Left Coast Bias: How to Dumb Down America 101


Usually I'm as big a shill as can be for B&C and all the content our great team of journalists pumps out seven days a week. In fact, the only thing I really don't like about B&C is that all this work is a drag on my golf game—that, and my boss keeps shooting down my “Page 3 Girls” idea.

This week, however, we have two stories that left my spirits downright flaccid. The first is Michael Malone's engaging cover story on how some local station execs are thinking of following the lead of the cable news nets and incorporate more partisan programming into their mix. The second is Marisa Guthrie's look at Afghanistan. It's an account of something too typical of the news business: an expensive, crucial TV story no one wants to watch.

Yes, I am about to sound like the news junkie curmudgeon that I am, and a broken record if you are a regular reader of this space. But I don't care: The television news business is heading in a very disturbing direction. Now the infection may spread locally. And it's nobody's fault but our own.

I don't mean those in the TV industry; I mean the American viewer. And as we vote with our remotes—and keep punching the ballots for more drivel and less straight news—the problem is only going to worsen. News divisions have P&L's, too.

That cable news has ridden the back of loud, partisan voices to a very nice business is old news. Call them slanted, call them bombastic, call them what you will, but make sure you call networks like Fox News and MSNBC very successful businesses, because they are.

In a recent Time cover story, the red-hot Glenn Beck is quoted as describing himself as “the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment.” Cable news network programming in primetime is definitely focused on the former, though often at the expense of the latter.

So when our station guru Michael Malone pitched me the idea of this week's cover story, I had two emotions. First as editor, I was thrilled by the idea that stations were actually thinking about injecting more partisanship into their mix to capitalize on the trend, and hopefully see a ratings and revenue uptick as a result. It is a fascinating business story.

But as a news junkie, I think I threw up in my mouth. At least that's the taste I got when even thinking about it.

“It does concern me that if you cover straight news, you will lose,” one big-market GM told Malone. The problem is, that person is right. With budgets mauled by the recession and evolving business models, it's simply not realistic to do the best news possible and expect to win, much less survive.

Take Afghanistan. From an editorial standpoint, war there should be a huge story every night. But with the realities of our industry, coupled with the fact that viewers en masse don't appear to care, it gets relegated to “yeah, we know we should cover it more” territory.

No economic turnaround is going to change this trend anytime soon. If the pendulum swings back, it won't go all the way.

The result will be a lower quality of journalism from here on out. And make no mistake about it: That means we will get dumber as a society.

But that's OK. You only need 140 characters for a brilliant, well-reported tweet.

E-mail comments toben.grossman@reedbusiness.com