Thrоw Campaign Mоuthpieces Off Cable News

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Jade Schulz

Last week, fired Donna Brazile, a paid on-air contributor to the network and acting chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, after WikiLeaks revealed that she had passed along a question from an approaching town hall to the Clinton campaign.

CNN made the right call. Now let’s get rid of the surrogates on all the news networks: Corey Lewandowski on CNN, Evan Bayh on Fox News, Sara Fagen on CNBC, the whole lot.

These people are professional spinners deployed by partisan political organizations who are regularly featured on cable news networks and who are often, as was the case with Ms. Brazile, paid by the network. Their job is to repeat precisely the talking points disseminated by campaign headquarters, and to argue endlessly and often truthlessly with their counterparts from the other party.

It’s not bad journalism; it isn’t journalism at all. Cable news panels are ritualized cage matches — the WWE in loafers. It makes sense for the campaigns to send gladiatorial champions into combat. But networks should stop providing the ring. It’s hurting their credibility, and damaging the country.

The networks have a quick retort: record ratings. Sure, this freeway-crash of a campaign has led to huge viewership. But the riches have come at a steep cost to the networks’ esteem in the eyes of the audience — otherwise known as citizens — who now hold the media in the lowest regard in memory.

Even when I ran a network, veterans of the cable wars would justify shoutfests: “It’s good for ratings!” “We have all this time to fill!” “Issues are boring!”

Yet our experience would show that replacing food fights with trenchant discussion and in-depth reporting leads to higher ratings and much higher profits.

Shortly after I became president of CNN/U.S. in December 2004, we canceled “Crossfire,” the mother of cable Kabuki theater. The show had become a shopworn imitation of the inspired original deep dive into the issues, and viewers had abandoned it in droves.

Its successor, “The Situation Room,” featuring the day’s best reporting and analysis from around CNN, made substantial ratings gains and went on to win its time slot for the year. During the 2008 election, one of the network’s most popular segments came at 10:40 p.m. every weeknight, when Anderson Cooper would host a quiet conversation between David Gergen and Ed Rollins. Veteran political warriors, yes; predictable paid flunkies, no.

Or look how NPR, which has to fill as much time as round-the-clock cable, chooses to do factual reporting and reasoned analysis of what this election will mean to listeners. The result: NPR stations have hit record ratings highs this year, attracting a weekly audience of more than 36 million, numbers the most ratings-hungry executive would envy.

Millions of millennials flock daily to long-form reports on the environment, civil rights and income inequality from Vice; they watch Snapchat’s inventive hit-and-run political series, “Good Luck America”; and they revel in John Oliver’s 20-minute dissections of single subjects on HBO.

The divide between the mainstream media and the public is growing, despite the ratings. Two decades ago, Thomas Patterson’s seminal study of presidential campaign coverage, “Out of Order,” argued that the press viewed politics primarily as a game, while the public viewed politics “primarily as a means of choosing leaders and solving their problems.” On Sunday, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz told “60 Minutes” that voters on both sides dismiss mainstream media, “for your focus on entertainment, for this battle for ratings and profitability rather than information and knowledge.”

If networks are to thrive in the long term, padlock the Spin Room. Instead of showcasing P.R. mouthpieces, how about featuring policy surrogates, the wonks who churn out the position papers that become laws? Want to fill time? Instead of reducing the candidates’ speeches to sound bites, then endlessly dissecting them, why not just let them talk? The debates do this, to spectacular results.

And instead of wasting reporters on summarizing the candidates’ wild assertions, how about dispatching them to break news of their own?

The networks urgently need to close the credibility gap, not only to counter the threat to their business models, but also to stem the corrosive effect on our democracy. Polls, including a recent New York Times/CBS News survey, reveal public disgust with the democratic process to be at a record high. And the Pew Research Center reports that an astonishing 81 percent of voters believe that supporters of both candidates disagree not only on the opponent’s positions, but also on the basic facts underlying those policies. When the public can’t even agree on what is true, the people in the facts business are failing.

Television news networks aren’t responsible for politicians’ behavior, choice of language and hyperbolic attack ads, which bear some of the blame for voter alienation. But the networks have billions in revenue, armies of reporters and producers and infinite airtime to supply a countervailing picture of reality.

Most of all, they have an anxious audience desperate to understand a world that is changing physically, socially, economically and technologically faster than ever before. So cable networks: Stop hiring surrogates from the campaigns and start being surrogates for your audience. We need more bread, and fewer circuses.


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