MSNBC’s shame: How a sleazy prison reality show pushed aside coverage of the Planned Parenthood shooting

PLANNEDPARENTHOOD

We need a Pete Williams network.

The alternative is the two-hour mess on MSNBC “News” I watched on Friday evening, November 27, 2015, when the national news media covered the particularly tragic incident at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood Clinic. I turned my television on at precisely 8:22 PM.

On to the mess.

I’m not sure I have ever seen MSNBC cover an incident of legitimate public interest with a more embarrassing hodgepodge of speculation by law enforcement professionals who were nowhere near the scene, goaded on by queries from MSNBC correspondents asking for guesses about what might be going on inside, how law-enforcement on the scene might have ended the situation, how the criminal justice system might play out for the perpetrator, and any other possible question into which “might” could be inserted.

Dear MSNBC: I know about your enormous news hole. I know you have to stay on the air. I know you have to fill the time. But I simply will not accept that newsgathering should ever be a process of gathering hypotheticals, mights, maybes, or possibilities, especially when not a soul could be heard uttering such old-fashioned, pre-digital curiosities as “Let’s wait and see,” “There’s no way of really knowing,” or the ultimate stone age newsgathering principle: “We have not yet been able to confirm.”

And the retired experts, for all they probably do have to offer in experience and expertise, seemed completely unconcerned that they were allowing the imprimatur of their experience to serve as a seal of approval for a guessing-game.

I know that guessing, speculating, gossiping, and passing on rumors are all quintessentially human activities. But since when does that mean that they should also be considered legitimate newsgathering tools?

I’m probably in the minority. MSNBC’s audience research must tell them that even in the midst of an ongoing violent incident, audiences want coverage modeled more on CSI then facts gathered according to broadly accepted professional standards.

Which leads to Pete Williams. Which always leads to Pete Williams, NBC News Justice Correspondent. There he was yet again in the middle of all this confusion and speculation offering confirmed facts, news gathered from high-level sources, and erudite legal analysis. The guy is a one-man integrity machine.

And then right back to the nonsense.

In fact, let me ask you a question: imagine yourself as the friend or family member of someone somehow connected to this incident, perhaps someone whose safety is in question. Now, imagine yourself filled with all that natural anxiety and concern, watching MSNBC and hearing a retired police officer begin to tell you about a case he covered a decade ago with some similarities. And then imagine yourself hearing a correspondent reporting rumors about the extent of injuries to victims that no local public safety official has confirmed.

It is a sad reality of the times in which we live that we do frequently need evidence-based, legally informed, moment-to-moment coverage of catastrophic violent events. But what we often get is one long episode of Law and Order, occasionally punctuated by a guess or a rumor.

I’ve been watching the same uninformed, speculative coverage for too many years to restrain my inner Howard Beale. And so, in the months ahead, I plan to highlight and even post examples of exactly the kind of speculation I’m talking about.

One last thing: most of the journalists and law enforcement professionals responsible for this coverage are smart, perceptive, ethical, and well intentioned. This is almost never a case of incompetence and negligence. These are good people who sincerely believe they are doing their job.

And that might be the scariest fact of all.

P.S. At 9:15 PM EST Friday night, while I wrote this rant, MSNBC switched over to Lockup, their regular Friday evening reality prison program. The coverage was over.

 The problem is that at that exact moment, the front page of the New York Times reported that they had finally confirmed that a “tragic loss of life had occurred during the standoff.” Yet when I glanced up at MSNBC, I saw two inmates brawling with each other, being pulled apart at the Sacramento County Jail.

 So finally, after hours of uncertainty, we had news. Sad news and confirmed news. And MSNBC, so eager to speculate just an hour before, was nowhere to be seen just when we began to learn the full extent of the tragedy. Now it wasn’t even speculation and rumor passing as news. It was no news at all.

 And so it was that until 9:30 PM EST, as the other networks and major newspapers focused on what we actually knew, MSNBC shared commercials for Kia, Biotene, Ford, and the Home Shopping Network.

 And, finally, yet another brawl on the reality show was interrupted with a 60 second update about the casualties of yet another act of tragic, shattering violence.

 Pathetic. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment. Just stop calling it news.

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The latest poorly-timed cable news appearance of a babbling “expert”

 

Peter-Finch

It’s time for one of my extremely rare Peter Finch “Mad as Hell” moments.

By now, we are fully accustomed to the instant experts who immediately appear on cable news after high-profile acts of mass violence. The 24 hour news beast must be fed, and an endless line of charlatans, opportunists and bloviators stand ready to pronounce at a moment’s notice.

Friday, though, during their coverage of the LAX shooting, MSNBC really lurched into “expert-looniness.” Sometime in the early afternoon, they invited an airport security consultant to come on the air and speak about the ongoing events.

At a moment when details were still sketchy, this former El-Al official — who may indeed possess some specialized knowledge — began a long, incoherent rant about alleged deficiencies in our nation’s system of airport security.

My disgust has nothing to do with the substance of what was being discussed. The ranting expert may have made a valid point or two. Or more. Or none. The “conversation” simply wasn’t comprehensible enough to tell.

But I will never accept that it is anything other than grossly irresponsible to begin pronouncing about motives, remedies, causes, and negligence before even 20% of the facts about an incident are in; while some people in the vicinity of the incident are still uncertain about what has happened and might be in locations with televisions broadcasting the rant.

I’m tempted to name this person. His cup overflowed with just the kind of “wisdom” you’d expect from someone with the nerve and thoughtlessness to babble away while an incident is still unfolding.

But because I suspect his appearance was designed to raise the profile of his consulting business, I won’t.

But I will never stop being disgusted with the instant experts for whom a public tragedy becomes a career opportunity.

What was MSNBC thinking when they allowed this opportunist to spout such anxiety-provoking speculation?

I guess that, when you build a 24 hour news hole, they will come.

Disgusting.

Switch to Decaf. Switch Now.

I am going to sound like a broken record soon, but there are sometimes when I simply can’t stop myself .

I thought my  Chicago Tribune piece about maniacal cable news would make me feel better, calm me down a little, but it didn’t work.

Now it’s  the shouters who often speak for me  — my  “loudmouths,” if you will  — who are about to push me off the deep end.

Is there any chance,   any chance at all,  that hot air machines like Ed Schultz, Chrtis Matthews or Keith Olberman have any idea how deranged even their  most persusave and courageous views can sound when they are shouted in a hyperventilating, salivating frenzy. 

I wish I could think of a more nuanced way to put it,  guys, but you have to switch  to decaf.  Your  indignation, however justified, will emerge in the clarity and elegance of your argument  and not with the accelerartion of your heart rate. 

You look ridiculous. Bulging neck veins don’t make you more authoritative, they bring on heart attacks.

Here’s how sick of the nuttiness I am, how much I want the “debate by dynamite” to stop. I am going to quote from Richard Nixon’s first innaugural address.  That’s right. Richard Nixon. Paragon of quiet, honest, reasoned argument.

I won’t suggest that Nixon followed his own advice,  nor that he even wrote the following passage. But he did say it,  and it keeps coming to mind as I watch the shoutocracy of cable  news act as if they are mainlining Red Bull.

“To lower our voices would be a simple thing …..  We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another–until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.”

Richard Nixon,  January 20, 1969 

MSNBC and Prison Reality Programming:” Or How Did “Lockup Raw” Get On a News Channel?

 My love-hate relationship with 24 hour cable news continues.

I’ve admitted it before: None of my  criticism of 24 hour cable news – including what I have to say here – can hide a simple fact: When all hell breaks loose, or when an event occurs that is important to me, I am tuned in for the wall to wall coverage like any other news-loony.

The problem with MSNBC, CNN, and FOX is that they are responsible for news holes too immense to fill and too costly to fill with in-depth reporting. So they each rely on all sorts of  filler — talking heads, re-runs of regular network magazine shows, and reality shows from independent producers – to fill the schedule. Of course, this is a tacit admission that they are simply unwilling to spend the resources required to fill the hole with serious news or analysis.

On MSNBC, for example, we are treated to such unrepentant claptrap as Lockup Raw and Caught on Camera, and, reaching even deeper into the cultural garbage bin, re-runs of To Catch a Predator.

Believe me; I am sure that they would rather fill the hole with enough truly cataclysmic events that they could keep “BREAKING NEWS” flashing on the bottom of the screen permanently. The problem is that, by mercilessly hyping any remotely interesting news story, they have raised the catastrophe bar so high that a war between India and Pakistan might not even make the cut unless one of the countries loaded up the nukes.

OK, so I exaggerate.

But barring a world that doesn’t come apart 24 hours a day, they each look to trashy programming as filler.

And this is where “Prison-P–n” comes in. One of MSNBC’s most popular fillers is Lockup Raw, which offers hours of riots and fights inside prisons backed by a soundtrack of screaming and yelling and all-around mayhem. We learn nothing about the causes of prison conditions.

But we do learn the profound and shocking lesson that inmates occasionally beat the hell out of each other. Brilliant. And deep. Very deep.

Normally I wouldn’t waste keyboard strokes about “Prison P–n” programming, but last week I heard a feature on NPR’s All Things Considered about the inhuman conditions in California prisons, including crowding, disease, and sexual assault. As I listened, I was struck even more how garbage like Lockup Raw, with all its screaming and bleeding, is too mindless to offer even a slightly provocative insight about why prisons are the way they are.

They keep it quite simple: Prisoners are animals. Prisons are zoos.

Please check out the extraordinary report by Laura Sullivan on overcrowding at San Quentin that was broadcast July 7th on All Things Considered. No video. No blood. No prison p–n. only a brilliant and chilling story about what happens when two inmates occupy a cell built for one; when the barbaric view of the human being as animal is formalized in a state’s public policy and practice.

Why Not Feed the 24 Hour News Beast Something Truly Repulsive? The Case of Liz Trotta

 

With all the disgust I feel for much of the detritus that the 24 hour cable news channels use to fill their bottomless news hole, I won’t deny that I am simultaneously a fan. 

 

Hypocrisy? Maybe.  

 

CNN and MSNBC are simply indispensable for live coverage of breaking news. Further, they each are staffed with journalists capable of on the spot analysis and perceptive commentary that can be superb. I think of CNN’s William Schneider, former CNN Baghdad correspondent and bureau chief Jane Arraf and medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta.  And what about people at MSNBC like Robert Bazell, perhaps the best science and medical reporter of the last several decades, Keith Olbermann, political director Chuck Todd, and Tim Russert?

 

I should say that I don’t omit Fox News out of any knee-jerk revulsion.  I am glad the audience who feels their views represented by Fox has that highly partisan option. I only wish that they would at least be honest about their ideological slant, rather than continuing to make the embarrassing (and amusing) claim of fairness and balance.

 

Fox simply has very little, if anything,  to say to me.

 

But all three of the cable news networks are faced with an insatiable news beast demanding to be fed.  And it seems that, in the age of screaming and incivility, nothing fills a slow news day better than two or three minimally informed pseudo-experts trying ever-so-hard to out-shout each other. 

 

No surprise there.

 

There is an unintended, entertaining  benefit to all this: When your definition of news makes room for yelling by provocateurs rather than reporting by reporters, you occasionally are treated to an idiocy that transcends any definition of idiocy you ever imagined.

 

So here we go. Check out these comments on Fox News by Liz Trotta, her attempt to bring some “analysis” to the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s remarks about the RFK assassination.

 

And ask yourself: How does any news organization keep someone like Liz Trotta on the air? Where is her apology? Who will take the responsibility for deciding that suggesting the assassination of a presidential candidate should be a career-ender, something that should preclude her from ever doing news or commentary again?

 

This isn’t about her right to express herself.  She can be as astoundingly stupid as she wants. And she can do it on the air. The question is whether Fox will decide that the “decency-line” has been crossed.

 

Watch closely. Her comments come quickly at the end of this short excerpt. And they are repulsive.

 

Fear + Hyping = FYPING: The “Crystal-Methification” of 24 Hour Cable News

Remember Howard Beale, the anchorman played by Peter Finch in the film “Network?” I always think of his “mad as hell” moment when I see the latest example of 24 hour cable news networks like MSNBC and CNN and Fox shamelessly pumping overdoses of adrenaline and fear into anything they characterize as “breaking news.” Video is played and replayed, graphics and special effects get more and more dramatic, any pseudo-expert who claims to have a legitimate “Dr.” is instantly anointed an authority, the voices of announcers take on an unintentionally hilarious pseudo-gravitas, and we are off and running on our latest social panic.

Yes, I understand that the business model requires that an audience be delivered to advertisers. If audience research has genuinely shown that hyper-ventilation attracts larger audiences, more power to them. At least in the new age of digital information, we have alternatives like RSS feeds, the Internet, radio, local newspapers, blogs and all the other new technologies and techniques.

So if there are so many other choices offering the same content, why does this nutty hyper-activity still bother me? It’s that I can’t shake the fact that there are still large audiences being subjected to “news on crystal meth” whose world view is being shaped by the idea that the basic elements of human life are “fast-breaking,” “urgent,” and “exclusive.”

Hyping a balloon trip across New Mexico or a butcher closing after 30 years is one thing. But what about all the times when the news has to do with some aspect of life, health or safety that really affects the way people live? What if the news is about the efficacy of a medication? The recall of a food product? Or a new strain of the flu virus that was not covered by the last flu shot? A terrorist incident? A crib with a defective mechanism?

This is where the breathlessness and hyper-hyping can do its real dirty work, pumping up the volume so high that basic facts get lost amidst the cacophony. Let’s say the news is calling a widely used medication into question. Pity the viewer who really needs to hear the nuanced findings that will allow him or her to make an informed decision. And what of the stories completely buried under the avalanche, like the risk of falling among older citizens. Fear-hyping, call it FYPING, makes it all but impossible to communicate this nuance with care and concern for the people whose lives are affected. And how long is news actually “breaking?”

I have seen stories on the AP wire in the morning that 12 hours later are still being reported by MSNBC’s Dan Abrams with an ominous breaking news logo and nerve-shattering theme music.

Of course the answer is that the news is only breaking as long as we let it, as long we listen or watch. But never, ever try to tell me that in matters of true urgency, where health and safety are really on the line, that this is how you most effectively communicate the specific information that people really need. CNN’s Sanjay Gupta and MSNBC’s Robert Bazell are notable exceptions, but most of the time frenzy reigns supreme.

And all we get is the adrenaline without the content. The fear. The hyping. The fyping.

Thank you Howard Beale. I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore.