Image via Patrick Finnegan/Flickr CC
Now that the Kavanaugh hearings are history, let’s look at a business that I believe is most responsible for distorting the American political system, and news in general, causing the divide in our country: the cable TV political programs.
As we near Election Day 2018 and the rhetoric delivered by cable news pundits becomes more echo-like, voters should remember that in the days leading up to the 2016 presidential election, a Newsweek investigative reporter was a guest on a cable TV program discussing one of many stories he broke. During the discussion, the reporter mentioned that cable TV reporters often know little about the stories they are reporting on. To which the TV host replied, “We have many good reporters.”
Probably because he is a gentleman, he let the remark by the host pass. If the comment was made to me, I would have responded, “So when are you going to start using them?”
Now, right now, the
If Not Now, When are the cable networks going to do some original reporting instead of piggybacking on stories by print pubs investigative reporters, which I called “parasitic journalism?”
If Not Now, When are the cable networks going to stop giving air time to Kellyanne Conway, the rude, interrupting, fast talking, filibustering inventor of “alternate facts” and the see no evil defender of anything Trump?
If Not Now, When are cable reporters going to stop asking questions of GOP spokespersons knowing that they are there to defend the president instead of discussing the facts?
If Not Now, When are the cable networks just going to report the news without giving time to an opponent of the report, thus muddying real facts? (Probably never. They need propagandists’ spokespeople to fill and camouflage their none “Breaking News” programs.)
If Not Now, When are the cable networks going to ignore political remarks by show biz performers and stop reporting their statements as major news? (Hey, MSNBC’s Ari Melber, maybe you should answer this question.)
IF Not Now, When will the cable political shows begin acting like actual news sources and stop airing those pre-packaged White House video news releases of the president bragging about his accomplishments?
There have been many low points of cable TV’s political coverage: Analysis by so-called experts, who are merely expressing their hackneyed opinions numerous times, booking “alternative facts” spokespeople as guests and covering Trump’s political rallies because it increases viewership. An example of the lame coverage provided by the cable networks was the amount of time spent discussing Melonia Trump’s wardrobe during her trip to
But even Ms. Trump’s attire was left in the dust when Sean Spicer resigned as press secretary. The cable networks covered the resignation for days, as if it really matters who lies for the president.
In reality, the press secretary and communications staff are propagandists for any president. They don’t make policy. They rose color policy. That’s their job. They are hired gun slingers, paid to represent the president, the same way people in our business represent clients (except the great majority of us don’t lie or mislead the press, I hope,) or at least not as often as Trump and his White House hawkers.
The spinal column of cable TV political coverage is not “Breaking News,” as it falsely proclaims, because cable hardly ever is the first to break news. It’s the usual same old, nothing new so-called analyses by their pundits and co-opting stories from major print pubs, as their news people also do, as the basis for their “parasitic journalism” comments. (The overwhelming majority of pundits are terrific at mimicing back seat drivers, expressing after-the-fact opinions. True analyses of situations are rare.)
The lameness of CNN’s “Breaking News” posture was never better exposed then when former FBI director James Comey testified before a Congressional investigating committee.
CNN devoted an entire day to what it billed as “Breaking News” coverage. In reality it was nothing but different faces regurgitating the same opinions through out the day. Any resemblance to “Breaking News” was non-existent.
Especially shameful, to me, was the firing squad set up and aimed at Kathy Griffin by her CNN colleagues after she showed what some people thought was a bad taste photo of the severed head of the president. The criticism was immediate without anyone mentioning that she didn’t threaten or harm anyone. (Importantly, she never continually provided flawed analysis like the CNN pundits by predicting that Trump would never get the nomination, and if he did he would lose in a landslide to Hillary Clinton.)
As far as cable TV political coverage is concerned, it’s as if the past and the present are one. The same lack of original reporting, the same lack of specific knowledge among many of its reporters, the same disguising of personal opinions as analysis and never admitting they got it wrong (as print pubs do with corrections).
It’s bad enough that cable TV political programming depends on ubiquitous panel discussions or “he said, she said” formats in lieu of informative news. But MSNBC recently hit a new low with an old fashioned movie-like college band introduction to a discussion. On the October 11 Katy Tur program, the Washington University St. Louis band was the lead into a discussion about the Missouri U.S. Senate race. (People who don’t pay attention to the regular cable drivel might have thought that Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were the candidates.) And a few hours later, on the same network, instead of leading with the important news of the day, Nicole Wallace led her program with a panel discussing Kanye West’s visit with President Trump. (That’s cable’s political show biz, folk.) And to continue the madness, later in the day on the same network, Ari Melber had a segment about how Fox had cut down televising Trump rallies. Melber’s premise was that Trump is upset that his rallies aren’t any longer covered in their entirety. So how did Melber make his point: by televising a portion of a Trump rally. (For nostalgia lovers, watching MSNBC on October 11 was reminiscence of The Three Stooges.)
An oft repeated comment by TV pundits and reporters on the cable networks is that Trump is a master of controlling the news cycle. The truth is that the cable networks crowned Trump the master manipulator by giving him wall to wall coverage because it is less costly to cover him than to create and present original programming.
And good for ratings because people tuned in to see the Trump’s act. The truth is that the cable networks can dethrone Trump from being the master media manipulator by refusing to cover every tweet he sends. Certainly the evening network news programs and print pubs do so. (If the cable networks aren’t entirely responsible for Trump being designated the master manipulator of the news cycle, they are certainly the prime enablers.)
As a former journalist and political news junkie (whose first job in PR was working on political campaigns, ranging from local races to the presidential level), after comparing cable TV political reporting to that of the New York Times, Washington Post and other major print journals, I’ve learned that when a cable TV reporters says, “We’ve just learned,” it usually means they learned it from reading the morning pubs.
My advice is to disregard predictions from all seers, especially those “know it alls” on cable TV. It wasn’t too long ago when they said, that professional football is losing its TV audience because of President Trump’s campaign against players who didn’t salute the flag. But despite the gloom and doom prophets National Football League TV viewership is up three percent from last season as I write this. And the largest increase is by the 50 plus crowd, the audience predicted that would most be antagonistic to the protesting players.
Nevertheless, watching cable TV coverage isn’t a complete waste of time for people in our business: If you want a master class in how to make your clients’ hum drum news seem newsworthy you can get free daily lessons by tuning in the cable networks. They are experts of making even a guppy in a five gallon tank seem like a great white shark.
Valuable PR lessons can be learned by watching how Republican spokespersons have acted on TV since before the 2016 election. Their talking points constantly changed according to negative news coverage regarding Trump. Brand and corporate PR people should be as flexible.
During my career, I found that once a PR program was cast in stone, the great majority of account teams would stick to the strategy and talking points even when it was obvious that there was no media interest. My advice, which I have always followed, is to be adaptable
About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the