of Fox News Channel's Geraldo Rivera, who grandstanded at the Convention Center on the Friday night Hannity & Colmes show with babies he borrowed from trapped New Orleanian mothers. Rivera, who said he'd been in Louisiana for less than a day, wore his best sob face for the camera as he paraphrased Exodus:

There's the freeway here. I tell you what I would have done –what I would still do. I would say, let them walk out of here. Let them walk away from the filth. Let them walk away from the devastation. Let them walk away from the dead bodies in here.

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(Speaking of Fox, the ordinarily cocky Shepard Smith experienced some sort of journalistic metamorphosis on Friday's Hannity & Colmes and The O'Reilly Factor. Numb from the days and days of horrors he'd viewed on the I-10 overpass, Smith delivered his report of death, murder, and rape with a stunning combination of deadpan and passion. I predict that when he returns to his regular gig on The Fox Report,he'll have a hard time reading the flip stories stuffed inside the "G Block.") (Watch the video.)

… hate the completely un-newsworthy "Fox News Alert" Chyrons that routinely run on the bottom of the Fox News Channel screen. I forget the original wording, but "Bush to Return to Louisiana Tomorrow" and "Troops Conduct New Chopper Rescue" give the flavor.

… hate the absence of context and continuity. Where are we in the story? What came before? What's next? More than once while watching reports, I've felt as disconnected from the narrative as that guy in Memento, who can only remember the last 20 minutes of what happened to him before his memory purges itself.

I appreciate the difficulty of covering this story, but if the news networks can't bring coherence to it, they can at least offer the disclaimer that circumstances will render their breaking-news accounts fragmented and flawed, and that they promise to sort things out in a 9 p.m. or 11 p.m. broadcast. With so much air to fill, why haven't they produced a 15-minute segment on the engineering of the levees or an animated 3-D representation of how the storm surged into New Orleans and broke upon the coast?

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"Continuity, context, and historical perspective are areas where print almost always trumps broadcasting," writes Feldstein. "Continuity, context and perspective inevitably reduce that drama—and with it, ratings and profits, the holy grail that trumps all."

… hate the lackof input from knowledgeable outsiders. Yes, let's interview the mayor, senators, governors, police, the Red Cross, the gang from FEMA, and the Army Corps of Engineers. But what about Tulane professors, the mayor's political foes, local journalists, business people, clergy, and Master P? (NBC's use of the inarticulate Harry Connick Jr. is not what I have in mind.)

… hate the absence of self-criticism. The networks have no trouble finding fault with the government relief strategy, but you'd never know from watching that they've gotten anything wrong.

Allow Feldstein to explain it all to you:

"TV is notoriously weak on self-criticism—no ombudsmen, no letters-to-the-editor, no columns for running corrections or clarifications. At best, some little-watched weekend cable shows will address media coverage of Katrina, but that will predictably focus on how tough a story it is to cover for journalists (with lots of shots of reporters roughing it) not the sins you mention."

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What do you hate about the TV coverage? Send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. All e-mails will be on the record. (Addendum: The readers answered promptly, and I posted their comments in a follow-up piece. You can still send comments, but I probably won't post them.)