Wednesday, March 12, 2014

News Hole

“Here we go. Okay, let’s get this out of the way. What did you come here to plug?”
—Zach Galifianakis, on

“Well, first of all, I think it’s fair to say I wouldn’t be with you here today if I didn’t have something to plug.”
—Barack Obama, on

When I studied abroad decades ago, there was a real sense of isolation in being so far from home. American news sources were not that easy to come by and, when available, were pricy for a student budget. No more. Nowadays everyone from the age of adolescence on—and oftentimes younger—has access to every news source in the world literally in the palm of his or her hand.

Thanks to the internet and satellite TV, there are times—as long as I don’t go outside of my house anyway—that I feel that I haven’t left America at all. If anything, I suspect that I pay more attention to news coming out of the U.S. than I would if I hadn’t moved abroad. Furthermore, my tablet and its apps, which efficiently find the news I’m interested in and organize it into very perusable formats, ensure that I consume more news than ever.

Is that true of everyone? Specifically, is it true of young people? I wonder because I have just watched—and laughed quite a bit at—the latest installment of Between Two Ferns, the mock talk show hosted by Zach Galifianakis on the Funny or Die website. It trades in the hip, post-modern, ironic kind of humor that is pervasive these days, and Galifianakis’s high-profile guests (his penultimate one was Justin Bieber, fresh off his recent tabloid headlines) go along with the joke that the host is a lazy, clueless dolt by playing into their own public personas. His latest guest, as you no doubt know, was none other than President Obama, who gamely played along with the gags—all the while pretending not to be amused.

Sample exchange: Obama: “Have you heard of the Affordable Care Act?” Galifianakis: “Oh yeah, I heard about that. It’s the thing that doesn’t work. Why would you get the guy who created the Zune to make your website?” I know it’s all supposed to be for laughs but, frankly, that is really unfair. It just so happens that I bought the very first Zune model when it came out and am still happy with it to this day.

So why did the president take time out of his busy schedule to do this? Because it was intended as a way (some have said a desperate way) to reach and encourage healthy young people to sign up for Obamacare so that insurance companies don’t go broke complying with the new healthcare law. Apparently, the traditional media have not yet convinced enough members of that age bracket to enroll.

It has always been true that teenagers and young adults do not follow the news as reliably as their elders, but something new is going on. In his blog a few months ago, TV critic David Zurawik noted that, during the previous eight years, viewership of the main evening newscasts on ABC, NBC and CBS had each declined 16, 17 and 22 percent, respectively. More stunning, though, is the drop in viewership of PBS’s NewsHour over the same period: a whopping 48 percent. (Zurawik got PBS’s numbers second-hand since PBS’s ratings, ironically for an organization whose first name is literally “Public,” are not made public.)

So hardly anyone is watching TV news then? Well, the Pew Research Center reports that 71 percent of Americans get their news from local stations, 65 percent from the networks and 38 percent from cable. Among cable news viewers, Fox News Channel is far and away the leader in viewership, with CNN and MSNBC tussling over a distant second place.

If I were an optimist, I might speculate that the large chunks of the population that aren’t getting their news from TV are getting it from newspapers and magazines. But we know from print circulation numbers that this isn’t the case. The internet then? Only the National Security Agency knows for sure. Let’s hope that young people are doing what I do and are using Feedly, Instapaper, Pocket and IFTTT to gather news and information from an array of media sources all over the globe—or at least reading the websites of some reliable newspapers.

I think I can understand why evening network TV news broadcasts are in decline. If you are serious about news, not only is their 22-minute “news hole” (the half-hour time slot less advertising) very brief, but half of it is typically taken up with soft features rather than hard news. As for cable, you can certainly find useful news programs, but if you do not choose carefully, you can wind up hearing a lot of the same information over and over—or else watching opinion programs that can entertain but not necessarily deliver a lot of real information.

The dramatic decline in PBS’s NewsHour viewership is particularly interesting because that program was supposedly designed to counteract the wasteland that is TV news. It certainly provides a much bigger news hole than the commercial broadcast networks. But its smaller budget has always meant that its “coverage” has largely consisted of talking-head interviews as opposed to field reporting. And its mindset has always been definitely inside-the-beltway and clearly identifying with the government establishment.

Personally, one NewsHour segment that I rarely miss is the Friday debate between commentators Mark Shields and David Brooks. They ostensibly provide left and right political perspective on the week’s news, and their discussion is useful for catching up with the latest talking points. Well, sort of. Shields is certainly a reliable—and, in fact, articulate and passionate—carrier of current Democratic talking points. How much is he in the tank? Well, on Friday I heard him actually defend the administration’s foreign policy by saying that the infamous “reset” with Russia somehow led to the election of the supposedly moderate Hassan Rouhani in Iran. I still haven’t gotten my jaw off the floor since that one.

On the other hand, Brooks—who is what passes for a token conservative at The New York Times, NPR and PBS—is a clearly interesting, intelligent and thoughtful man who speaks for a group that is, frankly, not much larger than just himself. To the extent that he represents thinking on the right, the best that can be said about him is that he is a good spokesman for a wing of the Republican Party that pretty much disappeared with Nelson Rockefeller.

In fairness, there was a show where you could see a weekly no-holds-barred debate between real honest-to-God modern liberals (such as Shields and NPR’s legal correspondent Nina Totenberg) and at least one true dyed-in-the-wool conservative (columnist Charles Krauthammer, a mainstay on Fox News). Produced by ABC affiliate WJLA and distributed to PBS stations, it was called Inside Washington and was hosted by Gordon Peterson. It began airing back in 1988 and was the successor to Agronsky & Co., which in 1969 pioneered the point-counterpoint format that would become a staple of television news.

It’s not clear exactly why Peterson pulled the plug on the granddaddy of talking-head political shows in December. Maybe he noticed that its potential future audience were all too busy streaming videos on

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