Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Cable TV Networks Fail To Cover Monday's News

There were five big news stories on Monday, a day when many newscasters were apparently taking a four-day Fourth of July holiday, but all three of the largest cable news networks failed to cover any of them in their evening newscasts. It is symbolic of the deterioration of the "24-hour" news coverage once boasted of by the cable networks, and it shows why newspapers are still badly needed.

The five significant stories were, not necessarily in order of importance, (1) foam cracking on the space shuttle, (2) Israel defying a terrorist deadline in the kidnapping of its soldier, (3) a former American soldier arraigned on murder and rape charges for an Iraq war assault, (4) the perverted dictatorship that is North Korea threatening to spark a nuclear war and (5) the tight Mexican presidential election.

Yet in the 5, 6 and 7 p.m. news hours Monday night, these stories went virtually unmentioned on the "news" programs of Fox, CNN and MSNBC.

The appearance was that all of these networks were using canned features and it is quite possible none of the shows were actually live.

Fox's Bill O'Reilly, one of the most bombastic characters in television news, chose this night to focus on the same-sex marriage controversy, and, secondarily on the case of Amy McElhenney, the 25-year-old Texas teacher accused of having sex with an 18-year-old man. Since both were consenting adults, it is hard to understand why McElhenny could be subject to a 20-year jail term, but she has become the latest exhibit of an ongoing soap opera featuring teachers in their 20s and 30s having sex with young men, some of them minors. Still, one would have thought O'Reilly would at least have mentioned the big stories of the day.

CNN's Paula Zahn, hired as a beautiful face, meanwhile, was focusing on the latest developments in a 20-year-old rape case. This was an interesting story, nothing wrong with it, except here too it would have been nice if the day's big events had been mentioned.

With both Fox and CNN, it was sex in various guises the main subject. This is a big attraction on TV, as it is with porno on newsstands. Very lucrative for the networks as it is for the newsstands.

Keith Olbermann, on MSNBC, was dealing in the 5 p.m. news hour with the best of end-of-the-show features. Again nothing of the day's news.

The same with Anderson Cooper on CNN's 7 p.m. news. He had an hour-long feature on America's 10 most wanted, led by Osama bin Laden. No news there either.

Were any of these folks actually in the studio broadcasting Monday night? I can't say for sure, but I very much doubt it. Suppose there had been a blockbusting story on Monday, an assassination, a tsunami, outbreak of a new war. At what point would these networks have broken in with "breaking news," and who would have been anchoring such coverage?

By contrast, both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times did cover the news in their Tuesday morning editions, with the L.A. Times headlining the apparent Felipe Calderon victory in the Mexican election and the New York Times headlining the Iraq rape case.

If you wanted the news on this holiday weekend, the newspapers, not the cable television networks, were, at least until the North Koreans disrupted the holiday with missile firings Tuesday afternoon, the place to go, although the NBC Nightly News, with Ann Curry subbing for Brian Williams, did cover the news, leading with the space shuttle's problems and containing a comprehensive Mideast report. NBC apparently still feels some obligation to tell its audience what's happening, as do the newspapers.

Tuesday afternoon, however, when word came that North Korea had test fired six missiles, CNN and Fox both had extensive "breaking news" coverage. Both preempted part or all of Paula Zahn and Bill O'Reilly and put on other people for news and analysis. They do know when they can't afford to use the lightweights, but, probsbly, the lightweights were on holiday. Larry King on CNN, however, quickly assembled a special interview program on the North Korean move. King is always working.

So, when big news did break, the cable networks rallied. Then, they were well worth watching.

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