Why cable news networks could use a reality check

What’s news and not-news in the 24-hour news cycle

Published June 10, 2018 7:29PM (EDT)

 (AP/Richard Drew)
(AP/Richard Drew)

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You have to steel yourself to listen to television news and cable talk shows about politics. The idea of just checking in to see if America has started a trade war with its allies or just testing whether there are developments that will shape your day is gone.

What’s left is the ash heap of culture wars in which no statement by any political figure on any position on any conceivable public interest topic can be taken at face value.

Instead, what we have are stick-figure spokespeople stuck out before the cameras either because they look good in the glare of lights or are unrattled by questions uttered almost before they can be thought through to produce spin that passes for news.

It was “news” yesterday that Trump is forgoing mastering much of the detail of nuclear weaponry development because “attitude” is more important than a true grip on the facts that will be twisted and re-twisted to gain an advantage in the talks. It was a perfect encapsulation of our times. It’s about the appearance of mastery, not actual mastery.

Those various news surveys that are seen from time to time to measure “negative” or “positive” views of the president’s time in office, for example, are not really measurements of “news.” Rather they are measurements of the amount of time that stick-figure heads bob up and down or left and right to fawn over the person who is president or to abase his flaws.

It would be healthier for all of us if cable news were simply to ignore Rudy Giuliani for a week or two at a time until he finally had something to say that represented an actual development in the legal team on behalf of his client, Trump. And a day without lawyer Michael Avenatti opining about the universe on behalf of his client, Stormy Daniels, would be a godsend.

The bad habits of offering an opinion in place of actual news, unfortunately, are growing broader and more commonplace. Even sports commentators feel a need to over-explain with their own views rather than just tell us what is going on with the interpretation of, say, an unfamiliar game regulation.

How is it “news” that Rudy Giuliani has an opinion about the value of women who work in porn, like Stormy Daniels? Yet, this discussion has gone on and on.

Dear cable folks: Please regain focus on what is news versus what is simply you blowing your way through tons of fog about what you think we should believe about society.

When former President Bill Clinton came away ham-handed after his televised responses this week to questions of his behavior when viewed in the context of the current #MeToo movement thinking, it was clear that Clinton has not fully evolved. We heard it. We saw it. We don’t need it repeated a thousand times over.

So, too, for the silliness of Trump asking the Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau whether “you guys” once tried to burn the White House well before Canada was a country. This is news?

It was news that Trump is on an intentional defensive warpath against the Special Counsel’s investigation. It was news that Trump canceled and then pursued the talks with North Korea. It was news that the FBI raids on Michael Cohen’s office, home and hotel have resulted in tons of non-protected, non-legal correspondence, phone calls, texts and other information that likely will not help Trump’s cases. I’ll even accept that it was news that Trump disinvited the champion Philadelphia Eagles from a celebration that they did not want. But Trump not remembering the words to God Bless America in his counter celebration was not news.

Making it worse are White House news sessions with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying virtually nothing about almost any issue of note. Tweets are weird, but fine as presidential statements, but Trump tweets are consistently misleading, if not outright lies. You need someone like Sanders to explain what is and isn’t meant.

It is bad enough that you specifically have to pick a channel to hear pro-Trump or anti-Trump news. I’m still enough of an information nut that I’d rather just hear how many jobs the economy was able to produce this month without all the covering lace to praise or attack the president. The president, in fact, has pretty much little effect over the actual creation of jobs, but our insistence on pushing people into left and right teams every day on every issue is annoyingly consistent.

As news consumers, we understand by now that we must triangulate among the various sources to get a sense of what actually is happening.

But the news media can make it awfully hard to remember which issues matter and which do not, which is too bad: That skill is at the heart of the journalistic effort.

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By Terry H. Schwadron

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