Tag Archives: CNN

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

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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.”

Tracking Corporate Miscreants in ‘Time-Out Corner.’

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The bottom corner of the Opinions page has become a kind of time-out corner where corporate miscreants try to earn their way back into the fold. 

One of the greatest challenges an institution can face is an unanticipated need to counteract news about bad corporate behavior.  There is now a whole field of “crisis communications,” with branches in academia as well as the public relations field. These firms specialize in putting out fires that can flare up when news about their clients is not good. The problem may be bad batches of automobile tires (Firestone and Ford in 2000), sudden acceleration in cars (Toyota in 2004 and Audi in 1987), disastrous oil spills (Exxon in 1989 and BP in 2006), drug safety (Tylenol in 1982), and even the treatment of show animals (SeaWorld in 2013).

For each of these companies the need to reassure the public that they remain good corporate citizens means spending millions of dollars on image-repair advertising. These efforts range from glossy pro-environment booklets sent to schools (Exxon) to quarter-page ads in the New York Times’ Op-Ed page (almost everyone).

The ads in the Times are an especially reliable indicator that a company is going through a public relations nightmare. It’s not that the paper has a huge national following. It doesn’t, at least by the standards of other media like broadcast television.  What the Times provides is a way to reach opinion-leaders and important investors. The bottom corner of the opinions page has become a kind of time-out corner where corporate miscreants can earn their way back into the fold.

These days that quarter-page advertising space has been routinely filled with ads assuring readers that SeaWorld is a good custodian of the large ocean mammals it features in shows at some of its eleven locations. Their problems started with a single documentary picked up by CNN and Magnolia pictures.  Blackfish, a 2013 feature directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite focuses on a single killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando.  The animal is linked to the deaths of two trainers, as well as a third man found dead in the whale tank after the park had closed for the day. The film does not simply connect the deaths to the Orca.  It makes the case that the captivity of these large sea mammals is inherently inhumane, slowly driving them to erratic behaviors not seen in the wild.

The release of Blackfish coincided with a noticeable rise in public distrust of shows built around animal acts. There has also been a growing consciousness of the precepts of the animal rights movement, which in the United States has moved from the margins to the mainstream. SeaWorld Entertainment has been a lightning rod in this change, becoming one of the most visible targets of Americans newly sensitized to the requirements of capturing and maintaining animals for daily performances.

Crisis advertising isn’t really about the short-term goal of selling more tickets.  The rhetoric is more defensive: partly to reassure general readers who could drift toward open opposition, but also to keep the stock price of the company from going south in a gradual sell-off.  According to the Wall Street Journal, as of February of this year attendance and revenues at the company’s parks had both fallen, with a fourth-quarter loss at the end of 2014 of about $25 million.

And so the ads.  A recent message in the Times “time-out corner” carried the headline MAKING BETTER HABITATS, voiced in the person of Hendrik Nollens, a vet at SeaWorld:

SeaWorld’s killer whale habitats are among the largest and most advanced in the world.  But that’s not enough.  Here in San Diego, we're set to transform these habitats into dramatically larger, more natural settings.  These new habitats will provide all of us—marine experts and visitors alike—with a deeper appreciation and understanding of these magnificent animals.1

There are two useful conclusions worth noting about this particular case.  First, SeaWorld may triumph and win back its audiences with a sustained campaign.  We have short memories.  And many Americans shy away from messages that redefine entertainment preferences as ethical choices. Second, and even with my caveats, it’s hard to imagine a single documentary that has so galvanised so many Americans.  Blackfish is convincing evidence that the long-form documentary is a powerful kind of persuasion.


1The New York Times, July 16, 2015, p. A23.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu