As the shameless co-opting of social media by cable and network TV news accelerates, the flaws and inadequacies of those TV news programs becomes ever more obvious.
Almost every day, I take a break or two from my PC, where I’m constantly monitoring social media, and I check out CNN, MSNBC, and Fox news or, if it’s the right time of day, the network news on ABC, CBS and NBC. I’m always appalled by what I see on TV news. It’s pathetic.
Here’s what’s so bad about TV news:
• Each TV news program covers just a tiny number of stories, about which they provide almost no detail and which are clearly selected to advance the careers of the people running the network at the expense of the public interest. Each network pretends to be the viewer’s only source of news, which is absurd. And cable news channels cover those same stories one program after the next. The president said this. The congress did that. The Republicans this. The Democrats that. Other than Iran, Israel, Iraq, Russia and occasionally Mexico and China, the world doesn’t exist on TV news.
• TV news is old. Anchors introduce a new story as if it’s breaking news, and my reaction is almost always, “they’re still covering that?”
• Far too many cable shows revolve around a single person who spends the entire program hard-selling a political viewpoint and a self-promoting book.
The only thing TV news does better than social media is to display higher quality pictures and video. Otherwise, TV news is just like the Internet as a news source, after you take away user control, alternative opinions, timeliness and 99% of the stories.
The networks know this. That’s why in the past year they’ve all bent over backwards to try to co-opt social media to create the illusion of relevance. But, as the Internet meme goes, they’re “doing it wrong!”
A typical scenario goes something like this. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer is doing his clumsy “Situation Room” shtick, and kicks it over to Jack Cafferty for a regular segment called the “Cafferty File.” Cafferty runs through his no-jacket, hard-working reporter routine by spouting some shamelessly populist opinion, then asks viewers what they think about the issue, closing as always with, “you can post your comments on my blog.” A tiny fraction of those comments, hand-selected by Cafferty, will show up on a future segment designed not to shed new light on the issue or call Cafferty to task, but ultimately to market Jim Cafferty and CNN.
Instead of leveraging social media’s ability to illuminate consensus, and surface all relevant views on an issue, the TV networks like CNN do the opposite. They ignore the consensus, they exploit the Web merely as a source for them to cherry pick self-serving viewer opinions. You don’t need the Internet for that, and that’s not what the Internet is good for.
If TV news wants to really leverage social media — and become timely, relevant and engaging in the process — they’re going to have to take some control away from their over-paid “personalities,” and hand it over to their viewers. Here’s how:
1. Instead of using “tickers” and peripheral space to promote programs and other stale “news,” they should instead turn this over to live running commentary.
A good model would be what Chris Pirillo does — live commentary with a chat ticker. However, instead of allowing any comment to appear unmoderated, as Chris does, news programs could use a Digg-like voting system to select only the best comments and a last-minute censor who’s only job is to pull comments for FCC compliance and to adhere to whatever the network’s standards of “decency” are. Don’t censor for any other reason.
2. Hire a small team to monitor Twitter and other social media sites 24/7 looking for breaking news, which always appears there first.
Airplane landing in Hudson. Terrorists in Mumbai. Earthquake in L.A. All these things could be discovered on Twitter and be plastered on the TV screen in 30 seconds.
3. Fire all opinion-show anchors.
Bill O’Reilly, Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity, Jim Cafferty, Keith Olbermann, Rachael Maddow and their ilk — show them the door. Turn opinions over to a social media open try-outs process. These now-wealthy opinion leaders should invest in their own camera equipment, and have to earn their airtime by winning an open competition online for video commentary, which is voted upon Digg-style. But don’t pay them. Don’t pay for any opinions. Instead pay more to objective reporters who adhere to established journalistic standards. Doing this will improve both the reporting and the opinion.
4. Go ahead and cover your career-making, inside-the-beltway stories, but spend at least half the show summarizing a very large number of stories that are getting traction on social media.
Each half-hour news segment should cover at least 20 stories, not four. And in the next half hour, choose another 20 stories, not the same ones again.
5. Never let news anchors choose viewer comments.
Let social media mechanisms choose which comments make it to the screen. Pit the viewers against the anchor, don’t let the anchor act as a one-man propaganda machine cherry picking viewer comments to create self-serving distortions.
Of course, I don’t expect the TV new media to do any of these things. The medium is the message, and the number-one objective of any organization is to blindly pursue the interests of the organization itself. TV networks need their advertising dollars, and believe that the only way to make money is to be phony, non-responsive propaganda machines that barely cover the news and spend half their time on self-promotion.
Fine. Just don’t expect me to watch. I’ll be getting the real news on Twitter.
In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.