It’s the story behind the story — the editorial mission driving the mainstream news cycle. Play by the rules. Instructions coming straight from the top.
“He said I was just in Washington and people in Washington are concerned about your tone,” recounted recently departed MSNBC anchor Cenk Uygur. In a video, The Young Turks host described the talking to he alleges came from the head of the cable news network.It’s the one that drove him to leave the station.
“He said, ‘I’d love to be an outsider; outsiders are cool, but we’re not we’re insiders we are the establishment,’” Uygur recalled.
Former “insiders” and analysts we interviewed say it’s this way of thinking in the mainstream television media that leads to a 24-hour news cycle filled largely with tabloid-like stories such as the Casey Anthony trial and Weinergate. It’s coverage that an MSM defector said has cost stations their literate audience and credibility.
“A lot of mainstream television news is in the gutter,” said Jeff Cohen, journalism professor at Ithaca College. “They’re just wasting your time with Casey Anthony stories, Weiner’s wiener. It’s become a national joke.”
But it doesn’t matter, because networks are protecting business and political interests more important to them by filling air time with these tabloid stories.
“No one is going to come back at you and say, ‘hey we don’t like this, we’re withdrawing our ads — you will not get access to the Pentagon because of that story,’” said Cohen.
It could explain why politicians become fair game only on the way down, when everyone’s covering it, such as Anthony Weiner or John Edwards.
It could explain why more reporters haven’t covered, for example, a secret prison in Somalia run by the CIA. Journalist Jeremy Scahill exposed its secrets and says several other American reporters know about it, too. Instead, this was the response to his story:
“In the case of CNN, they didn’t even mention it and basically reprinted a press release from the CIA saying they were just assisting the Somali government,” explained Schill, national security reporter at The Nation.
It could explain why networks aren’t redoubling their efforts to cover hard hitting stories. Instead, fresh off the successful ratings of the Casey Anthony trial, you have a network like ABC hiring former kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart to cover missing children stories.
“I mean, they basically came out and said we need to moremissing people stories, so that’s what they’re going to do, and that is going to be at the cost of other stories,” said Mary Elizabeth Williams, a senior writer at Salon.com.
It’s taking away from stories that affect people on a greater scale, from jobs, to inequality, poverty, wars and police brutality.
Meanwhile, you have national celebrities filling the spots of journalists, and journalists filling the spots of celebrities. When CNN’s Anderson Cooper tweeted a shirtless photo of himself it quickly turned to fodder for Hollywood gossip blogs. The direction seems to be heading ever further in the direction of sensational and tabloid, which if Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp scandal is any indication, could all backfire.
“Ultimately you’re going to lose ratings, going to lose viewers and you may even find yourself under investigation,” said Williams.
And networks that tout themselves as the most trusted name in news, or that pledge to lean forward, or claim they are fair and balanced, see defectors leaving to find an independent outlet, if they want to be true to mottos like that.