Opinion

Jack Shafer

Kurtz moves from CNN to Fox with the same old song

Jack Shafer
Sep 10, 2013 20:57 UTC

After “Reliable Sources” host Howard Kurtz parted ways with CNN in June and announced the move of his Sunday morning TV act to Fox News Channel, he had a chance to retool the media-news-and-criticism formula he purveyed on the network for 15 years. Instead, he has dressed his old CNN show in Fox bunting. In the Sept. 8 debut, he recruited members of the “Reliable Sources” stock company (David Zurawik, Nia-Malika Henderson, Lauren Ashburn, and Michelle Cottle) to chat with him about the week’s news. The new show even appears in his old CNN time slot, 11 a.m. The only new thing about the show is its name, “MediaBuzz.”

There’s always hope that Kurtz and his Fox producers will rethink the show in coming weeks, but his initial reluctance to fiddle with the “Reliable Sources” format indicates that 1) he thinks the old show was perfect as it was, and/or 2) he has no new ideas on how to report on the state of the press on TV. My assessment of “MediaBuzz” is by no means universal — it engaged the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple and attracted an audience nearly double that of the Sept. 8 “Reliable Sources” – but I am certain it is correct.

If ever a franchise needed refreshing, “Reliable Sources” is it. With the exception of the show’s modern graphics and its HD resolution, the tone and texture of “Reliable Sources” has changed very little since 1992, when it was launched with veteran reporter Bernard Kalb at the helm. Back then, the media looking at the media smacked of onanism, and I mean that as a good thing. But since the rise of Fox News Channel and MSNBC, so much of cable news has become bellyaching about the press, with Fox’s people griping about the liberal press and MSNBC’s knocking the conservative media. If the show was ever distinctive, it stopped being so in the late 1990s.

Ostensibly a critical look at the press and mass media, “Reliable Sources” long ago devolved into a talk show about the news. All of that cross-chat on “Reliable Sources,” maestroed by an all-powerful anchor, has made “Reliable Sources” an echo of what the cable news networks air at other hours and days of the week. You can imagine most of the guests, topics, and questions appearing on any number of shows run from this eternal template: The host asks his guests about their views on the news. Quarreling and interruption follow, like an over-lit dinner party where no food is served but lots of booze is consumed on the sly. After eight or nine minutes, the host intones to a guest, “I’ll give you the last word.” Then he previews the next segment before yielding to four minutes of commercial pitches for expandable garden hoses and other mail-order novelties.

“Reliable Sources” and Kurtz could easily have done better. Compare, for example, its archives to those of NPR’s “On the Media.” Both shows are about the press. Both shows broadcast for an hour. Both have been around since the 1990s. Both address three or four topics per episode. And both shows rely heavily on interviews with journalists and other media authorities. But the similarities end there. Where “Reliable Sources” guests ramble, “On the Media” guests stay on point. It’s not that “On the Media” hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield are better wranglers than Kurtz — although their questions might be smarter and their sense of “media” a tad broader. It’s that instead of depending on the live, or live-to-tape approach generally taken by “Reliable Sources,” “On the Media” is tightly edited. The show’s producers make no secret about their editing. In this “On the Media” segment from 2007, which they rerun now and again, the show’s producers explain how its editors (and other NPR editors, for that matter) distill coherence into recorded interviews filled with false starts, stuttering, and many, many “ums” and “ahs” by the interviewees.

In praise of tabloid TV

Jack Shafer
Jul 5, 2013 22:16 UTC

Allow me to defend cable TV’s extended live coverage of the George Zimmerman murder trial, even though I’ve not watched a second of it, nor have I tuned in to any of the nightly rehashes aired on CNN, HLN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel. Championing the Zimmerman telemania puts me at variance with the critics of tabloid TV, who want the cable news networks to focus their cameras instead on the Cairo uprising, President Barack Obama’s climate speech, the slaughter in Syria, voters’ rights, the NSA outrages, Wall Street, congressional hearings, and other examples of “meaningful” and “important” news. Directly disparaging CNN’s Zimmerman surplus at the expense of the Egyptian uprising is New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who asserts that the network’s new president, Jeff Zucker, “wants everyone in his company to know what the priorities are: Mini-series in the center, world events off to the side.”

Rosen is right about what Zucker wants. But the call for more broadcast hours devoted to news “that matters” and fewer hours of TV trials — that, as many have accurately put it, are barely distinguishable from CSI episodes — might have been more persuasive in the days when the television audience had only the three broadcast network newscasts to choose from, when the only national newspaper was the business-oriented Wall Street Journal, when there was no real-time access to foreign newspapers and broadcasts, and when researchers were only fantasizing about something as ubiquitous as the Web. But today’s media menu gives the news audience more opportunities than ever before to find the news that others might describe as meaningful and important. It might have made sense three decades ago, when CNN was getting started, that its over-coverage of one story was blotting out other, more worthy stories. But that critique doesn’t apply to 2013. CNN, which used to be the only TV news meal at times of breaking international news like this, is only one of the entrees. Any number of sites have live-streamed the Egyptian protests on to the Web and sharply reported, photographed, and filmed accounts from Cairo are only a hashtag search away the reader’s eye. Go ahead and complain about CNN if you want to, but footnote your critique with easily accessible alternative sources.

In today’s media environment, the media critic who insists that the cable networks follow Egypt and drop Zimmerman is like the nudging dining companion who wants to order both his meal and yours, lest you embarrass him by mistakenly ordering the burger and fries. He finds the burger and fries déclassé and bad for you and would rather you add something more tofu-and-wheatgrassy to your media diet.

Unsolicited advice for Jeff Zucker, CNN’s new boss

Jack Shafer
Feb 22, 2013 22:53 UTC

After the bosses at Time Warner installed Jeff Zucker as president of the 23 news and information brands that constitute CNN Worldwide, the press (Ad Age, Marketwatch, Politico, Guardian, New York Times, et al.) speculated on which strategies he might employ to return the network to ratings and cultural primacy, positions it lost long ago to Fox News Channel and more recently to MSNBC.

As the auteur behind the Today show’s return in the 1990s to No. 1 in the ratings, Zucker knows all about network comebacks. As the former president and CEO of NBC Universal, who was pushed out in 2010 as Comcast purchased controlling interest in the operation, Zucker craves a personal comeback. Although he only took over a month ago, his first moves as CNN’s leader indicate a plan that plays to the network’s existing strengths and the competition’s inherent weaknesses.

CNN’s decline began in 1996 when Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch started Fox News Channel, acting on their hunch that conservative consumers of television news and talk were woefully underserved and would respond to a network that served as the Republican Party’s light infantry. MSNBC also arrived that year, but it didn’t make its mark in the cable news and talk racket until midway through the past decade, after positioning itself as the liberal mirror image of Fox. For all the talk of decline, CNN has remained hugely profitable, estimated to be making $600 million in operating profit in 2012, second only to Fox. So it’s not as though Zucker had been called on to rescue a failing enterprise.

Serving up the Supreme Court dough before it’s baked

Jack Shafer
Jun 28, 2012 21:07 UTC

Go ahead and ridicule CNN and Fox News Channel for fumbling the Supreme Court ruling (pdf) in the Affordable Care Act case today by reporting that the law had been struck down. If news organizations are going to crow about their breaking news scoops – Bloomberg News is bragging that it beat Reuters to the court’s decision by 12 seconds – they must submit to vigorous fanny-whackings whenever they perpetrate “Dewey Defeats Truman”-style mistakes. Tweets from the Huffington Post’s politics section, Time, and NPR got it wrong, too.

At least CNN and Fox only got it wrong one way. The Chicago Sun-Times erred at least four ways, posting to one Web page last night its preliminary coverage and headlines – ”Supreme Court strikes down health care law,” “Supreme Court waters down health care law,” and “Supreme Court upholds health care law,” and “Supreme Court XXXX Obama health law.” To be fair to the Sun-Times, every news organization pre-bakes as much coverage as it can when covering court decisions, elections, conventions and other scheduled news events. They write obituaries of the famous and old before they die. Pre-baking isn’t restricted to journalists. Even President Barack Obama stockpiled multiple speeches to cover three possible outcomes, he’s just lucky that he didn’t give the wrong one.

I suppose you could toss out my preconception theory and blame the errors on the continual acceleration of the news and the increasing pressure to get it first. But then you’d have to explain why Bloomberg News, Reuters, the Associated Press, and Dow Jones got it right inside the same instant news cycle.

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