Don Hewitt, creator of “60 Minutes” and veteran TV-news guy, thinks that the way to entice viewers back to network news is to increase its proportion of opinion-based content. This is delusional thinking, given that

-Network news is already full of opinions. That’s part of why it has lost so many viewers.

-Making opinions explicit doesn’t insure an audience any more than starting a blog does. To gain viewers’ loyal attention (as opposed to merely riling them up and driving even more of them away), opinions have to be thoughtful and provide unique perspective. It’s not enough to be sincere, you have to add something to the public conversation if you want viewers to come back, and all of the good political bloggers and op-ed commentators know this. But does anyone think that the people who run network news are capable of doing it, given that many of them, like Hewitt, refuse to acknowledge that their networks’ biased, error-prone reporting is a large part of the problem?

-The Internet is awash in high-quality commentary, available from every ideological perspective and generally free. It’s difficult to make money selling something that a lot of other people are giving away.


15 thoughts on “Clueless”

  1. It seems fairly obvious to me how a TV news show could increase its ratings: go where the competitors aren’t. Cover stories that they aren’t covering, rather than following the herd.

    People in just about all other industries understand the concept of differentiation and of the ecological niche. Why do media people fail to grasp it?

  2. David,

    Isn’t that what Fox did? And isn’t that what CBS et al refuse to do? Fox succeeds because Murdoch and Ailes are primarily profit-driven and went for an unexploited niche. CBS executives, by contrast, seems unwilling to make changes that might reduce their ideological engagement. They made the decision to do this, and they could decide at any time to change course. What’s delusional is that they refuse to acknowledge the tradeoff they have made and its connection to their current woes.

  3. I think Hewitt’s got something like this in mind:

    The Network News Hour! with Sybil the Soothsayer, Jim Webbing and his ‘It’s-the-Emmes-Truth Department,’ Miss Mata Hari and her skeletons in the closets, and tonight, another segment of Vox Populi, and starring the mad prophet of the airwaves, Howard Beale!

    I just hope Hewitt’s getting proper stimulation from the ’00s edition of Faye Dunaway.

  4. Jonathan,

    I think you are correct about MSM decisions to put ideological positioning ahead of business considerations. But I’m thinking that there are many ways a news program could differentiate itself from others in ways that don’t involve ideological choices. For example: News people tend to all fasten like vultures on the story of the week and talk it into the ground, way past any point of diminishing returns, while simultaneously ignoring other important stories. This is true whether the SOTW is Michael Jackson, the election of the new Pope, Terri Schiavo, or whatever. A network truly interested in differentiation might take a different approach to the weighting of its coverage.

  5. David,

    I agree. Maybe one of the underlying issues here is the selection and training of journalists. I think MSM would do better to hire more experts in special areas, even practitioners, rather than more poorly-educated generalists who think it’s their job to civilize the ignorant masses. IOW (and e.g.) the financial reporters should own some of the stocks they are reporting on — as long as there is disclosure.

    But the news execs are part of the same flawed culture of generalist “professional” journalism that the j-school grads are indoctrinated in.

    My model for a good journalist is an expert and practitioner like Larry Kudlow, or someone with a lot of area expertise like Robert Kaplan.

  6. On the topic at hand, I think the problem is in how your looking at network news. Your viewing it as a business, like Ailes does. Rather and the gang view it as a public service. They won’t change because acting like a business would undermine the function they play. At least as they see it. I’m with you and Fox. I just don’t think CBS and the other alphabets are thinking about this problem (sinking ratings) the same way you are. Their first premises are entirely different. Moreover, changing those premises is impossible as it requires they understand “journalism” as something completely foreign to the craft as they understand it.

    It’s like arguing with a Frenchman about the welfare state, or an atheist about God. They just can’t understand what you’re talking about, because, for better or worse, they’ll never release the first premise.

  7. I think MSM would do better to hire more experts in special areas, even practitioners, rather than more poorly-educated generalists who think it’s their job to civilize the ignorant masses.

    This aligns with what I’ve been saying for years. I’m an expert in a few subjects, but I’ve never read or viewed a news item that ever got the details about those subjects right.

    Not only that, but every time I’ve been interviewed by a reporter they’ve distorted what I said to them by taking my comments out of context.

    A study released in 2004 by Tim Groseclose of UCLA and Jeff Milyo of the University of Missouri seemed to prove that the media had an overwhelming bias to the Left. The study also went on to say that Fox News and the Drudge Report had the least bias of any outlet.

    The problem with Fox is that it mixes a great deal of op-ed in with straight reporting. That seems to confuse many people who don’t make the distinction.

    Every few months I see an item in the news where reporters are complaining about falling market share. Invariably they claim that their customers are turning their backs on traditional outlets in favor of terribly biased sources that do nothing but reinforce the viewer’s prejudices. As Jonathan points out in his original post, it never seems to occur to them that the average news consumer is bright enough to recognize that the talking heads are trying to force feed them a distorted world view, and so the audience leaves in an attempt to find some alternative.

    It occurs to me that the plan to ratchet up the bias is a traditional Leftist response to a failed plan of action. It seems that every time some favored program fails (gun control, social programs), then they claim that it would work if it’s just tried twice as hard.


  8. Hewitt’s words reveal he knows what news is. Ultimately it relies on the opinions of expert witnesses. If a plane crashes, the news of it is generated from the firsthand witnesses who saw it going down, then from the emergency responders, then from the NTSB surmisers, then from the expert testimony of the Black Boxes

    I think what Hewitt is getting at here is the need for a plurality of “expert” witnesses. The old MSM news brand cast its newscaster as the sole omnicient witness. His bias, along with that of his team of reporters, was supposed to be overlooked by the viewers and denyed by his network.

    Johnathan wrote: “The Internet is awash in high-quality commentary, available from every ideological perspective and generally free.”

    Hewitt and Ailes are looking at the same puzzle from their MSM-broadcast viewpoints, and coming to the same conclusion – their organizations need more of this “high-quality commentary.” Read: We need more bloggers!

    Johnathan again: “It’s difficult to make money selling something that a lot of other people are giving away.” This blog has touched often on the role of bloggers in providing news, and on devining a method for incentivising more accurate and frequent news contributions from the independant Pajamahedeen. Yet the incentives that might drive this innovation remain elusive. Any ideas?

  9. The network seems to focus on what stands out them, FOXs strong op-ed and antagonist commentary, and assume that is the sole factor driving their rating. They ignore the fact many people watch FOX despite this because they have better content and more objective analysis.

  10. Fox can be irritating and it does employ some blow-hards and scandal-mongers (or encourage that). Still, I’m always struck by the context Brit Hume brings to his interviews and the panel discussions. Generally he reframes issues differently than the msm by moving the context to the right (or the center, he might argue). But it almost always gives a better proportion, a longer history.

    What Hume brings is a mind and a memory. My impression is that the cable news shows hire people with just more experience &/or education: look at Kudlow, for instance; how many of these people have law degrees; how many of them speak multiple other languages. Sometimes this is true of people covering Michael Jackson but something somewhere is in their memories. And with religion, well, the msm seems clueless – in a way that Fox is not. (CNN is another thing.)

    I’d say the biggest difference is that Fox is less cynical. Sometimes it is loud and offensive and naive. But it is easier to be cynical about the horse race (even, say, the choice of the Pope) than to actually discuss the issues. The MSM gives “kmowingness”; what we want is knowledge. We don’t often get that from the cables, perhaps, but cynicism is a cheap substitute.

  11. Thanks for the insightful comments.

    Somebody (a blogger? I don’t remember) recently pointed out that there are more liberals among Fox reporters than there are conservatives among reporters at the old networks. I think this observation captures a large part of the reason for Fox’s success. Fox isn’t always ideologically balanced, but, like Drudge, it is much more balanced than are its competitors. Management clearly leans conservative but also is driven mainly by commercial motives. So they broadcast a lot of lowbrow sensational stuff that is always popular but that “media critics” complain about, but — key point — they also don’t come across as being agenda-driven the way CBS (in particular) does. That makes a big difference to viewers who want news without spin and have alternative sources for it.

    CBS and “60 Minutes” sometimes act like the loss-leading editorial division of an otherwise profitable entertainment conglomerate. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s remarkable how out of touch the editorialists are with the business consequences of their advocacy. It’s as if everyone but them sees what’s going on.

  12. A friend sent this Netscape News item from Drudge: “Ailes, during a discussion about the media’s role in democracy at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, also endorsed the integrity of many bloggers, a sentiment shared by U.S. News and World Report publisher Mortimer Zuckerman, also onstage.” Dialogue includes this exchange:

    Ailes said that though Fox News won’t “go to air from anything off a computer,” many bloggers are accurate news sources.”Bloggers are not only checking the accuracy of CBS, they’re checking the accuracy of each other,” he said. “We know which bloggers — within a very short period of time — are generally credible and which ones are not.”Zuckerman agreed, saying: “What you get off the Internet is unbelievably passionate. That’s all to the good.” Said Ailes: “Freedom of press didn’t invent democracy; democracy allowed freedom of the press to flourish. We need to defend democracy.”

  13. If Ailes worked for CBS it might be doing well. OTOH it’s not obvious whether CBS would hire Ailes.

  14. I don’t believe the issue is that CBS, et al have opted for public service vs. profit so much as they have confused public service, i.e., providing the public with information, with position advocacy, i.e., attempting to shape the debate to favor one side.

  15. That’s it exactly Dan. But so long as they’re confused they won’t pay attention to the sinking ship. It doesn’t occur to them that it has to float. It’s floating (profitability) was always just a happy coincidence in the journalists minds. They don’t know how deep the water is, nor do they realize they won’t be able to breath underneath it indefinitly.

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