Sunday, September 17, 2006

Yapping Watchdogs Miss The Point

Last Friday, a Watchdog with a penchant for zooming in on CBS at the expense of the two other networks, and a real hard-on for Katie Couric, continued their We-Said-It-So-It's-True stance. But was it?

The CBS Evening News' The Free Speech segment has been addressed by Media Matters but another watchdog felt the need to weigh in on it. They couldn't offer much of a critique (possibly because Media Matters has already addressed it at length) so this media watchdog that supposedly addresses news content went another way.

In their first headline, they quickly dispensed with the Free Speech segment in three sentences of commentary and two sentences of a quote from Rush Limbaugh as the content-critics got to what was really on their mind: ratings. This was done by a transition (plot twist) in the sixth sentence which ended with "but it may not be it's only problem."

Content-critics then cited USA Today. Because most of the indepth media criticsm is done by USA Today and appears on D1 along side headlines like "It's a boy -- again!" about Britney Spears. We look forward to next week's item from Teen People.

Citing a nine paragraph story by Peter Johnson (one that missed the real issue, as did the Watchdogs), they zoom in on the fact that Monday, September 11th, viewership for CBS Evening News was down by first focusing on two of the nine pargraphs.

To the left are the two paragraphs the Watchdogs zoomed in on.

On Wednesday, The New York Times also noted this incident. Incident, not news. (Someone tell the watchdogs before they rush and tell you that Fashion House is outperforming Desire -- both are in the ratings toilet.) Unlike USA Today, which made it a cover story, The Times elected to do it in the "Arts, Briefly" section (B2 of the Arts section) in an item by Jaques Steinberg. Steinberg noted that The CBS Evening News' Monday broadcast came in third after the program came in first the week prior. He then went on to note something that Johnson didn't, and apparently the watchdogs only read USA Today so they missed it as well: "All three programs were pre-empted in some parts of the West Coast on Monday by President Bush's address".

The watchdogs, pulling from the USA Today report, as they stated on air, noted that Andrew Tyndall has done an study, that he was a "network news analyst" and that he studied the three networks' evening news broadcasts. There they leave USA Today and go with percentages -- Tyndall offers minutes. Peter Johnson reports that Tyndall's findings tell you CBS featured "more features, interviews and commentary" than did ABC and NBC and that theses "features, interviews and commentary took up 74 minutes on the Evening News last week, compared with 51 on Nightly News and 44 on World News." Tyndall found that nineteen minutes of the thirty minute program (minus commercials) focused on what he dubbed "hard news."

After noting these factoids, the Watchdog mused, "Could this have anything to do with the program's post-hype third place finish?"

Could Watchdog's apparent animosity towards CBS and Couric have anything to do with the way they presented the item?

If they wanted to note ratings, the Watchdogs barked at the kids playing baseball -- as opposed to the guy trying to siphon your gas.

Why do we say that?

If there was a news story worth commenting on regarding the ratings for last Monday, the watchdogs missed it.

On Tuesday, CBS returned to first place.

That's really not the issue. Ratings aren't the issue. They go up and down and news critics should be concerned about something other than who won the overnights.

It is true that they should have known the ratings went back up the following day -- and maybe they did but thought their "Could this have anything to do with program's post-hyp third place finish?" was such a devastating put-down they they ignored reality. Or maybe USA Today didn't cover the overnights the rest of the week?

Regardless, there was news in Monday the 11th's ratings. What was the news?

On September 11th, nearly a million Americans who had previously been watching network news bailed on it.

Where was Couric's audience? Looking at the overnights for Tuesday, they weren't watching network news on Monday but were back on Tuesday.

Almost a million people who have been watching network news bailed on September 11th. Why was that? Did they all have flat tires and get home late? Did they switch over to cable news on Monday? Did they avoid the news in some parts of the West Coast because they knew Bully Boy would appear in the middle of it? Did they decide to note the day by doing something other than sitting in front of the TV?

All of us involved in writing this piece were at get-togethers to remember 9-11. Elaine, C.I. and Trina had noted the need for that weeks before the anniversary. Their feelings were that people needed to come together on that day and not be in front of the television in isolation, watching the same clips that TV showed over and over in real time -- in what has to be one of broadcast journalism's worst moments but no one's supposed to note that -- we're also supposed to forget "The Brooklyn Bridge is under attack!" and other similar "news" items that were quickly withdrawn because they weren't actually happening.

The news wasn't anymore serious on 9-11 than it was any other day.

What they had were strong visuals. They ran them over and over, day after day. And now they trot them out each anniversary.

But there wasn't an increase in the level of reporting. There was a lot of emotion expressed on air, not a great deal of news that they stood by the following day (the Brooklyn Bridge was only one of many stories broadcast that was later retracted). But the nation was in shock and because there was footage of the second tower falling (shown endlessly), the same knee-jerk reaction that said "Rally round the Bully Boy!" also said "The news is now about real news!"

It's like the on air crying (we're not referring to victims, we're referring to "news" personalities) during Hurricane Katrina. It was emotional but it wasn't news.

TV news works around visuals. If you've got a strong visual, some will rush in to claim that you've done the best reporting in the world.

But some, not most media critics or watchdogs apparently, look back on 9-11 and the days that followed not with admiration. They see it as the days of endless scares and hyped threats. What had happened wasn't worthy of exploration, the news had to do the big-push for the next 9-11 that they knew was just around the corner.

For that reason, and to note the reality of 9-11, something the Bully Boy never could grasp, we all participated in gatherings. The reality of 9-11 is that something awful happened on American soil but those still alive did what citizens of any nation do and that is continue. That was the story of 9-11. People pulled together and grieved together. They remembered the horror and they didn't become fear monkeys (yeah, Jonathan, we mean you).

The cornuts-eating-fear-monkeys were the ones who began behaving like little babies scared of the boogey man as opposed to adults. But on 9-11, the people of the United States, if not the leaders, stood strong.

Nearly a million people elected not to watch the evening news on any network Monday, September 11th. That is news. Why it happened is worth exploring.

But when you've got a hard-on for Katie Couric, in need of stroking, you don't explore it and those who count on you for some sort of news analysis suffer.

They also suffer when you refer to what is basically a study published in USA Today. There's no peer review apparently nor any efforts to read over Tyndall's actual report. You can read it yourself -- The Tyndall Report. (C.I. wrote about this on Friday.) If you do read it, all the way through, you'll come across the following paragraph:

CBS' enthusiasm for features includes Exclusives. Lara Logan's scoop took us behind Taliban lines in Afghanistan's Ghazni Province and David Martin landed a one-on-one with Richard Armitage, the leaker who told columnist Robert Novak that Valerie Plame, wife of diplomat Joe Wilson, was a spy. "I let down the President. I let down the Secretary of State. I let down my department, my family. And I also let down Mr and Mrs Wilson." "Do you feel you owe the Wilsons an apology?" "I think I have just done it."

Tyndall labels both as "features." Were the Watchdogs aware of that? Are they saying that an interview with the man claiming to have first outed undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame wasn't news worthy? (No, we don't believe Armitage's 'gossip' story and we dealt with that in "Somebody's Lying." But he is one of Robert Novak's admitted sources -- admitted by himself and by Novak -- for Novak's column outing Valerie Plame.)

Is the Watchdog suggesting that a feature on the Taliban isn't content that news consumers should be provided with?

"The Tyndall Report," it certainly has an authorative air to it. You may be picturing a lengthy study with footnotes and pie charts, comparisons of what features CBS had, which ones ABC had, which ones NBC offered. You would be wrong. The Report's coverage of the "hard news" v. "soft news" is three sentences.

The report never uses the term "soft news" but appears to define all things not "hard news" as "features, interviews and commentary." If you're thinking there are any comprasions offered, you're wrong and, in three sentences, there really isn't time to offer examples or provide anything that resembles analysis. (The link goes to the website's main page where, currently, what we're discussing, is displayed. If you come to this feature late you'll need to access "Previous Weekly" and pull up "September 9, 2006: Couric Comes to CBS.")

The "report" (which is really a six-paragraph catch all portrait of a week in TV news) covers a number of other issues (as it does every week and is titled a report every week -- we're not putting down the work done, we're noting that the Tydall Report is a website that does a weekly look at various broadcast topics.) But in terms of the content analysis, you're talking about three sentences and the topic is only alluded to again, in the final paragraph (noted above), to give readers an idea of two features (which appear to not qualify as hard news) that aired on The CBS Evening News.

Friday, Watchdog told you that Katie Couric came in third on September 11th. They also told you that the show had more non "hard news" than any of the other big three evening news broadcasts. What they didn't tell you was that Afghanistan and Armitage apparently weren't considered "hard news" in the study and what they didn't tell you was that nearly a million viewers who normally watch network evening news decided not to on September 11th.

There was news in Monday's ratings and if the goal were analysis, as opposed to bringing you the head of Katie Couric, you might have heard about the huge number electing not to watch for one night.

As Watchdog might put it: "Watchdog either didn't know or didn't think you needed to." Closed quote.
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