Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Murrow. Cronkite. Stewart? Colbert?!?

Comedy Central Continues to Replace Network Evening News

A recent content analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) revisited a year-old study by The Pew Research Center (PRC). Each helps to uncover an amazing and troubling trend in the television news world.

It seems the American TV news audience sees 'The Daily Show's' Jon Stewart as an inspiring and trusted... JOURNALIST.

Looking at the PRC's study shows Stewart is either on par with or more trusted than Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Anderson Cooper, BOB WOODRUFF, Walter Cronkite, Diane Sawyer and Ted Koppel...among many others. It's absolutely necessary to note this very limited study featured interviews with a small sampling size of 104, but, the numbers don't lie.

More people are turning to satire for their news content. The fact that it isn't unbiased or factually accurate doesn't matter. The trend of 'infotainment' continues...most people would rather be entertained than traditionally informed.

We'll break this all down in three parts. I)A Peak At The Satire Shows, II)National Evening News Trends, III)Why Americans No Longer Care To Draw the Line.

I) 'AMERICA'S ANCHORS'... Why Comedy Central?

The fact these satirical shows are taking over the prime-time news planet isn't 'new' by any stretch of the imagination. Stewart and colleague Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central's 'The Colbert Report' made the above cover of Rolling Stone in October of 2006 and discussed their impact. Maureen Dowd's six-webpage article/Q&A about 'America's Anchors' is a remarkable feature. Be warned, it is raucous and occasionally offensive. While you get to know both men through and through, they both ensure you get the point in the end. They are out to get laughs. One portion of the article particularly dealt with this very issue.
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DOWD'S QUESTION/LEAD-IN: I don't understand why you always say, "I'm just a comedian," because from Shakespeare to Jonathan Swift, humor is the best way to get through to people.

COLBERT: Peter Cook was once asked if he thought that satire had a political effect. He said, "Absolutely. The greatest satire of the twentieth century was the Weimar cabaret, and they stopped Hitler in his tracks." It doesn't mean that what we do is worthless. It's hard to do, and people like it, and it's great. But it doesn't mean that it has an effect politically.

STEWART: Or that it has an agenda of social change. We are not warriors in anyone's army. And that is not trying to be self-deprecating. I'm proud of what we do. I really like these two shows. I like making 'em. I like watching them. I'm really proud of them. But I understand their place. I don't view us as people who lead social movements.

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And that is the true beauty of these shows, which are frequently aired in the Halliday house. They are irreverent and crass. But, they attack relevant news items and figures in domestic and foreign politics. Stewart and his staff skewer governments across the globe, regardless of party affiliation. One moment they will insult President Bush's ability to relate/communicate, then briskly ask the question, "What the hell are the Democrats doing?" No one is outside of their rhetorical sphere. How could you call this show liberally biased when they openly call Republican presidential candidate John McCain a "friend of the show"? This is not to say the guests that frequent the show most often aren't of a more 'Democrat-esque' nature. They are. And the quips are clearly laced with a more liberal tone. But, when the Democrats make news (which isn't very often) they are sharp and quick to go after them.

While Stewart plays the coy pseudo-liberal with his hands always outstretched in disgust, dismay or confusion, Colbert and his staff are the other side of the coin. His character is that of the arrogant uber-conservative with his index finger wagging/pointing at the country's populace. When in doubt, blame the nation.

They are equally engaging and funny. Often times they spend significant portions of their programs dealing with media-related issues. Which, for anyone connected to that industry, is what drives the network's popularity to that very specific demographic. Professionals in the news business watch these shows. They love them. They love them because people in the media/news world have very, very thick skins. And who doesn't like a good laugh at their own expense every now and again? The problem is these pros return to work the next morning and go right back to their same 'dead horse-beating' style of news.

And, in the never-ending ratings war, Comedy Central is essentially defeating the 24-hour networks and other analysts/pundits the likes of Bill O'Reilly. A separate PRC study conducted last year had a unique news IQ quiz that showed the American public's continuing lack of awareness in regards to significant current affairs issues and notable figures. This was from a sample of over 1,500 adults and was done in comparison to a similar project from 1989. In that more recent PRC study, 16% of the respondents noted 'The Daily Show' or 'The Colbert Report' as their source for news; that compares quite well to the 17% that claimed 'The O'Reilly Factor' and the 14% that claimed 'The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.' It needs to be noted that 46% said they regularly viewed/watched/listened to network evening news. And, as detailed in Section II, that is clearly inaccurate.

While many would shake their heads at this study's discussion of the abundance of satire watchers, it was those Comedy Central-viewing respondents that scored among the highest on the IQ quiz. (Which is linked on the website for you to take...if you so dare.) But, identifying something or someone because you can recall a good joke doesn't mean you've been properly informed.

[*Writer's Note: This study is from April of 2007. The questions/answers are geared for that timeframe. This blog author took the quiz, and received a 69%. Better than the national average, but decidedly disappointing.]

No one at Comedy Central would confuse Stewart or Colbert as a journalist. They spew opinion and editorialize about pertinent issues without removing bias and physically doing the work. They mock and monitor the government and the media, but they don't actively cover the news themselves. So why are Americans seeking them out as a news source?

II) Evening News: A Sinking Ship

In the PRC's "Today's Journalists Less Prominent" Summary of Findings, they refer to the concept of journalists/journalism being diminished by the "increasingly fragmented media landscape." That about sums it up. The major networks have watched their evening news ratings plummet for years. Recently, Katie Couric's slide at CBS has received much of the focus and criticism, but numbers are down across the board. A look at national season-to-date TV ratings from last week shows only one news-related program, CBS' 60 minutes, even cracked the Top 20. It's share and rating were just over half of the #1-rated American Idol Tuesday night shows.

And that's the very best national TV news can expect to do. CBS' evening news program is garnering it's lowest audience in over twenty years.

Cleveland Plain Dealer TV critic Mark Dawidziak noted the 'newsdrop' last month in an article entitled, "CBS News ratings woes aren't all about Katie Couric." Dawidziak points out that since 1980, network evening news programs have lost nearly half of their total audience.

Those networks have failed to reinvent themselves. And the cable networks have eagerly jumped on these remote-clicking viewers. Foremost among them have been CNN and Comedy Central. The networks are floundering with no end in sight. But why don't the networks do more about their struggles to maintain ratings over the 'upstart' cable networks that are killing them in the books and on sets?

(Drumroll)

Because they OWN them.

Viacom owns both CBS and, since 2003, also has full ownership of the Comedy Central network.

Disney owns ABC and ESPN (THE major player in cable programming). Mickey & the Gang also have their hands on countless other cable networks such as Lifetime, E! Entertainment, A&E and The History Channel.

NewsCorp owns FOX as well as dozens of local small/medium/major market television stations. Then there is FOX Sports, FOX Business, etc.

General Electric owns NBC, CNBC, MSNBC and several other networks such as Sci-Fi, USA & Bravo.

While evening news is getting slaughtered up front, many of these same networks eat the cable profit in the back. Their only desire to bring these news programs up from the gutters would be solely based on a noble but necessary need to assist the public.

Good luck finding that sense of 'communal-chivalry' among the corporate media giants.

III) Networks Created Their Own Downfall

What the most recent content analysis by the PEJ brought to light was most interesting. They clearly broke down exactly what it is 'The Daily Show' discusses and how it reflects the national media.

According to the PEJ Study, as far as story topic, 'The Daily Show' runs roughly the same amount of US Foreign Affairs stories, but spends much more time on politics and elections and governmental issues than the national media/mainstream press. 'The Daily Show' replaces the mainstream media's time on crime and global/foreign news with stories about lifestyle and about the press.

So, in essence, 'The Daily Show' itself indirectly mirrors the news it is mocking. That's simply good satire. But, it's NOT journalism. It seems that people don't care about that anymore. That, polls and surveys show, falls on the media's shoulders.

And these satirical shows picked up on that.

An entire section of the PEJ study is focused on 'The Daily Show' and its love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with the media. When Stewart and the rest of 'The Daily Show' writers attack the press, it's generally dead-on and simply reiterates the feelings of a frustrated, over-stimulated news audience.

The brilliance of 'The Daily Show' and 'The Colbert Report' is they are simply poking a stick in the eye of the media...at every turn, every second. From their purposely overdone graphics and bumpers to their calculated vitriol. The writers and researchers sift through thousands of hours of television footage. But while the rest of us spent our TV news media time half in a state of vegetation, these poor souls have to log/transcribe/monitor every moment. No wonder they get so fed up with seeing the same junk on every channel. Who could honestly blame them?

The American TV viewing audience used to draw the line between their comedy programming and their news programming. Citizens took pride in being knowledgeable of global, national and local current affairs. But, that was a different time. A time when society (and its lack of personal luxury) weren't so focused on the individual. Because information is so abundant and readily available, people have the choice to entertain rather than educate themselves. It's easy to see why they choose the former over the latter. It may not be ethically right, but it's understandable.

This is not just a 'TV thing.' Young men and women aren't volunteering for military service; they aren't volunteering for community service programs, i.e. food pantries, Scouting, PTAs, etc. Go to a typical county government meeting and you can take attendance on one hand. Religious organization membership and participation is down across the board. It takes students more and more time to graduate with a college degree...4 years has become 5. Accountability, at the personal, communal and national level has suffered.

All of these organizations/corporations that are struggling from this uniform apathy have a choice to make. Aggressively attack their audience and properly reinvigorate social participation and debate or suffer the consequences.

For national network news, that consequence is the loss of viewers. The media are constantly shocked when they see a funny cable show with clever writers and great promoters demolish the work of dozens of reporters, editors, photographers and sales/managerial staff. They do studies on how the Jon Stewarts and Stephen Colberts of the world have passed them by.

It's because they are holding up the mirror for the networks and the reflected image is ugly.

The networks don't need more makeup or plastic surgery to fix the problem. They need a creative overhaul. Embrace the criticism and fix the process. Before you lose the viewers forever. That is, if you haven't already.

Jon Stewart is considered a trusted/inspiring 'journalist' because the American public no longer actively sees a working representation of that term on a nightly basis. The Jim Axelrods of the world lose their air time to the Geraldo Riveras. In a rush for ratings, networks have weeded out journalists and replaced them with faces.

This isn't just on the national level, but on the local market level as well.

KMOV in St. Louis just hired a former Colts cheerleader with less than two years of reporting experience to be a main anchor. She may have 'it' but the message this sends to true reporters is a difficult pill to swallow. And, if more experienced and credible reporters are being turned aside, a negative public response will follow. You give them no option.

But cable television gives them lots of options. There is no more three network domination of content.

Why should anyone trust network news? What has network news recently done to earn it?

Sometimes, at least according to the numbers, a good joke is better than a bad story.

1 comment:

T Mike said...

Much of what you say is true, but look at Matt Baum's 'Sex, Lies, and War," (2004) in the American Political Science Review.