MY cable television set-top box froze last week. Fortunately, because the news programming on CNN, MSNBC and Fox has not changed in the past 100 days, I didn’t miss anything and I’m beginning to wonder if these networks have decided to put their 24-hour news programming into endless loops.
Rarely in media history have three major news organizations decided to lock in to particular stories and serve the same topics to the same audiences for so long in the hope of building momentum behind a drama, even when the news value of the story has diminished.
The danger of cable news networks’ chase for ratings is that critical public issues, such as immigration or tax reform, fall off the slate, while news directors imitate entertainment programmers in a desire to shape a story simply to maximize audience share.
Let’s begin with CNN. On March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing was reported missing, with 239 passengers and crew feared lost.
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This is the type of human tragedy that merits international news coverage, and in the beginning there were intriguing mysteries and theories about the flight path and fate of the plane.
CNN jumped on the story with war-style treatment, demoting other pressing stories, such as Russia’s strong-arm tactics in Ukraine. Experts with impressive British accents were put on retainer. Every shred of news was treated as a “major development” in this narrative, even if an observation plane simply spotted a piece of unidentified trash in the Indian Ocean.
Five weeks later, the network had shifted to simulations of Boeing 777 crashes and educational programming on the workings of deep-sea submersible recovery craft. There’s a place for this type of television, but it is no longer major news. It took the devastating South Korean ferry accident to break CNN’s mono-focus on the Flight 370 story.
Next stop, MSNBC: The New Jersey Bridge Scandal began on Sept. 13, when officials from Gov. Chris Christie’s administration apparently ordered rush-hour lane closures as a form of political payback to the mayor of Fort Lee, a Democrat who refused to endorse Christie’s re-election bid. The lane closures resulted in gridlock, finger-pointing and a self-serving investigation from the governor’s office.
MSNBC has opted to treat Christie’s bridge scandal like the 2016 election itself, probably because the network doesn’t have a presidential election to cover for another two years and its ratings only challenge Fox News in presidential election years.
Who is really served by this nonstop Christie bashing? As the leading moderate in GOP ranks, the fall of the New Jersey governor’s presidential prospects would tend to boost other potential members of the field, including more right-leaning potential candidates such as Rand Paul. The circle is thus squared, with the most liberal political cable network advancing the causes of the fringe right.
Finally, Fox News could honestly rebrand itself as “The Evil Obamacare Network,” where a viewer can learn everything about the Affordable Health Care Act and its rollout, with or without regard to facts. With Fox distorting every aspect (and benefit) of the act, one marvels how the White House has allowed its press critics to convert a legislative achievement into a political Dunkirk.
Fox has set the agenda for the 2014 midterm elections and swing voters have apparently taken the bait. The Democrats won’t regain the U.S. House and are likely to come close to losing their Senate majority. So, Fox, at least, has achieved its goals through their carpet-bombing, so-called coverage of this story.
While cable networks don’t require licenses to distribute programming, the industry is continually lobbying Congress and the Federal Communications Commission for favorable treatment on their compulsory obligation to carry free-TV signals and other spectrum allocation issues, seeking advantage over traditional free over-the-air TV. Public interest in receiving news and educational programming has been lost in the process.
With the cable networks on endless loops, one can only be thankful for the start of the final season of “Mad Men.” At least we know that plot will end at the end of the current season.
Alex Alben is an author and high-tech consultant, based in Seattle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org