What’s the News?

On a recent morning, I was on news duty at the radio station. It was the day after Trump tweeted his directive that transgender soldiers no longer be permitted to serve, and on that day, the Senate was getting ready to vote again on repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

The Associated Press radio wire moved a couple of versions of the same story on transgender soldiers, and it was in the classic Associated Press form. It quoted two military veterans serving in Congress, one a Democrat and one a Republican, expressing contrasting views. The AP’s stories on the healthcare vote were even sketchier—“another vote is expected today as the GOP tries again to repeal Obamacare after recent failed attempts,” basically. That’s true as far as it goes, but it barely qualified as news on that morning. It’s as if the AP reported that the sun had risen in the East.

Thank you for reading this far. I have now arrived at the point I want to make: during the same couple hours that morning, while the AP was reporting in perfunctory fashion on two critically important stories—and repeating the same basic story without additional information in several consecutive hourly updates—the agency moved four different, updated versions of a story about a European soccer league’s corruption scandal.

On any given day, it’s clear that the AP is most comfortable with breaking stories: new developments in a scandal, a carnival accident or bus crash, the government’s release of monthly economic indicators. There was a time when being a well-informed citizen required little more than being up on breaking news. But that time is past. The world is exponentially more complicated than it used to be. Knowing only the headlines means that you know very little about what matters. Complex stories with profound effects on millions of people, such as those involving LGBTQ issues or the healthcare debate, are hard to fit into the AP’s headline-service template—so you end up with binary, he-said/she-said reporting offering a single sentence to two contrasting views, as on the transgender military story, which simplifies the story to the point of distorting it.

Here’s another example of how headlines distort reality: during debate on the healthcare bill in the House of Representatives last spring, it was reported that Republicans were stalling passage of a bill many of them had promised to support. The he-said/she-said template left a listener with the impression that those opposed to the new bill must naturally support the status quo. Therefore, it was big news if Republicans preferred Obamacare to their own party’s bill. But that was not what was happening. The Republicans opposed to their party’s bill were against it not because they preferred Obamacare, but because the new bill didn’t go far enough in demolishing Obamacare and salting the earth where once it stood.

The problem today is that context is perceived as bias. For a news outlet to report that Republicans in Congress want their healthcare bill to be even harder on the poor and the needy, even if it can be proven by quotes from the legislators’ own mouths, would be considered a partisan act. The context problem becomes even more severe when journalists are required to deal with obvious lies. Call something bullshit, even if it irrefutably is, and you commit what is perceived by the liars as a partisan act. So media outlets don’t do it. They report the lie and the truth side-by-side and hope the audience can tell the difference—which, as we know all too well, it often cannot.

What the solution is, I do not know. The AP radio wire and its sketchy, context-free service meets the needs of most member stations quite nicely, since so many want little beyond 60 seconds of headlines and a few sports scores every morning. Which is part of the reason we’re in the trouble we’re in, I guess. People don’t want to know what’s really going on, and if they do, it’s an awful lot of work to find out.

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6 responses

  1. Radio news, especially on music stations (apart from the underground FMs), has never been about context. It’s ALWAYS been a headline service. Ditto TV news. Here’s how Walter Cronkite signed off the first night he anchored The CBS Evening News in 1962:

    ‘That’s the news. Be sure to check your local newspapers tomorrow to get all the details on the headlines we are delivering to you.'”

    The suits freaked. “And that’s the way it is” was born the following night. But Cronkite was right.

  2. As it always was, Jim, as CalRadioPD (above) has pointed out. In decades of gathering, writing, and anchoring radio news, I was constantly at the mercy of “consultants” – who knew a great deal about music rotation and virtually nothing about news – telling me what stories I should include in the “brief headlines” I was allowed to present on music-based radio stations. These “consultants” include such luminaries as the fellow with the same first name as me who consults the Magical outlet upon which you often hold forth. None of them, in all the years and in all the markets I worked, were competent to critique news content, writing, or flow, yet they made great pronunciatmentos about “items relevant to the pool and patio set” and pretended to know what the typical listener of said station was actually interested in, news-wise. The peak of this folly was many years ago on the Q station (on which you also frequently ply your trade), when in the first week of September a new PD from Indiana was hired. The second day on the job, he summoned me to his not-yet-personally-decorated office and said “I noticed that you ran an item about the Packers on your sports brief both yesterday and this morning.” “Yes”, I replied, “and……???” (Mind you, this is SEPTEMBER, Jim, and the Pack has just started its regular season schedule.) “Well, I know a little about sports, Mr. Morrissey, and I can assure you that the Packers are not as popular as you might think, and certainly not worthy of mention on two consecutive days.” This guy lasted a few more weeks before he was summarily dismissed.

    Anyway, rambling to a close here, you’ve diagnosed the problem very well: the broadcast wire service(s) that remain are now hopelessly mired in the false equivalency paradigm, and are geared to report instantaneous news and not much else. All stories must be “balanced”, so that, in the old newsman’s saw, if the senior Senator from New York declares his belief that the world is flat, the wire-service headline will be “Opinions Vary On The Shape Of The Earth”.

  3. Great post and excellent replies.

  4. And so much of it is tied to how people use the radio. Long-form and in-depth works to a point (check the ratings for your local NPR outlet). But the vast majority of radio listeners want it clean, quick and fast. It’s why Group W’s “Give Us 22 Minutes and We’ll Give You The World” worked so well—even in complex times that included assassinations, Vietnam, an energy crisis and Watergate.

  5. I appreciate comments from wily old radio veterans. And I get that radio news, yesterday and today, is intended mainly as a headline service. But as Tim mentions, AP is stuck in the old false equivalency paradigm, which distorts the way listeners perceive issues. I wonder if there isn’t a way to stop the reflexive default to “Republican says/Democrat says.” Maybe there’s something better to say in the second sentence of a headline summary of a story. My related point about lack of context and the very nature of context itself is more accurately aimed at news outlets who have time for depth: newspapers, cable channels, and even all-news radio stations. However, even if the general run of radio stations aren’t built to change the way listeners can be led to misunderstand certain issues, it would be good if they didn’t make it worse.

  6. jb: I get all that. But who do you want providing the perspective? AP’s copy standards are at a new low…written by people who can barely get the “Republicans say/Democrats say” down right. Now they’re supposed to put it in context for us?

    In the old days, Cronkite (pre-Vietnam) and Huntley-Brinkley would give you the “Republicans say/Democrats say”, and then we had the Eric Sevareids and John Chancellors…senior statesmen of news who’d been at it three or four decades…to provide context and perspective. They’re gone now and we never replaced them. Or we replaced them with Chris Matthews and Sean Hannity.

    The views—all of them—are all out there. We just have to stitch it together our ownselves.

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