The Powers That Has-Beens

From MediaPost:

KATIE COURIC IS THE ANCHOR of the CBS Evening News. Most Americans don't even know who the anchors are of the other major network newscasts. CNN is becoming an also-ran to Fox News. CNBC is about to be blown out of the water by the Fox Business Network. The Wall Street Journal is about to be acquired by Rupert Murdoch. And some not-so-insane people feel The New York Times ultimately may not make the transition to digital from print. And that's the way it is. I'm not making it up. This is the state of the Fourth Estate. The powers that have been are all on the verge of becoming has-beens. And Fox is now the most powerful name in news. Or at least, that's what they keep telling us. More on that last point shortly, but for now, we interrupt this rant for some breaking news, on, well, television news: it sucks.

Okay, so that's not exactly a news flash, but it's an opinion that is now being expressed by a newsworthy source: the people who actually write broadcast news. At least that's what members of the Writers Guild of America East told the union over the course of a one-year study assessing their opinions on the quality of television news. Their consensus, according to a white paper released last week by the writers' union: the quality of TV news is declining rapidly and isn't likely to improve without some major intervention.

The reasons cited by the writers are many, but among the most important are:

1) "Recycling of news is becoming more commonplace as fewer newsroom employees mean less stories being developed on a daily basis. With fewer stories produced, they must be repeated more frequently to fill an increasing mount of available air time.

2) "Increased job responsibilities have made research and fact-checking low-priority tasks in most newsrooms. Because many employees now handle two or three job functions, there is little time for research and fact-checking to ensure accuracy before a story is put on air. The paper quotes one news employee as saying 'Quality is the first thing that is expendable, never mind going beyond a Wikipedia bio.'

3) "There is a dramatic and growing shift away from hard news to more lifestyle/ entertainment or 'infotainment' news." The paper quotes a CBS news writer saying,"We take a lot of stuff from 'Entertainment Tonight.' We watch it at 6:30 and decide what to use."

4) Growing instances where employees refused to air news that was not fact-checked or that was incorrect. Their union membership protected their right to refuse management's insistence to air these inaccurate news stories.

The WGA said the struggle over news quality is one of the main reasons why its members have been working without contracts with ABC and CBS for more than two years, and recommends the FCC and public interests groups step in before it's too late.

Given the rise of citizen journalism, and the overall fragmentation of the information marketplace, it may already be too late. Television once enjoyed a seat of power at America's news and information table because there were few immediate, ubiquitous sources for such information. Now it's everywhere.

Hard as it is for me to imagine, the powers that used to be –institutions like CBS News, The New York Times, and Time Inc. — simply don't matter like they used to. And in an age where attentiveness equates to engagement, which in turn, equates to money, I just can't see how they can turn their slide around. What amazes me is how News Corp. continues to expand and thrive with what I would consider a mediocre, and, in my opinion, largely biased journalism product. Hey, don't get me wrong, there's room for all sorts of opinions and qualities in our information marketplace. I just don't understand why Fox's is becoming increasingly powerful.

On the subject of Fox News' power, I can share one personal anecdote that reveals how it first got some, and the truth is, it wasn't about truth. It was about the manipulation of some facts.

That power grab began back in the late 1990s, when I was editor of Jack Myers' The Myers Report and was given an exclusive look at some highly regarded research on media brands created by venerable ad agency Young & Rubicam. The research, which came from Y&R's highly regarded Brand Asset Valuator studies, showed that, at the time, Fox had the most "powerful" TV news brand. The funny part about the research was that Fox didn't actually have a national broadcast network news service, or even a cable news channel at that time. What the Y&R research showed was how consumers perceived the Fox brand in the context of news. And the term "power" was a construct of various "pillars" Y&R uses to assess the underlying attributes of a brand — its relevance, its differentiation, its stature and the average person's knowledge of it.

Not surprisingly, Fox used the research finding in its launch campaign for the Fox News Channel, and still uses the slogan to this day, without fully sourcing or explaining its claim. I guess Fox is the most powerful name in news, because it says it is, because it keeps saying it is, and because all the news brands that used to be powerful no longer convey that belief.

It just goes to show that if you say something loud enough, and enough times, people will believe anything. And the opposite is true too.