April 27, 2013 By Steven E. Greer, MD
On April 15, 2013, at 2:49 PM, two terrorist bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three, and blowing off the legs of many others. The other casualty of the event was TV news. Already hanging on to life by a thread as ratings decline double-digits, year after year, and as few people under the age of 30 pay for cable TV, the broadcast TV news suffered mortal wounds in the aftermath of the Boston bombings.
In vain attempts to be relevant in the world of the Internet with instant posts on Twitter and news blogs, TV news programs, still run by producers and executives who do it “old-school”, were frantically covering the event 24/7. The for-profit news channels were in a feeding frenzy and all attempts to produce verifiable reliable news went out the window.
What once would have been a sign of egregious unprofessional laziness, on-air TV reporters are now reading straight from Blackberry smartphones any emails that come from any form of law enforcement whatsoever. They immediately regurgitate those text messages and emails as “Reliable sources say..”.
CNN”s John Kings was burned the worst when he looked up from his Blackberry and proclaimed on live TV, “Wolf. We have information. An arrest has been made…” Two hours later, the FBI was refuting that and CNN had to eat crow.
Receiving less attention, however, were numerous other reportings of false rumors propagated by “sources”. After the surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was arrested, CBS News’ FBI pundit, John Miller, began the speculation, based on “sources”, that the bomber had tried to commit suicide in the boat with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the throat. In fact, the bomber was unarmed and cowering semiconsciously in a boat in someone’s Boston backyard. Hundreds of rounds of bullets were blasted his way, injuring him.
In a roundabout way, and blaming “the fog of war”, CBS News corrected the false reporting that the bomber attempted suicide, but John Miller never admitted wrongdoing by trusting a “source” who clearly had no knowledge of facts. Worse than incompetence, many of the so-called police sources could very well have been manipulating the news to cover up for embarrassing mistakes made in Boston, such as firing on an unarmed man hiding in a boat, almost killing him, when he was a valuable target wanted alive.
Numerous other similar mistakes were made by TV news. It was so bad, that some reporters were beginning stories with disclaimers that essential said, “This is probably not accurate, but we are going with it anyway.”
Similar mistakes were made by TV news after the Newtown school massacre. For example, most networks reported that Adam Lanza, the shooter, had a mother who worked at the school, which was false. This was based on, “Sources say….sources say.”
Compounding the reporting mistakes, the TV news producers swung too far in the conservative direction by refusing to report on obvious matters that could not be irrefutably verified 100%. For example, the real Twitter account of the surviving bomber was a treasure trove of information, but since it could have been a fake account, TV news avoided it. If they had reported on it, they would have revealed that the bomber tweeted that he would not commit suicide, that he had accomplices, that he was into the marijuana culture, etc.
The bar for what passes as “reporting” was knocked to the ground after Newtown and Boston, and there seemed to be no consequences. No on-air reporter or producers were fired.
Like a fatalistic ambivalent patient with terminal cancer, the TV news executives are not even attempting to improve. After all, viewers have no consumer choice. Their TV news is bundled into their cable bills and they cannot vote with wallets and cancel subscriptions to CNN too easily. Even so-called “broadcast TV” like CBS, NBC, and ABC are now essentially cable TV stations. Approximately 80% of Americans watch “Broadcast TV” via subscription cable or dish services, as opposed to “rabbit ears”.
It is indeed possible to make real-time TV reporting that is also accurate and keeps pace with online sources, but producers trained in old-school TV ways will never be able to adapt. The best creators of fast reliable news are now coming from independent sources with low-budget websites. Even for predictable events, such as the Supreme Court ruling on the ACA law (ObamaCare), the best analysis, which was regurgitated by TV news, came from a SCOTUS blog.
As long as the cable TV cash cow allows CNN and CBS to make inexcusable errors and still retain viewers who are held hostage by their cable TV bundled plans, the quality of TV news will just get worse from here on. This is precisely why Barry Diller’s Aereo and other streaming TV products scare the hell out of cable TV executives.
Netflix hit a homerun with their original series “House of Cards“, streamed directly over the Internet. Amazon, Google, and many others are funding original shows now. Google is even creating their own fiber optic cable system to bypass cable providers, such as Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon. Old-school TV news had better shape up fast, or that cash cow will be dead far sooner than they realize.