In Depth

Adalian Column: I Heard the News Today. Oh, Boy.

A Pew study released late last year showed that, for Americans under 30, the Internet has all but overtaken TV as their primary source of news.

TV types no doubt greeted the report with alarm. I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few networks secretly commissioned studies to find out why the kids are abandoning TV news.

I’ll save them some money: Viewers are turning to the Internet for news because it’s become almost impossible to find actual news on TV.

The three cable channels often described as “all-news”? Try maybe 10% news, 90% news “product.”

Primetime, of course, has long been a hard-news-free zone on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN. With the exception of “Anderson Cooper 360,” you simply cannot find a thorough summary of the day’s events between 8 and 11 p.m. on cable.

Hot air, blather, debate, opinion, analysis? Cable’s got it all.

Actual reportage of facts, the stuff Cronkite and Murrow used to serve up? Good night, and good luck trying to find any of that after dark.

I probably could live with the three cable news channels going for entertainment in primetime if it weren’t for the fact that hard news has evaporated elsewhere around the dial as well.

CNN used to have a sister channel devoted to nothing but bite-sized news nuggets. But that apparently wasn’t a profitable enough venture for the bean counters at Time Warner, so Headline News morphed into the monstrosity known as HLN, and news was replaced with … yup, hot air, blather, debate, opinion and analysis.

The same conglomerate also once owned a network where viewers could watch live news coverage of important trials. Way too … factual. Court TV became the unfortunately named truTV, which now is home to the same overheated “reality” shows that fill a dozen other channels.

Daytime on cable still contains a bit of news reporting, but it also has been infected by the babble virus that long ago claimed primetime as a victim.

Wolf Blitzer generally plays it straight (if a tad shrill), but his CNN daytime block “The Situation Room” frequently is punctuated by screaming partisan debates and the cranky (if on-target) ramblings of Jack Cafferty.

And Rick “Check me out on Twitter” Sanchez? It’s better that we just not go there.

Over at MSNBC, the day now begins with “Morning Joe,” another infotainment-filled block powered by the right-wing rants of a former GOP congressman rather than a certified journalist. And while Andrea Mitchell’s hourlong newscast provides sanctuary for those of us who want just the facts (thank you, ma’am), other daytime anchors on MSNBC have taken to injecting their opinions into stories or screaming at guests.

What so many of the folks at CNN and MSNBC have in common is Fox Envy. Roger Ailes’ Fox News Channel, after all, is the entity most responsible for TV news’ abandonment of actual news.

Criticizing Fox News has become as cliched as media reporters making cracks about NBC Universal bigwig Ben Silverman’s party-boy reputation. And yet, there’s no getting around the fact that the astounding ratings success of Mr. Ailes’ network has prompted rivals to duplicate the Fox News habit of injecting “attitude”—or opinion—into its coverage.

The broadcast world has done a better job avoiding advocacy journalism. But that doesn’t mean all is well over in the land of the single revenue stream.

Network morning shows used to draw flack if lighter stories showed up before the 8:30 a.m. half-hour. Now most start packing in the fluff and features and concert series as soon as the first commercial break is over.

Sunday mornings remain relatively wonky on the Washington chat shows. But even they’ve lightened up in a none-too-subtle bid for ratings. “This Week” heavily hypes its weekly roundup of late-night comedy clips. And the amount of time given over to newsmaker interviews has been shrinking in order to expand round-table segments where journalists and political consultants trade barbs.

Evenings are a little better for the networks, with Brian, Charlie and Katie still maintaining some semblance of old-school journalism. But the huge cutbacks made to network news budgets over the past two decades have resulted in a noticeable reduction in coverage of international news.

Likewise, while I’m happy that “Nightline” has survived the departure of Ted Koppel, the show’s switch to a multitopic format has significantly weakened what was once a jewel of the small screen. A show that used to bring together global leaders now devotes time to profiles of Rick Springfield.

The executives who run the cable and broadcast news outlets have heard all of these complaints before. I am far from the first print-based media columnist to whine about the tabloidization of TV news.

What’s more, it’s worth noting that the print world is hardly immune from the move away from hard news. Ink-stained wretches once content with getting their bylines in print now spend big chunks of time figuring out how to build themselves into brands, the better to compete with the oversized personalities who populate the blogosphere.

And as noted above, there’s still plenty to appreciate about TV journalism, from Ms. Mitchell’s gentle grilling of world leaders to Katie Couric’s fair and balanced treatment of Sarah Palin and other key figures of the 2008 campaign.

Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to appreciate the very real talents of those in the TV news business when so many of their bosses seem hell-bent on serving up as little real news as possible.