TV news has developed a split personality—and Michael Jackson proves
The King of Pop made quite a spectacle of himself when he turned up late
for court last week in his pajamas. The cable news networks—barred from the
courtroom itself—made this latest wrinkle in his sex-abuse trial their drama
of the day. MSNBC even ran a countdown ticker checking off the seconds to the
deadline for Jackson to forfeit his $3 million bail.
Based on their news judgment, it would be easy to assume that we
understand the TV news. Yet none of the Big Three broadcast networks'
half-hour nightly newscasts led with Jacko's pajamas that evening.
NBC Nightly News did not even assign a
reporter to cover the bail brouhaha, brushing it off with a video
DAY AND NIGHT
But those same broadcast networks, it would seem, have a completely
different set of priorities each morning. During February, when the Jackson
case was only in the jury-selection phase, it was the second-biggest story on
NBC's Today, ABC's
Good Morning America and CBS'
The Early Show. It did not even rank among
the top 50 monthly stories on those networks' nightly newscasts.
In August 1993, when Jackson's sex life last made major news, the
networks did not send out the same mixed messages. Back then, Jackson's
alleged abuse had the status of rumor, not a criminal charge, and there was no
public trial. Nevertheless, it was a top-10 story on the nightly newscasts that
month. In fact, the Jackson scandal was their third-most heavily covered
arts-and-culture/showbiz story of the entire decade of the '90s.
Jackson's 1993 headlines were a harbinger of tabloid excesses to come.
Just six months later, CBS Evening News'
new co-anchor Connie Chung staked out her signature story, the Tonya
Harding-Nancy Kerrigan saga. And in 1995, NBC Nightly
News pulled off its climb from third to first place in the ratings
through saturation coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial led by its newly
discovered star, correspondent David Bloom. For a week, Princess Diana's
death was so fascinating to the networks that it became the most densely
covered overseas story of the entire Clinton administration.
A decade ago, nightly news and morning news were blending—nightly
becoming more tabloid, mornings more serious, especially in the opening 7 a.m.
half-hour. NBC executive producer Jeff Zucker famously switched jobs from the
Nightly News to Today with the rationalization that his hard first 30
minutes could set the public-policy agenda for each day's news. When world
events turned deadly serious in 2001, the convergence continued. The nightly
newscasts reverted to their traditional hard-news foreign-policy orientation
while the morning programs shifted their story mix, too.
But that linkage is now officially broken.
The Laci Peterson murder case last year received saturation coverage in
the mornings, scarcely a mention in the evenings.
Last month's totals show that there are now two parallel news
universes. Only one story—the ailing Pope John Paul II—appeared in the
top-10 rankings for both morning and evening. Not a single Iraq story broke
into the morning programs' list (these numbers measure time devoted to each
morning program's feature and interview segments, outside the summary
newscasts at the start of each hour). Apart from Michael Jackson,
GMA's other two most heavily covered
stories were the Academy Awards and anchor Diane Sawyer's visit to the set of
its prime time hit Desperate Housewives.
February also featured Prince Charles' engagement, the Super Bowl and
In the evenings, on the other hand, Jackson's case was not even the
most newsworthy event in the world of arts and culture. The obituary for
playwright Arthur Miller and The Gates in New York's Central Park both
received more attention.
IMPLICATIONS FOR NEWS DIVISIONS
This schism between mornings and evenings has serious implications for
the network news divisions. Anchors become identified with the stories they
cover. To the extent that each daypart has its distinct agenda, success in one
is not transferable to another. Rumors of Katie Couric's being hired to
anchor the CBS Evening News are less
credible under the current set of news agendas than they would have been even
three years ago.
The same problems beset the cable news networks, where daytime story
selection closely resembles the networks' in the mornings and the
crime-blotter mentality—think Dan Abrams, Greta Van Susteren and Nancy
Grace—now extends into prime time. As two separate sets of news agendas
develop, it may be hard for one brand to cover both with credibility.
Apparently, this split is not only TV's problem. It's cropping up
online, too, according to BuzzMachine's Jeff Jarvis. Last week, he went
“trolling for blog posts” on the Jackson trial and found few. “Not as
plentiful as the Bankruptcy Bill” passed by the Senate, he mused.
Now if Jacko went bankrupt, maybe he could make the nightly news,