advice from a fake consultant

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

On Filling The Time, Or, The 24 Hour News Cycle Improved

In the beginning, there was darkness.

But then unto the world can Edward R. Murrow, who begat Walter Cronkite…and then there came to pass Huntley and Brinkley.

And it was good, and we were happy.

But then before Pharaoh came Ted Turner, who cried: “Let my people go!”…and thus was CNN brought forth upon the Earth.

For some it was a miracle…but for others the endless repetition of the same stories over and over represents a new 40 years of wandering in the desert.

Can the cycle be broken?
Can an oasis in this desert be found?
Can our thirst for more useful insight be sated?

Those are the questions we pose today…and before we’re done, I’ll offer one potential answer.

To be completely fair here, it’s hardly all CNN’s fault. To keep the Biblical analogy going just a bit longer, additional begatting has brought us MSNBC, the Fox (Excuse For) News Channel, NY1, Bloomberg’s contribution to business news, ESPN…and of course, the constellation of smaller satellites that make up the rest of the firmament—the various CNBCs, CNN’s Headline News, and the Fox Business Channel being quick examples of the genre.

The uninformed observer might think this has created an explosion of “new” news, but as the band P.M. Dawn would tell you…“reality and life are not the same”.

The current state of the news cycle, for those unaware, is that something happens…and then every channel discusses that same event over and over, at least 24 times, during the next 24 hours.

“Experts” from one side or the other discuss, with great urgency, the import of the event. During campaign season some “experts” become “surrogates”…and the urgency becomes more urgent. The efforts to spin each result to the favor of one side or the other and drown out the opposing “talking head” become so intense during the run-up to the news events—and just after--that the National Weather Service is actually considering co-locating tornado detection devices in certain broadcast studios for the protection of those nearby.

Eventually the stories, after the process has finished with them, may end up literally becoming marks on a daily scoreboard, thanks to the newest incarnation of the process; wherein a host takes over the role of “final arbiter” and issues his somewhat official “Verdict”, following a final daily session of “harrumph-harrumph-harrumph” from the show’s panel participants.

Because of the increased demand brought on by the endless campaign cycle, we’ve noted how the professional “talking head” community has grown much larger and much more sophisticated. Talking heads can now morph from “reporter” to “advisor/consultant/surrogate”—and sometimes even into a “candidate”, “appointee”, or “elected official” role…and then eventually back to “talking head”.

Others will remain “neutral and unbiased observers”, representing, in a manner that defies the biological need for sleep, one (or more) media outlets…and in what seems to be an extension of a process pioneered by CNBC and The Wall Street Journal, media entities are forming their own alliances, presumably to force the others “off the island”.

Under the right circumstances they can offer a considerable contribution to the exercise of analysis—but many are kept on a short leash. All of this is, naturally, dependant on the status into which they have currently morphed.

While this is a well-designed system for those who might watch news one hour a day or less, the downside is that the entire day becomes an endless repetition of the same talking points, or video clips, or gaffe…which, for those of us who might partake of more than an hour of “informational” programming daily (bless you, C-SPAN!), seems to be a waste of valuable “talking head” resources.

You might think this sort of structure would eventually collapse under its own “spin load”, creating a mess that resembles an Oklahoma trailer park after a tornado moves through…leaving only reruns of “Lockup: Raw” and that weird Lou Dobbs show to fill the void…but as of today none of the participants have so fallen (rumors about Fox Business notwithstanding), and the public appears to remain willing to watch.

That’s the history…but what about the future?

Here’s an idea:

There are a ton of stories that are not being discussed daily that are of considerable importance, yet just can’t seem to get on the national radar screen.

Why not take an hour a day and turn it into a discussion of one of those stories—making use of the “talking heads” to fill out the last three or four segments of the hour?

Need some help getting started?

Here are a few stories that absolutely need discussion…and could absolutely use analysis by the candidate’s surrogates:

--The Coast Guard’s “Deepwater” program.

--The trials and tribulations (and budget issues) relating to the effort to replace most of the US Air Force’s fighter fleet with the F-22 and F-35. (Then on Tuesday—tankers and bombers…)

--Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. There are so many bridges, highways, and sewers to be replaced that you could send a show on the road to do location stories once a week from now until November—and among the excellent locations available…New York City’s new water tunnel, or the bridge replacement in Minneapolis (excellent political tie-in), or the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Winsor, Ontario.

--Medicare and the issues related to its funding.

--Now this one is the story that every member of the staff will be more than anxious to cover. Why not examine the effect of climate change on Florida’s (politically important) economy? Start with the issue of property insurance and “firewalling” (a problem that could spread to California…and already is spreading to Texas), and end with an examination of how Florida would cope with a rise in sea levels.

Such a story would surely require many visits to the affected locations to really get the perspective the public demands…many visits that would get people out of Manhattan in lousy weather season…and require the networks to send them to Florida--with expense accounts. The truly resourceful news manager (Dan Abrams, are you listening?) will decide to investigate the question of how Florida’s theme parks will cope with the changes…and how could such a story possibly be presented without going to the parks themselves?

In each case, make the candidate surrogates explain where each of these national needs fits into an Administration’s budget…how they’d pay for each program…and force them to answer the question: offsetting budget cuts—or taxes raised?

My guess: the discussions, and the squirming and shuffling, will be just as interesting as what we see today—and you can still use a scoreboard--but the issues involved will be issues that average voters might actually care about.

Not to mention the fact that all this new news footage created by the squirming and shuffling will make excellent filler for the other 23 hours of the news cycle.

Now we’ve had lots of fun with these story ideas (and frankly, played a bit of realpolitik as well); but the fact is we have here an idea that could actually break the repeat, repeat, repeat that is today’s cable news—and do it in a way that puts news organizations back in the business of driving the news cycle…instead of merely being couriers of the press releases of others.

I’m guessing Murrow and Huntley and Brinkley—and maybe even Cronkite—would approve…and even more importantly, I bet the audience would as well.


Colin Campbell said...

When I first moved to America in the mid 1980s, CNN was very small, with a very minor influence. This has clearly grown out of all proportion to the information being presented. I am happy that I have a job and other things and don't have to listen to all the tedious repetitive spin. I imagine it is just going to get worse as the actual campaign gets going.

fake consultant said...

you hit the nail on the head by pointing out that the influence of these networks is beyond the scope of the information being presented.

there is, however, a sort of "information gap" between what needs to be discussed and what is making it on the air--which is what this proposal is hoping to address.

that fact that the influence of these channels is so strong is a marker of the degree of public interest in now all that is needed is the willingness, on the part of some news organization, to take the next step and try to expand the universe of news that is daily presented.