SAN DIEGO – If a U.S. city about 40 miles from the nation’s capital erupts in violence, but the cable news networks ignore the unrest because they’re busy with live coverage of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, is it the end of television journalism?
No regrets. It has been a good run. But television news isn’t what it used to be.
My grandparents on my mother’s side were Tejanos who spoke only Spanish, but they understood enough English to introduce me to Walter Cronkite. The most trusted man in America was a revered figure in their home. In their world, only important people were on television.
What would they have made of the Kardashians?
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I imagine my grandparents would have been baffled by that CNN segment in February in which anchor Don Lemon covered a story about runaway llamas in downtown Phoenix by interviewing, wait for it, a llama.
They also might have been a tad confused by that time in March when, on MSNBC, “Hardball” host Chris Matthews, a make-believe journalist, interviewed make-believe President Frank Underwood, aka Kevin Spacey.
There’s a special challenge for cable television, where I’ve offered commentary and analysis for more than 20 years. Having to fill a 24-hour news cycle every single day can cause you to lose perspective on what constitutes news, what people care about, and what makes for compelling television.
When it comes to criticism, journalists are better at giving than receiving. I ruffled feathers at CNN, where I was a contributor until a few weeks ago when we parted amicably. During an interview on a digital network, I said CNN news programs “cover the wrong stories.” That can’t be a secret. Most viewers get their fill after three days of wall-to-wall coverage of missing airplanes, or overhyped East Coast mega-rainstorms that never materialize, or – as comedian Keegan-Michael Key joked at the correspondents’ dinner, as President Obama’s “anger translator” – two weeks of around-the-clock Ebola coverage.
Are we watching the slow death of a once-powerful medium? For the last 50 years, television has been the go-to place for Americans when they grapple with a national tragedy or bask in the glory of a shared triumph.
Twenty years ago, college students lugged television sets into dorm rooms. Today, many of them opt for a smaller screen and get their information from laptops, tablets and cellphones.
These days, folks would just as soon go to Twitter to find out what is really happening.
Here’s what happened on the streets of Baltimore: On Saturday, more than 1,000 people voiced their anger at the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose spinal cord was nearly severed while in the custody of police officers. That evening, some of the protesters threw rocks and piece of metal at police, shattered windows, looted stores and vandalized police cars. In what has become a familiar pattern, most of the protesters appeared to be African-American while most of the police officers appeared to be white. Forty thousand baseball fans who had gone to Camden Yards to watch the Orioles play were told not to leave the ballpark.
Does any of this sound newsworthy to the smart folks who run major news networks in New York and Washington? If so, why not cover it instead of devoting air time to a narcissistic “nerd prom” where Hollywood’s world of entertainment rubs elbows with Washington’s world of infotainment?
In this case, there is an additional irony given that – during the coverage of last year’s protests in Ferguson, Missouri – many in the media did their best to portray themselves as especially enlightened on race issues and deeply empathetic with those inner-city residents who are fed up and furious over their treatment by police. Where was that enlightenment and empathy when protesters took to the streets of Baltimore?
On Monday night, when the violence escalated, the TV networks finally found their way to the besieged city. Many of the reporters couldn’t believe their eyes. One journalist expressed surprise that the city is so “diverse.” Meanwhile, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer clearly needs to get out of the studio more. He was noticeably out of his comfort zone as he expressed shock that people were looting stores. “I don’t remember seeing anything like this in the United States of America in a long time,” he declared.
And with that, some of the same news correspondents who, two nights earlier, had been yukking it up over jokes suddenly became the punch line.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.