The vileness of American tv news: a new datapoint

tv drawn on glass_CogdogI’ve been criticizing American tv “news” for a while.  Sometimes I think I can avoid the topic… and then more examples just keep pouring in.

Today’s story is a good one.  It’s about the rottenness of tv “news” in its approach about Trump and would-be voters.

Nearly half of voters in a recent survey said they had seen TV ads supporting Donald Trump in the last week.

There’s just one problem: His campaign hasn’t aired any, and his friendly super PACs have run very few. [emphasis added]

Yes, cable tv “news” has been so slavish in its Trumpery, so desperate to portray every gesture and fume emitted by that weapons-grade plum, so uncritical in its frantic fawning, that its output is now indistinguishable from campaign advertisements.

The Wall Street Journal analyzes the mechanisms:

Mr. Trump has mastered the art of getting on TV without paying for it. His rallies are frequently carried live by cable networks. He often calls into the networks for interviews. And networks regularly splash his most controversial tweets across the screen for pundits to dissect.

The media-coverage tracker mediaQuant estimated that Mr. Trump has received more than $3.8 billion in such unpaid media exposure in the last year, compared to $1.7 billion for Mrs. Clinton.

But that account underestimates tv “news” outlets’ gleeful complicity.  In December one network CEO openly proclaimed their celebration of Trump.  Since then, as as Trump moved from comedy figure to presumptive GOP nominee, journalists have started to come forward and publicly acknowledge the disaster. Yet many Americans still maintain the tattered fiction that tv “news” stations are actually conducting journalism.  Today’s poll shows what they are actually doing: openly and effectively advertising for one candidate.

Once more I say that addressing this problem is a task for educators.  If we take critical thinking and/or media literacy at all seriously, we have to encourage learners to shun American tv news.

And we have to recognize the generational aspect.  Study after study has shown that tv “news” watching is strongly correlated with age.

news sources by age_Reuters

Yes, we have to coax teenagers away from CNN, but the much bigger problem is middle aged folks and especially seniors.  Recall that the latter are likeliest to vote, too.

If we educators don’t succeed in this, and if Americans don’t change these habits on their own, and CNN/MSNCB/Fox et al keep on with their current course, things could get worse.  We might look back fondly on 2016’s tv “news” as brazen advertising for a terrible candidate.

(tv photo by Alan Levine)

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10 Responses to The vileness of American tv news: a new datapoint

  1. There’s a story by Michael Crichton about Murray Gell-Mann that Gell-Mann believed the media’s credibility was totally undeserved. Gell-Mann is quoted as saying that just about every newspaper article about which Gell-Mann knew anything about the subject got the concept totally wrong. They often reversed cause and effect. Gell-Mann called these the “wet sidewalks cause rain” stories and said newspapers were full of them. Yet when he turned the newspaper to a topic on which he knew less, say, politics in the Middle East, his forgot this and took everything in the article as though the writer must have known what she/he was talking about. Michael Crichton called this the “Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.” A recent Inside Higher Education article (“College and the New Class Divide” https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/07/11/how-college-helping-create-class-divide-america-essay) makes the point that journalists used to be more representative of America and the working class, and as late as 1970 half of working journalists did not have a college degree, but now most not only have college degrees but would be considered part of the elite class, and so are baffled by phenomena like Trump’s popularity with the middle class on issues like trade and immigration and did not take his message or candidacy seriously.

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    • That’s a great story about the ever-fascinating Gell-mann. Many academics are like this, too.

      Good point about changing journalists. Have you seen _Spotlight_? You can see it there.

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  2. But it is not only Trump. The 1940’s style of democratic socialism by Bernie Sanders was viewed uncritically. MSNBC was the major player here as Sanders appeared almost daily (sometimes more than once) on the network..

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  3. ellenandjim says:

    I agree it’s not just the way public media treat Trump; when Sanders was seen as not going to be the nominee, PBS stopped telling us what he said or filming him. I understand he made a good, perhaps the best or most decent sanest statement at the end of last week of all three candidates. He was not reported and so I missed it.

    I’m here though to say that yesterday I wrote my first letter of complaint ever to PBS. I judge these useless but I just was so riled. I went to their website to watch one of their videos and found that there were two large photos of Trump there. These were at a distance from one another that there was no way I could watch this video without seeing one of them. One was attached to a news-story (sort of) but the other was not. It was just there. One smirking and the other an expression just as repulsive. I read his face garners viewers. They are supposed to be a non-profit station, offering an alternative kind of news. So I complained about this. I tell this to say even PBS is doing it.

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  4. CogDog says:

    Makes me happy to have no tv access; no claim or moral superiority, and I stay informed by people who watch/analyze it for me.

    I wanted to say thanks for using my photo- there is bitter irony as that was taken February in San Juan Puerto Rico, one of many abandoned stores in a place locked into an economic down spiral with Zika thrown on top just for more dire effect.

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  5. Although, in my view, the media has provably given the presumptive Republican nominee a substantial, unpaid, and probably unfortunate boost, I don’t think that story in the WSJ is, in itself, cause for alarm. First, false recall of TV ads has been an issue since the very first days of advertising research, even when they are asked immediately after a show. It’s both a memory issue and a fibbing issue. Papers on this were even examples of pro-experimenter bias way back when in my first research methods class. Second, looking at Fluent’s website (http://fluentpoliticalpulse.com), they don’t mention their methodology.* If they asked the question the way they have it listed, I don’t think that is very conclusive for a couple of reasons. First, it looks like a giant set of prompts, which makes response sets likely. I don’t know if the report is in the order asked (looks like it is reported in order of frequency of response) but that would matter. Second, I don’t know the information given around the question, but asking if I have seen TV ads in support of a person becomes problematic when you consider how people watch video now. I think it’s easy to imagine the respondents answered as if they saw ads in a regularly scheduled TV show that they watched during a TV broadcast, but I don’t know that is how they interpreted the question. It’s possible that there were issue ads or ads for more local candidates on TV for things like guns, walls or trade that were not explicitly related to the presumptive Republican nominee that a viewer might attribute to being related to that nominee. I don’t see from the answer to this single question enough nuance to suggest that viewers of TV broadcasts were misattributing information from news onto ads. The WSJ blog post could have considered some of those questions.

    *I think I could get it if I fill out a lead generation form…they are digital marketers, not political scientists…

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    • Joe Murphy says:

      I had the same questions but this says them much better. In fact, there’s a very good chance I’d have answered “yes” to the question – even though, when I think about it hard enough, I have to admit that the ads I’m thinking of were anti-Clinton (not pro-Trump), paid for by the NRA or other PACs (not the Trump campaign) and most critically, might well have been on YouTube (not TV).

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  6. Pingback: American tv “news” networks look blearily at the mirror and swear to change, for real this time | Bryan Alexander

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