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Editorial: Cable News Quandary: Must It Be Theater?

Apr 19, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Regrettable is the word that comes to mind as we survey the performance of cable news outlets in recent weeks.
Their coverage of the anti-tax “tea parties” on April 15 illustrates the extent to which self-described news outlets have departed from their mission and turned to theater.
We (quixotically) urge our TV news colleagues’ better angels to assert themselves. It’s time to take a step back from opinion, demagoguery and bickering.
In a world in which that kind of broadcasting attracts ratings, we’re pessimistic that straight news and investigative journalism can rebound. But what we’re seeing on cable news prompts us to protest.
A survey of the cable news landscape—CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and CNBC—offers some bright spots but general disappointment. The broadcasts lately are more World Wrestling Entertainment than Edward R. Murrow.
Take CNN correspondent Susan Roesgen’s comments while covering one of the tea parties last week. She challenged the arguments of a tax protester in a way that the crowd (perhaps correctly) interpreted as hostile to their point of view. When the crowd began heckling her, Ms. Roesgen said on-air: “I think you get the general tenor of this. It’s anti-government, anti-CNN, since this is highly promoted by the right-wing, conservative network Fox.”
Tsk tsk, Ms. Roesgen. You took the bait. Your comments, whether true or not, gave your hecklers the paint they needed to color in their assumptions about your politics.
We don’t mean to pick on Ms. Roesgen, though. There are offenders around the dial.
Over at CNBC, Rick Santelli, a smart reporter on markets coverage, also has foot-faulted. He catapulted to a new level of fame by adopting the rhetorical techniques of Fox News Channel opinion celebrities Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck in an on-air rant. The problem is that, unlike Mr. Santelli, Mssrs. O’Reilly and Beck don’t deliver straight news; they play by different rules.
MSNBC’s partisan opinion celebrities have adopted some of the rhetorical techniques of their ideological mirror images at Fox News Channel, and it’s bound to taint MSNBC’s breaking-news people. The same thing happened at Fox, where the breaking-news people often are assumed to be in step with the network’s opinion celebrities. (We leave aside the measurement of bias at the breaking-news operations of those two channels at the moment.)
Given the upward ratings trajectory at Fox News Channel and MSNBC, we understand the cost-benefit analysis they’ve made. And given the tenor of the cable-news times, we understand the polemical pull exerted on straight news reporters. But none of that would matter if these journalists’ first priority was preserving the craft’s credibility.

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