Defining Down 'Politics,' or Why the Nightly News Is Dying

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Defining Down 'Politics,' or Why the Nightly News Is Dying

Earlier this month, amid the flare-up over Republican nominee Donald Trump’s description of President Barack Obama as “the founder of ISIS”—a claim the candidate redoubled in subsequent radio and TV appearances, before dismissing it as “sarcasm”—ABC News correspondent David Wright filed a report from the campaign trail compiled not, it seemed, from shoe-leather, but from the flimsier spit and glue. The segment began with the requisite “sound bites,” one or two sentences from Trump’s rallies and an excerpt from his interview with conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt, who’d handed the GOP standard-bearer a clarification of his statement only to see it smacked away. It then swerved into the candidates’ unsavory supporters, the father of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen (for Clinton) and disgraced former Florida congressman Mark Foley (for Trump), before concluding with Time Magazine’s latest Trump cover, marked with one word: “Meltdown.” “Not exactly,” Wright intoned, “the headline you’d want.”

What distinguished Time’s reporting on Trump’s recent struggles from Wright’s string of political non-sequiturs—two minutes that came closer to mimicking the candidate’s linguistic detours than to interrogating them—was, well, reporting: Despite its dispiriting focus on the “insider baseball” of loose-lipped campaign staffers and RNC functionaries, Time generated news, while ABC World News Tonight might be said to have simply listed it—a ticker of the day’s most salacious events.

The point here is not to single out Wright, or even his network—though it should be noted that World News Tonight, in the years since the death of former anchorman and guiding light Peter Jennings, has become an embarrassment to his legacy. Rather, after sampling two weeks’ worth of the four major nightly news programs (World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour), it’s clear that the tenor of their election coverage—defining “politics,” to one or another extent, as a stream of prepared statements, controversies, and “gaffes”—is the foremost sign of the format’s failure to reflect our changing media landscape.

At a moment in which the latest firestorm has already played out on social media and cable news by the time the nightly news broadcasts begin, the shallow précis of coffee klatches and stump speeches is no longer a useful tool for the transmission of information, if it ever was. In terms of both viewership and influence, broadcast journalism’s most venerable institution has been in decline for decades, but in the end it’s a lack of substance—not a lack of sexiness—that might finally finish it off.

The central issue, as I wrote in May of MSNBC’s tack toward the center, is that the nightly news programs—NBC’s and ABC’s in particular—are chasing a fast-evaporating audience, in this case by repackaging at day’s end the sort of political wrangling that other outlets report in real time. Last week, for instance, Lester Holt introduced a “bombshell from the Trump campaign”—the installation of Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon and longtime Republican operative Kellyanne Conway—that had in fact broken that morning; David Muir promised “major developments in the race for the White House,” in the form of Trump’s proposal for the “extreme vetting” of prospective immigrants, that had already aired on cable throughout the afternoon.

Whether or not one considers the theatre of the campaign to be instructive, the fact remains that the networks’ summaries thereof are no more tailored to the rising generation of consumers than a hand-me-down suit: What viewers with an Internet connection or a cable contract might glean from such meager scraps of “news” is not an understanding of issues, policies, laws, or governance, nor even a sense of the state of the race, but a recapitulation of what the candidates and their surrogates said, or tweeted, hours earlier. To watch the nightly news is to receive an object lesson in the familiar framework of self-help manuals and corporate mantras: Evolve or die.

Nielsen ratings suggest that continuing with the traditional approach to the format is shortsighted, though the combined audience for the three broadcast networks’ nightly news programs has seen a noticeable uptick of late, from an average of 21.5 million viewers in 2010 to 23.9 million last year. (In 1980, the three programs together attracted more than 50 million viewers.) It’s the trend in the coveted 25 to 54 demographic that points to the format’s uncertain future, however: Even at the ratings’ 2009-2010 nadir, viewers in this age group numbered 6.4 million, versus 5.7 million in 2014-2015, the most recent full season for which data is available. In both absolute terms and as a proportion of the total, those brought up on cable, the Internet, and social media are fleeing the nightly news for other sources of information. To a growing slice of the population, the format has become dispensable.

And perhaps it is. There are innumerable, interwoven reasons why this should be the case, of course, from the fragmentation of “the media” into ideological echo chambers to the proliferation of channels, websites, and platforms on which we consume information, but it would be giving the nightly news programs too much of a pass to pretend that they aren’t part of the problem. The ongoing redefinition of “politics” as a competition between “messages”—as in Trump’s “dark anti-establishment message,” per NBC’s Katy Tur—is enough on its own to render the sum of the resulting coverage a null set, so intent on the finer aspects of the performance that no segment registers as more than a gormless variation on a well-established theme.

Against CBS correspondent Major Garrett’s reference, on August 8, to “evidence of a Trump conversion,” there was Evening News anchor Scott Pelley’s assertion, on August 9, that “Trump goes off script—and, critics say, over the line.” Against NewsHour correspondent Lisa Desjardins’ gloss on the “fast and fascinating shift in the battleground game,” there was, in the subsequent panel discussion, a return to the “nail-biter” states of Ohio and Florida, which have been consistent features of said “battleground game” in every presidential election held so far this century. The question, in this context, is not “Why aren’t more people watching the nightly news?” but “Why does anyone watch the nightly news?” A format that offers neither the first draft nor the revision is not simply a victim of circumstance, but in fact the driving force behind its own demise.

That the CBS Evening News retains an admirable commitment to foreign affairs, and PBS NewsHourto in-depth segments on education, the candidates’ economic plans, and children in Syria, is what distinguishes them from NBC Nightly News and ABC World News Tonight, both of which have allowed the feebleness of their political reporting to trickle down to other stories. In recent weeks, Holt, anchoring his broadcast from Rio, became a flak for NBC’s Olympics coverage, allowing athlete proposals and a sit-down with Michael Phelps’ wife, mother, and infant child to carve further into the slim 22 minutes or so allotted to synopsize the past 23 hours of news; worse still, World News Tonight anchor David Muir shepherds his ensemble of square-jawed correspondents through a series of sweepstakes winners, shark attacks, and nacho spills, as if the desk from which I once watched Jennings helm 17 consecutive hours of coverage, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, had been bequeathed in his last will and testament not to ABC News but to Inside Edition.

The result, at least on NBC and ABC, is a pair of nightly news programs that approximate the affect of Facebook, Twitter, and tabloid magazines without replicating either their immediacy or their entertainment value; two barren half-hours in which all news is treated in much the same fashion as political news, that is to say a constellation of banalities so far removed from the actual life of the viewer as to seem alien, obscure, impenetrable—not informative but anesthetic, weightless and therefore meaningless, as if we’d been reduced to the blob people in Wall-E, fat, dumb fucks wiping the spittle off our chins.

Even if we accept that this is what “the people” want—a big “if,” considering the decline in the ratings for nightly news programs, not to mention the relative success, from much smaller outlets, of “longform” reporting on private prisons, reparations, and the prospect of “The Really Big One”—it’s unclear, at least to me, that the nightly news programs are equipped to provide it. When it’s possible to find both the strange and the commonplace online, when Facebook offers the heartwarming segment from the local news and Twitter the unexpected development, the networks are in a position to deploy their substantial resources toward finding a fresh angle, an in-depth reconsideration, an investigative lens, if only because carving out unclaimed space in the current ecosystem means resisting the temptation to repurpose the stories we’ve already been following all day.

To treat politics as more than October surprises and potential pivots, to treat newsgathering as an attempt to deconstruct the message rather than disseminate it, is not just to adhere to the principles of the fourth estate, but also, perhaps, to secure them going forward. Sedate and retrograde almost by definition, the nightly news programs will never again beat their more fleet-footed competitors at breaking the news, but one can imagine them complicating, or clarifying, the stories we’ve seen and read elsewhere—a nightly annotation of the news as indispensible as the Internet’s explainers and tweet storms. It would, well and truly, be the headline you’d want, not to mention a comeback for the ages.