Before we begin delving into the merits and demerits of the approximately 374 new and existing cable TV “news” networks–in particular the old man of the cable box, CNN, and the two upstarts, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel–let me disclose my biases. The first bias is one that favors the news-gathering approach of the C-SPAN network, which won me over when it broadcast a half-hour holiday special consisting entirely of a guy walking through the Capitol with a camera filming the Christmastime decorations in the offices of various congressmen. It even had a voice-over if I remember correctly–a retiring, understated announcer who said things like, “And here we see Representative Maxine Waters’ Hanukkah bush, adorning the anteroom of her Longworth Building office.” Or maybe that was just the voice-over in my head. The second bias is one that favors news, as opposed to yakking–the specialty of Fox, which first aired last October, and MSNBC, which debuted last July. To be fair to MSNBC, Fox specializes in an egregious form of lowbrow yakking, whereas on MSNBC they just talk too much.
I t is difficult for me to say anything nice about CNN: I have been trapped in Third World hotel rooms with nothing to do except go outside and get murdered by looters or stay inside and watch CNN International, so I watch as CNN International runs endless scrolls of all the beautiful hotels in which you can see CNN International, and then runs endless pieces lauding CNN International’s news-gathering abilities, leaving little time for news. Also, CNN’s World Report, in which news networks in countries run by dictators produce their own stories for broadcast, is morally indefensible: “The Iraqi children have no eggs because of devil Bush,” and that sort of thing. But CNN should be complimented: It sends reporters to the scenes of interesting stories, and then the reporters report on the interesting stories. It’s retrograde, but it works.
T his is not to absolve CNN of the crime of yakking. It is still the employer of that bug Larry King, and it is home to a show I discovered a couple of Thursdays ago called Burden of Proof, which is hosted, apparently, by members of the defense bar who appear to regret the inevitable end of the O.J. Simpson saga. It seems that Burden of Proof is a show spawned by the Simpson trials, just as Nightline was born out of the Iran hostage crisis. The Iran hostage crisis, of course, was a great story, and gave birth to a great news show. The O.J. Simpson story … well, you understand. This is what I stumbled on when I began flipping around at 8:40 p.m. on that Thursday: On Burden of Proof, a panel discussion about liability in the case of the collapsed waterslide in California (surely you remember the waterslide collapse?). The panelists (including a person allegedly named “Guy Smiley,” who is identified, surprisingly, as a “personal injury attorney”) use as a starting point the topic sentence, “The way I look at it, there are five potential defendants.”
O n Fox, Tom Clancy is talking about the “increased use of precision-guided munitions,” which is odd because the stated topic of the discussion is sex in the military. Over on MSNBC, Jonathan Alter is talking about tabloid journalism. A choice among Guy Smiley, personal injury attorney; Tom Clancy; and Jonathan Alter is no choice, so I listen to Alter’s conversation with John Hockenberry. Apparently what they are doing is having an extended discussion in the MSNBC studio lamenting the death of real news. Back on Fox a few minutes later, a writer for Box Office magazine is saying, “The one thing we’ve always seen with Nick Cage is that he enjoys what he does.” Cage, it should be noted, is also “going to want to get back to his roots.”
Fox is by far the silliest news network. A couple of weekends ago, on Judith Regan’s show–she’s the publisher who brought us Rush Limbaugh–our hostess is interviewing an actress named Finola Hughes, who is identified with the television series Pacific Palisades. Regan asks Hughes about her lover or husband or whatever he is. “He was the first man,” Hughes says, “who had enough self-esteem to nurture someone else.” I immediately flee to the Weather Channel, the last bastion of real news, home to the purest expression of the news-gathering ethos on cable TV. Nobody on the Weather Channel is telling us how they feel about the weather, or lamenting the death of weather coverage. It’s just weather.
Fox’s segments are hosted by distinctly unfamous people who nevertheless have their shows named after them–hence, The Cavuto Business Report, That Regan Woman, The Schneider Report, and Hannity and Colmes, the obligatory point-counterpoint show. One of them, Hannity or Colmes, is the conservative and the other is the liberal. The liberal, it seems, is the one with the pointy head–Rupert Murdoch’s way of making a statement, one guesses.
At first I thought I was missing something because I didn’t recognize any of the “on-air personalities,” which is what TV journalists are called. Then I realized that this is Fox’s cheap way of making you think they’ve hired famous people to staff their network.
MSNBC is a bit harder to peg. It is far more serious, and is providing quite good coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing trial, but it is quite enamored, obviously, of technology, and quite self-congratulatory about it–“We’re a TV network! We’re Cable! We’re on the Web! Look at us!” Its Blade Runner-on-Prozac set is too confusing to look at; its multicultural cast of commentators proves that blacks, Latinos, and Asian-Americans can be just as boring as white people; and the network seems to waste a lot of time on yakfest talk shows when it has the reporting resources of NBC News to call upon.
Which brings us to an uncomfortable possibility. Maybe there just isn’t any news anymore, just news channels: To paraphrase Jack Rosenthal (my boss), the means of information delivery expand while actual information becomes more and more scarce.
T he most exciting news broadcast last week was 29 years old–the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, featured on MSNBC’s most interesting show, Time & Again. Jane Pauley hosts, but doesn’t get too much in the way of, fantastic footage from great news events of the past. So there is Kennedy thanking his supporters on the stage of the ballroom in the Ambassador Hotel, and there he is on the floor in the kitchen, and Sirhan Sirhan’s being hustled away, and there’s Ted Kennedy delivering an eloquent eulogy, and there’s the end of the Kennedy promise. Maybe the news is less vivid now, or doesn’t matter anymore. Or maybe the all-news networks are too lazy and cheap to go out and find news. Someone ought to remind them (CNN excepted) that there are other countries in the world that are accessible by airplane and are therefore possible to cover. These new networks are young, though, and maybe there is still time for redemption. Me, I’ll just wait for Susan Molinari.