Friday, March 21, 2008

Television Tabloids

If you turned on television news over the past week or picked up a newspaper, Governor Spitzer’s scandalous rendezvous with a prostitute was likely reported, analyzed and dissected for your viewing pleasure. Is transporting a prostitute across state lines a crime? Yes, but it has little relevance or news value compared to the massive salience it has received in the media.
Governor Spitzer, his wife, and the woman whom he paid for sex are the latest public figures to be made a part of a media soap opera, jacking up ratings, ad revenue providing endless opportunities for magazines and television programs to drum up “exclusive” interviews with all three parties when they’re willing to talk.
Not much happened between the governor’s admission and resignation, but the image of his wife standing beside him is probably burned into the back of your retina. The media would’ve loved to catch a tear, as they did with Hilary Clinton. That was a headline for days. With America on the verge of the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression, it is troubling for the media to devote so much of its attention to this ordeal.
Why do they do it? Sex sells. The news media has endured a gradual shift from a fourth estate of public service to being the latest product in a capitalistic society. Other nations support an independent news media, but the major conglomerates who own and control the media are unlikely to ever allow that to happen when they are able to earn revenue, cut corners and control what the nation is focused on.
Ted Koppel stated on PBS’ Frontline that ratings jumped 10 percent whenever the OJ Simpson trial was covered on Nightline. Koppel admits that the story did not usually deserve being covered once a week, but the program was in direct competition from rival networks and profit-seeking executives were eager to capitalize on the opportunity.
While tabloids have been sold on newsstands and in supermarkets around the world for some time, the birth of cable news programming increased sensationalism dramatically. Spending time, man-power and resources building international news bureaus capable of covering worth stories around the globe would be extremely costly for cable news organizations, far more than they’d ever dream of spending. Most media organizations continually eliminate jobs and spend less and less on international bureaus. It is far easier to cover a story about JonBenet Ramsey, Michael Jackson or Elian Gonzalez. Analysts already under contract by the network can then be brought to debate one another and drum up conversation and continued interest in the story. The analysts are unlikely to know more about the story or add any depth of perspective, but the on-air arguments are wonderful for television and make brilliant sound-bytes to be analyzed and debated by rival networks.
Celebrities are often the target of media sensationalism. Celebrity trials and dealings with the law are topics that television news editors salivate over. Stock footage is easy to find to serve as a backdrop to whatever narrative is being told, analysts are readily available and the recognizability of the individual has already been established.
Ironically, sales of supermarket tabloids have dropped over the past two decades. Who needs to pay for magazines when you could watch the same stories on television for free?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


“Today” on NBC is a bit of an American institution. The morning news program has featured a lineage of respected news anchors: Tom Brokaw, Barbara Walters, Jane Pauley, Bryant Gumbel, Katie Couric, Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira. While they are many news programs to choose from in the morning, “Today” achieves the highest ratings and consistently lands the biggest interviews. It is a program where political candidates request to be interviewed in order to be seen. Unfortunately for the candidates, the anchors have proven to be tough interviewers over the years. Katie Couric may be effervescent and goofy during the fourth half-hour, but Couric became known as a strong interviewer who was not intimidated when interviewing then-President George H. W. Bush, Middle Eastern leaders, O.J. Simpson, oil executives or John and Patsy Ramsey. Matt Lauer’s interviewing skills have sharpened over the years. Lauer appeared to catch President George W. Bush off guard with his questions and the President seemed flustered and angry when responding. Lauer’s interviews have delivered some historic moments over the years. It was during a Lauer interview on “Today” that Hilary Clinton claimed that a “vast right-wing conspiracy” was trying to bring down her husband. Clinton also argued that the nation should be concerned if the President was having an adulterous affair and lying to the American public, but the first-lady assured Lauer that that wouldn’t be the case.

The heart of “Today’s” success lies with NBC’s news budget, the network’s primetime assets and the show’s ability to connect with audiences. While some news pundits argue the show can be too fluffy, the later half-hours enable viewers to feel as though they “know” the anchors and it builds a trust. Katie Couric’s last years on the program were considerably fluffy, but Meredith Vieira has brought a more serious approach back to the program. The fluffy segments in the later half-hours don’t turn me off because I don’t generally have time to watch a two or three (now four) hour news program in the morning. The producers target each half-hour to who is actually watching the broadcast. Businessmen and parents who want to get the news of the day generally tune in for the first 45 minutes of the broadcast. I know that if I am getting ready for class and turn on “Today,” I’ll see a tough interview with John McCain or Rudy Guilliani. While some cable news programs may be more hard-hitting at night, they don’t score the same interviews and I’ve never enjoyed watching news programs in the evening. After a long day at work or in the classroom, I want to kick back and be entertained. While the journalist in me feels as though I should be watching Anderson Cooper, I feel much more comfortable watching news in the morning. “Today” helps me wake up and think critically in the morning, which helps my performance throughout the day. I’ve watched the program since I was five-years-old and it actually prompted me to become interested news and led me to ask questions to my parents and teachers about what was being discussed. It should be noted that I will be interning with NBC Sports for six weeks this summer in Beijing, so there is a strong bias there. I have been brought up watching NBC News and will likely continue until I find a reason to change. The show is said to have a slight liberal bias, which is congruent with my political views. If the show became too liberal or too conservative, I’d likely switch in order to challenge my preconceived views.