A Foolish Escalation of Opinion-Based Journalism
From El País, Spain; 14 March 2011, By Antonio Caño
I have nothing against Wolffe, a brilliant journalist who knows Obama well, having written two books about him since he became president. But this time, neither he nor the public had the chance to listen to what Obama was going to say about Japan.|
Even if a copy of the speech had been given to those responsible for the transmission prior to its airing, there would have been an ethical obligation and a basic level of caution to wait for the president to speak the words before judging them. But the most serious problem of all is that the viewers are deprived of the precise facts, of the statement itself, of the exact words that should lead to subsequent judgment, not only by the journalists, but also by the citizens.
This isn’t a problem limited to MSNBC. CNN and Fox News, its main rivals in the form of 24-hour news channels, also interrupted Obama’s speech, both probably following the guidelines of audience ratings that indicated a drop when the words of the president replaced those of the studio commentators. After the reference to Japan, Obama was going to speak about education, a subject that the analysts never tire of repeating with regards to its huge importance for the future of the United States. None of the channels broadcast it.
This example is only a symptom of a widespread phenomenon that began to occur several years ago in American news broadcasting: the marginalization of facts in favor of commentaries. The same happens in other countries and in other forms of media; the opinion is imposed on the information, and at times it is simply substituted.
This formula was first demonstrated successfully by Fox, whose innovation of the American television outlook using an abundance of commentators and analysts with an unmistakable ideological hallmark served to create a solid fan base: Of viewers or, more likely, activists, I can’t say which.
Since last year, Fox’s audience has surpassed that of CNN and MSNBC combined. It was therefore inevitable that the latter two copied the format used by their competition. NBC’s sister channel tried, at the same time, to become a type of ideological response to Fox and strengthened its primetime with a series of commentators who helped to observe the current events from the sidelines. CNN tries to remain reliably in the center, but it has also resorted to showing people and opinions that take time away from the news.
The recent result of this is that when the public needed to know what exactly was happening in the Arab world in serious situations, they tuned in to Al-Jazeera, and they would have done the same thing for the earthquake in Japan if Qatari television covered the Far East with the means available to the Middle East.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly lamented a few days ago that Al-Jazeera has had to take the place left by North American channels by doing simply what they used to do and have stopped doing. The universal success of CNN was based on the freshness of a station that told what was happening and how it was happening.
Now, apparently, facts are no longer selling. A foolish escalation of opinion-based journalism, encouraged by the possibilities that new means of communication present, has devalued the news as a form of journalism that must be presented in a precise manner, balanced and free from commentaries. The old rules of confirmation by two sources and the contribution of dates and background are being substituted by more shocking words and bold judgments. And news channels are resignedly becoming endless talk shows.