A Look At American Television News – And Other News

As a policy researcher, I spend work time digging into the background and history of special political issues. I get mainstream media news from The Washington Post and sometimes The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. I subscribed for a time to The Washington Times to get  conservative perspectives, but was disappointed by the predictable nature and lack of depth in The Times‘ reports. I am a regular watcher of the BBC News and The News Hour and Washington Week on PBS channel 26 in the National Capital area. BBC America provides highlights from the UK, Europe, and other areas as well as America. Expert critics rate the BBC program as the gold standard for network news – although it is arguably far below the quality of US TV news coverage decades ago, with special emphasis on early TV news in the Edward R. Murrow era.

According to The Pew Trust, a respected source of information about social conditions and opinion in the U.S., the most important frequent sources of news for Americans are: smartphone, computer, or tablet (60%), TV (40%), radio (16%), and print (newspapers) 10%. Adding sometime use, the respective total numbers for the above media are 86%, 68%, 50%, and 32% (Pew Trust surveys in August and September 2020).

We only get antenna TV stations at home in Fairfax, Virginia. So, on a trip to Fort Myers, Florida I sampled daytime cable news coverage on the 58 channels available on our hotel TV. Other than ABC Business news (Channel 25), several sports channels, and Fox News 4 (channel 19 – mainly local news), continuous national news was available on 3 networks. They were MSNBC (Channel 29), Fox News (Channel 30), and CNN (Channel 47). On October 22, 2021, I compared 15-minute segments from the three national news stations. Side-by-side comparisons are a favorite device for me – differences readily stand out, as we can see below.

 

MSNBC news topics

  • Democrats call for scrapping the Senate filibuster. Coverage included clips from Democratic spokesmen as well as a brief sound bite from Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader of the Senate. Urgency was expressed about getting rid of the filibuster in order to let Democrats act on multiple issues. The programming included a warning from Axios, an online news site, and information that President Biden was ready to make changes to the filibuster system that would limit its use.
  • Texas governor Abbott’s racially divisive policies.

 Ads:  A health clinic, Cosentryx (medication), Wayfair Furniture, Hylands medication, NBA Basketball, Xfinity

Notes: MSNBC features a limited number of liberal/progressive political topics pursued at length by commenters and flashbacks. The filibuster issue was covered with perspectives from President Biden, discussion of Republican obstruction, and issues including voting rights and police reform.

 

FOX NEWS news topics

  • Vaccine mandates cause market backups
  • The Administration’s rigidity in everything
  • Supply chain problems
  • 5 million people have returned from the virus epidemic; 3 million have quit more recently
  • Markets are rising as virus diminishes (Barrons roundtable)
  • Chicago is experiencing an epidemic of shoplifting; shops are reluctant to stop theft
  • US Chamber of Commerce executive, Neil Bradley, reports that brazen shoplifting is causing businesses to close.
  • Baldwin’s accidental shootings on Hollywood movie set

Ads:  Mercedes, Empire, Medicare help 2021, Safelite Auto Glass, Singers Eye Care, Schwab, Walmart, Balance of Nature supplements, Tepezza (FDA-approved eye medication)

Notes: Fox features multiple topics with main focus on conservative and business-friendly issues. It is faster-moving than CNN and MSNBC, with personal exchanges between hosts. A hefty Black host presented most of the news. Like MSNBC and CNN, ads have a significant proportion related to medication and health.

 

CNN news topics

  •  Alec Baldwin accidentally shoots and kills movie director and wounds other set member with a prop gun
  • Costly water supply owing to toxic lead levels in Michigan city, Benton Harbor (pop. 10,000). Extensive detail is offered, e.g. that water exceeds EPA lead limit of 15 ppb.
  • Follow the Money: regular CNN feature, e.g. follows money behind January 6 riot

Ads:   Humira (rheumatoid arthritis medication), Aetna insurance, Xiidra eye care, Panera, Life Magazine feature, NBA Basketball, Personal Injury lawyers Morgan and Morgan, Medicare Advantage

Notes:  Like MSNBC, CNN features hot news items covered at length; it leans somewhat to the left but has the most balanced coverage among the three networks. Like Fox News and MSNBC, CNN has a significant proportion of medication and health care ads, suggesting older populations who have the time to watch daytime programs and.

 

DISCUSSION

Ted Turner’s CNN was the first network to broadcast news 24 hours a day, beginning in 1980. By 1989 CNN was available in 65 nations. Fox and MSNBC joined in much later. A book by Victoria O’Donnell, Television Criticism, 2016 (https://www.google.com/books/edition/Television_Criticism/SNw9TGulQMQC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=why+does+CNN+dwell+so+long+on+given+stories&pg=PT135&printsec=frontcover) provided the above information and is an indispensable source of data on TV programming and history. It cites the first Washington editor of CNN, Stuart Loory, on why CNN lost viewership to Fox News. “It dropped its original format based on hard news by reporters in favor of anchors and discussion of stories by experts, analysts, and consultants. It sometimes abandons news of the day to dwell on one story only”.

Ironically, Fox News is now closer to CNN’s original programming model in offering a broader list of news topics, although it is oriented toward conservative politics and business news. Fox news reports (not during my sample period) are frequently Trump-friendly and critical of the Biden administration, though Fox did not accept the Trump claim that the 2020 election was gained by fraud.

Seeing CNN on TV screens in YMCAs and medical clinics with scheduled patients on rehab machines, I have assumed that CNN focused especially on people in establishments where they are exposed to the TV coverage for short times, or otherwise watch only briefly. CNN’s format allows people to at least get the top story or stories of the day, regardless of when they access it. That formula wouldn’t work as well for MSNBC because its liberal tilt makes it less suited to business establishments.  Media reports suggest that MSNBC is focusing heavily on digital streaming aimed toward younger audiences rather than live TV that appeals to older groups.

Nightly TV news programs have more content than daytime news, but I find that current programming tends to concentrate on human interest, sensation, and horse-race journalism (especially political election coverage) – including the PBS News Hour and Washington Week. We have to go to radio talk shows like NPR All Things Considered to get snippets about science, medicine, environment, industry, and other areas of society.  A Wikipedia site lists around 145 websites for various political interests; that doesn’t include the Social Science Research Network, which provides free access to over 800,000 scholarly papers in dozens of specific fields. I have 16 papers in that medium.

I know of no current Walter Cronkite,  anchorman for CBS Evening News for 19 years, or David Broder, Washington Post senior journalist who served the paper for 40 years. Those individuals as well as others enjoyed national reputations for balanced reviews of news developments. In the current age of intense opinions, polarization, and competition for readers/viewers, balanced observers get little attention compared with those like Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow with strong points of view. I find it takes hard work to get really in-depth, balanced perspectives on social and political issues;  serendipitous sources of insight are often important.

Comments welcomed at fmanhei1@gmu.edu