Monday, February 26, 2007

Cable news, vox populi, and professional sleaze

For two weeks all four cable news channels have wallowed in the Anna Nicole Smith story with breaks to bring us the latest on Britney Spears. Hogs love slop almost as much as the people who run the "news" networks love tabloid sleaze.

Interestingly enough, bloggers--those hopeless amateurs -- have not followed suit. Instapundit, Powerline, Michelle Malkin, et. al. find it easy to resist the tawdry allure of these stories. For some strange reason the blogosphere sees no need to wallow in the sordid details of celebrity death and self-destruction.

Bloggers are supposed to bow down to the great god Journalism? Viewers are supposed to believe MSNBC because the network has Professional Integrity? They tell us that we can have faith in their reports on Iraq because they are Serious Newspeopleso serious that they devote five solid hours to the ANS body grab hearing.

On Reliable Sources Catherine Crier of Court TV blamed the viewers. ANS meant ratings and the networks have to follow the ratings. John Gibson of Fox News uses the same argument when callers to his radio show complain about cable’s obsession with Natalie Holloway, Jon Benet Ramsey, or ANS. Of late, he has complained that Neil Cavuto’s refusal to cover ANS on his FNC business show has hurt Gibson’s ratings on TV.

Gibson and Crier are only telling half the story when they lay the blame on the audience. It is not that these stories grab the biggest audience; it is that they grab a big enough audience at the lowest expense and least effort. Nancy Grace and Greta van Susteren have honed their skills to the point that they can crank out a sixty minute show on these cases even when there is no real news. They managed to keep the Holloway case going for months when there was nothing significant to report. These shows (even Crier’s) are still making hay out the Scott Peterson trial even though he has been convicted and sent to Death Row.

Here is a typical night on GVS when she is in full Holloway overload:

10:00 pm Hype "shocking new details" in the case.

Break for commercials

10:02-10:10 Talk on phone to someone in Aruba who can only repeat what was on the AP wire at 3.00 pm. Have them speculate about meaning of new revelations. Establish that they do not know if revelation is true or meaningful. Draw a blank when attempting to fit new information into the welter of fact, opinion, and myths that surround the case. Bash Aruban authorities.
Show video of Natalie Holloway throughout the segment.

Break for commercials.

10:13-10:23 Interview Beth Holloway Twitty. Let her emote. Have her lash out at Aruba, the Dutch kid, his father, their lawyers, whoever.

Break for commercials.

10:26-10:37 Bring in panel of lawyers or barking seals. Let either group run through their well-rehearsed routine. Bark, speculate, bark, denounce, joke, bark.

Break for commercial but first remind everyone that the lawyer/seals will be back to discuss missing bride/ cruise ship crimes/ Duke lacrosse/ Anna Nicole Smith.

10:40-10:51 Seals bark/ lawyers bloviate. No one has any new insight or information.

Break for commercial.

10:54-11:00Dim-witted observations by host. Promise of new revelations tomorrow. Hype next show in the line-up.

Fade out to commercials.

What an easy way to fill an hour of TV. All it takes are a couple of amateurs willing to play straight men, some trained seals or shameless lawyers, an even more shameless host, and advertisers willing to pay for that handful of brain-dead obsessives who happily tune in every night.

The four "news" networks are racing to the bottom while trying to grab the biggest share of 2% of the audience. They have nothing to appeal to the healthy 98% of America who care nothing for these stories. Breaking away from the cable pack would require effort and imagination. These are in short supply on television.

I’m also surprised that there are advertisers who find these shows a good venue for their commercials. Although, come to think of it, the traits that mark a true-blue Nancy Grace fan -- limited education, poor reasoning skills, a preference for emotional release over cold logic--are traits that a slick ad man can exploit.

Is that what cable news has become? Shameless attention whores working for cheap con-men? Now there is something for a journalist to aspire to.

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