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Saturday, Nov 22, 2014
Commentary

As cable networks nose-dive, it's all Zimmerman, all the time


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A few weeks ago, I flipped on the TV in midmorning, something I don't usually do. Egypt was on the verge of a coup, and I was in need of an update. I turned to CNN, where I worked for 17 years, and saw wall-to-wall coverage of the George Zimmerman trial. Fox News and MSNBC offered the same, and the broadcast networks offered me "The View," "Doctor Oz," and "The Price Is Right."

Mind you, obsessive coverage of show trials is nothing new. The O.J. Simpson case hijacked the cable newscasts (then only CNN) nearly 20 years ago and held them for over a year. But the Zimmerman trial, on the heels of the Jodi Arias trial, the Casey Anthony trial and dozens more mark a real turning point.

Our news networks have lost their way in covering news. The day for cable news playing a constructive role in reporting truly important human events is over. They're now competing to amuse you and me. The amusement takes many odd forms, from a show trial, to a car chase, to iPhone video of a parking lot slugfest, to royal babies and the Kardashians.

And it isn't the least bit funny. Neither is it news. It leaves us less informed as a democracy. It's no coincidence that the decline of our media, from reality TV to brainless news to shrinking newspaper staffs, is on a parallel path with our declining quality of government.

TV news executives are terrified of the future they face. The average cable news viewer comes in at just under 60 years of age - if you were wondering about the profusion of ads for Viagra, denture adhesive and motorized wheelchairs. Younger audiences tend to prefer the fake version offered by "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," or they eschew news viewing completely. So their base isn't just shrinking, it will soon be dying.

The solution they've mapped out for this is to stay the course, even as both viewers and journalistic integrity slip away. When a bright, shiny object like the Zimmerman trial comes along, the cable news nets take a news vacation and compete for their one-third of a single story.

There's no denying that the elements of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case have great social relevance: guns, personal safety, profiling and myriad aspects of race relations. But something's wrong when everything from the national debt to our health, from North Korea's nukes to climate change, from the roiling Middle East to our failing public schools suddenly aren't worth mentioning. That brings us to a point where calling cable news "news" is almost as unforgivable as Fox News' branding its brazenly partisan offerings as "fair and balanced."

As for Egypt, I found some fleeting coverage in the early afternoon that day. The cable nets broke out the live cameras and studio pundits to describe the turmoil in Tahrir Square for a few minutes because the judge recessed the Zimmerman trial for lunch. The first democratically elected government to spring from the remarkable events of the Arab Spring was being run out of town, and Americans had access to live television reports because George Zimmerman was eating a sandwich.

All three cable nets went back to trial coverage well before the lunch break ended, favoring us with commentary from the likes of the odious Nancy Grace. Shame.

It doesn't have to be this way. I know that many smart, dedicated journalists still toil in cable news. The sad part is that they're smart enough to know that pursuing serious news is a bad career move in the current environment.

But consider this: On a good weekday, the combined audience for the morning shows on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, is about 2 million viewers, with Fox accounting for about half of that. By contrast, NPR's "Morning Edition," which takes its journalism far more seriously, can pull in 8 million on a good morning, and its average listener is a decade younger.

As I write this, the trial has been over for five days. I just randomly turned on the TV, and CNN and MSNBC were mired in panel discussions, offering nothing new on the meaning of George Zimmerman's acquittal. Fox News, the exception to the rule, was in a break, running an erectile dysfunction ad. There's a better way than competing for the lowest common denominator. NPR is thriving by staying smart and true to journalism.

Also thriving are "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report." One would think a little introspection is in order when the people who make their living making fun of your journalism outflank you - and win elite broadcast journalism awards like the Peabody, DuPont-Columbia and news Emmies.

For the sake of an informed democracy, let's chill out on the obsessive, often mindless coverage of mega-events and give journalism another try.

For the dedicated journalists caught in the downward spiral of cable news, stand your ground. And for the sake of the old, departed TV news lions like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, let's hope their graves are in a No-Spin Zone.

Peter Dykstra, publisher of Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate, previously worked as CNN's executive producer for science, technology, environment and weather.

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