A year ago, when Donald Trump began to confiscate the primaries, a network news chief made this admission to me: “We do not yet know how to cover a career sociopath but we will figure it out.” A year later, confronting the final seven weeks of the campaign, he admits he still hasn’t figured it out, nor have his competitors.
Trump continues to hijack the news cycle, taking shrewd advantage of the haphazard way Americans now get their news. Voters no longer watch television news or read newspapers (remember them?). The younger demo can’t even depend upon Jon Stewart anymore (Comedy Central was once their favored news source). The most important repository of news lies buried in Facebook’s algorithms and its “trending topics,” which John Oliver facetiously calls the “multiplatform content generation distribution network.”
This week a major new entry in the news business was scheduled to make its debut but – oops – there was a glitch. Vice News Tonight, which was supposed to awaken a new generation of TV viewers to its daily HBO show, has delayed its launch to October 10 – the eleventh hour pre-election. The show, like everything Vice does, has been billed as a game-changer; Shane Smith, the boss of Vice, can sometimes rival Trump in terms of hyperbole. On Vice News Tonight, correspondents clad in T-shirts and jeans will roam the set (no anchor desk) and signal viewers when and how to access on digital devices an array of graphics or data related to each story.
Will it be transformative? “It’s a more daunting challenge than people might realize,” Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News, told the Los Angeles Times. Vice’s newly unfurled program of documentaries, also on HBO, are smart and informative, but, contrary to advance billing, stay close to traditional docu formats in style and structure. “We think we can add a lot of value by helping people understand the world,” explains Josh Tyrangiel, Vice’s EVP Content. In the present news environment, that’s going to take a lot of work.
One challenge: The old-fashioned concept of “equal time” has been demolished by the Clinton-Trump campaign. Now the argument has shifted to “false balance” — whether reporters are distorting facts in their futile effort to provide two sides to every story. Is there a way to provide “balance” in depicting Trump’s Mexican foray, for example? All this liberates Facebook to pick up Trumpian fantasies, landing the news cycle in click-bait heaven. At least it’s “trending.”
In past generations, newspapers were depended on to convey the nuances as well as the news, but their fate is reflected in the fact that the Newspaper Association of America is changing its name to the News Media Alliance. The American Society of Newspaper Editors is now the American Society of News, as reported in the New York Times (which still calls itself a newspaper). The Times itself is fiercely cutting its staff and placing ever greater emphasis on digital coverage and videos of occasionally marginal quality.
The broadcast networks, meanwhile, are also stressing digital growth in an effort to re-energize the aging audience for network news. The three half-hour network news shows are locked in a fierce competition for the dwindling audience, putting their promotional emphasis on original reporting. David Muir, ABC’s 42-year-old anchor, boasts in his interviews how many millions of miles he travels, as though being peripatetic itself would earn viewer trust. The reality is that none of the network anchors inspire the confidence of a Walter Cronkite, though the stoic Lester Holt now leads the ratings battle.
An appropriate metaphor for the problems facing TV news coverage is the convulsion within Fox News, long a billion-dollar profit center for Rupert Murdoch’s empire. The expulsion of Roger Ailes has triggered a $20 million settlement with Gretchen Carlson that may prove a forerunner of other rich settlements. A Facebook algorithm even picked up a bogus click-bait story that Megyn Kelly had come out in support of Hillary Clinton; it was quickly pulled.
Damn those errant algorithms!