Tag Archives: television news

The Eclipse of Advocacy by Assertion: the Case of Cable News

                                       wikimedia commons

Opinions without amplification: the problem is the equivalent of a trial where a judge only wants to hear opening statements.

We have opinions and we like to express them.  We also have what we like to think of as reasoned positions, and we sometimes like to explain those at well.  But anyone immersed in the stew of cable news these days is likely to see more of the first and less of the second: opinion-giving devoid of  good reasons.  For example, we are knee deep in arguments on health care reform.  If a person expresses faith in a single-payer system built out from the expansion of Medicare–a common proposal–we need to hear their reasons. If given the chance they might add that it would have lower administrative costs, works reasonably well in Canada and elsewhere, and would simplify the administrative mess we now have.  The problem is that our broadcast media give capable experts  too little time to explain how such a system would work.

The topics happen to be political.  But like aging divas in some old Broadway revival,  none of the program hosts will not move from under the key light at the center of the stage.

One of our cable news networks, MSNBC, favors hosts who are almost always reluctant to allow guests even a New York minute to elaborate on a point of view.  Chris Matthews (Hardball) is the worst at sharing time, shutting down sometimes thoughtful guests by asking long questions he then proceeds to answer.  Others on the network are inflicted with the same need to dominate, sometimes even Rachel Maddow.  To be sure, the gifted Maddow is less guest-centric and almost always up to the task of defending her reasons.  But the overall impression is of a network that has turned their evening news lineup into a series of “shows” based on “branded” celebrities.  (For the record, we should have news “programs,” not “shows.”  A “program” suggests at least the possibility of unscripted discussion.)  The topics happen to be political.  But like aging divas in some old Broadway revival,  none of the program hosts will not move from under the key light at the center of the stage.

CNN is slightly less star struck.  Their on-air journalists, including Erin Burnett,  Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer are able listeners and sometimes sharp questioners.  CNN’s problem is that they have decided to add large panels of “experts” to comment on what is always “breaking News.”  The pattern means there are as many as eight observers:  party hacks and surrogates for the President, and sometimes a few people with real insight into governmental affairs (for example, David Gergen and David Axelrod.)  But no guest is given more than a few seconds to make a point. Opinions, but too little amplification: the problem is equivalent to a court trial where a judge only wants to hear opening statements, but not supporting testifiers.

Older research put the average  television news soundbite coming from an expert at about eight seconds, hardly enough time for anyone to clear their throats, let alone explain the intricacies of a policy proposal.  Even in the expanded cable and streaming universe, the number does not seem to have grown.  The guests are often decoration to add legitimacy to the proceedings, or to fill in important but minor holes of infrequent silence.

This matters because a true reasoned argument is a claim (assertion) and it’s good reasons. A claim alone is not enough. It’s intellectually crippling to only state assertions: the equivalent of trying to have a public debate via Twitter.   All of this is made more poignant by the fact that true discursive media–the New York Times and Atlantics of the world–struggle to hold on to their readers.  It seems that many Americans are too busy or distracted to remain engaged long enough to get full explanations.  Instead, they get less about more, creating what political scientist Robert Entman once described as a “democracy without citizens.”