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Media notes: on the dearth of public policy on TV, hacking histrionics, and a new Strib magazine

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shaking hands
REUTERS/Mike Segar
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shaking hands following their September debate at Hofstra University.

Eventually so many things pile up all you can do is briefly note each and add a comment. From the current bookmarked clutter:

By any objective standard, The Tyndall Report, a 20 year-old media-watch site/service with a particular eye on editorial metrics, is a reasonably centrist observer of what the country’s broadcast news organizations are doing with their airtime. Their latest set of numbers — to the surprise of absolutely nobody — shows that mainstream TV journalism has all but completely foregone coverage of issues and policy in this year’s presidential race.

I quote:

With just two weeks to go, issues coverage this year has been virtually non-existent. Of the 32 minutes total [on the three network evening newscasts … since January 1, 2016!], terrorism (17 mins) and foreign policy (7 mins) towards the Middle East (Israel-ISIS-Syria-Iraq) have attracted some attention. Gay rights, immigration and policing have been mentioned in passing.

No trade, no healthcare, no climate change, no drugs, no poverty, no guns, no infrastructure, no deficits. To the extent that these issues have been mentioned, it has been on the candidates' terms, not on the networks' initiative.

Writing for the left-of-center Media Matters, Eric Boehlert says:

Tyndall defines issues coverage by a newscast this way: "It takes a public policy, outlines the societal problem that needs to be addressed, describes the candidates’ platform positions and proposed solutions, and evaluates their efficacy."

And here’s how that kind of in-depth coverage breaks down, year to date, by network:

ABC: 8 minutes, all of which covered terrorism.

NBC: 8 minutes for terrorism, LBGT issues, and foreign policy.

CBS: 16 minutes for foreign policy, terrorism, immigration, policing, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Boehlert adds:

These numbers are staggering in terms of the complete retreat they represent from issues-oriented campaign coverage. Just eight years ago, the last time both parties nominated new candidates for the White House, the network newscasts devoted 220 minutes to issues coverage, compared to only 32 minutes so far this year. (CBS Evening News went from 119 minutes of issues coverage in 2008 to 16 this year.)

Other outlets and pundits who picked up on Tyndall’s report also rolled in The Associated Press’s recent reporting on the amount of policy material — actual proposals, financial details, etc. — available from each of the two candidates.

Said the AP:

Trump’s campaign has posted just seven policy proposals on his website, totaling just over 9,000 words. There are 38 on Clinton’s "issues" page, ranging from efforts to cure Alzheimer’s disease to Wall Street and criminal justice reform, and her campaign boasts that it has now released 65 policy fact sheets, totaling 112,735 words.

Television news, which no longer feels pressure from the FCC to provide focused, thorough coverage of matters of “civic interest” in order to validate its licenses, has become completely devoted to the revenue-driving facet of politics. Namely the cheap(er), eas(ier) and obsessive chronicling of the horse-race, the reality TV-style personality clashes, meltdowns and scandals, whether real or over-hyped. As a consequence, the TV news “industry” has turned itself into a highly unreliable assessor of the capabilities and commitment of candidates to serious national problems. 

Translation: You gotta read, folks. Watching ain’t gonna do it. 

***

Also in the context of metrics obsession, WalletHub, best known for its listicle-a-minute postings on every conceivable topic from “Fattest US States” to “Best and Worst Cities for Staycations” has churned up the following numbers:

46.5% – Of voters supporting either Clinton or Trump say their main objective is to stop the other side from winning.

60.13% – Of claims made by Trump during the campaign have been rated "False" or "Pants on Fire" by Politifact (vs. 13.33% for Clinton).

$21.6M – Speaking fees earned by Hillary Clinton from 2013 to 2015 (92 speeches).

+$2.2B – Projected change in Real GDP (2009 dollars) during the first four years of a Clinton presidency (+$0.7B for Trump).

14 States – Have new laws that could make it more difficult to vote this year (32 states have voter ID laws).

The startling disparity between Trump and Clinton in the “False” and “Pants on Fire” judgments is consistent with PolitiFact’s findings throughout the campaign, including the overall tally showing her to be — wait for it — the second most honest politician on the national landscape in terms of making statements rooted in facts. But Clinton = More Honest isn’t a narrative that sells. So facts be damned. 

***

Linden Hills resident Bruce Schneier is one of the most well-regarded national experts on security issues. His blog posts are technical and detailed and often a challenge to the lay person. But he gives plenty of interviews, like this one on hacking with David Trilling at journalistsresource.org.

A sample of the conversation:

What might be some of the technical concerns about potential hacking on Election Day?

This is a complicated question, and a complete answer will fill this entire publication. Briefly, there are three areas of concern. The first are the voting rolls that determine who is allowed to vote. The second are the voting machines themselves, especially the computerized touch-screen machines with no voter-verifiable paper audit trail. And the third is the tabulation system, as the results from each machine are combined into a final result. All of those three areas are vulnerable to hacking, although the practical problems of pulling off a successful hack are much more complicated than is generally reported. Even so, the vulnerabilities are critical to fix because the system must be trusted. Elections serve two purposes. The first is to choose the winner, and the second is to convince the loser that he lost fairly. Everyone must trust the system. My primary concern surrounding Election Day is not that the election will be hacked, but that it will be claimed to be hacked and we will have no way to verify that it wasn’t.

Are you seeing anything missing from the current reporting about the hacks? If so, what?

I would like stories about computers and hacking to contain more nuance — what’s happening and what’s possible; what it means in context, and what it doesn’t mean. Too much reporting is worst-case “what if” scenarios and wild speculation. It might be better headlines to report this way, but it isn’t the best way to inform the public.

Schneier’s point about garden variety hacking stories needing more nuance, which is to say more skepticism and less melodramatics, seems highly pertinent. Beyond that, while some newspapers (but essentially no local TV newsrooms) have a resident “technophile” reviewing the gadget du jour, almost none have anyone either permanently on staff or on retainer for instant assessment of the near daily reports of cyber attack, a form of intrusion and violation of personal space far more prevalent than cat burglars climbing in open windows. Maybe if newsrooms redefined cyber security expertise as a “lifestyle issue?”

***

On that point, the Star Tribune, which is healthy enough to experiment with new products, has announced a quarterly lifestyle magazine, aka ​The Star Tribune Magazine, launching “in the spring of 2017.”

From the release:

… the glossy, high-end tabloid will feature deep, compelling reads on the issues and characters shaping life in the Twin Cities and Minnesota, as well as more of the wide-ranging lifestyle content that Star Tribune readers value — spanning home design and décor, food, fashion and more. Each issue of Star Tribune Magazine will feature 100-percent new content from Star Tribune’s award-winning newsroom with no overlap or duplication with the weekday or Sunday editions. Significantly, each quarterly issue will put a spotlight on areas of particular interest to both readers and advertisers: home and garden (spring), health and wellness (summer), travel (fall), and fashion and style (winter). The format, frequency, and editorial direction of Star Tribune Magazine will also provide a new and cost-efficient marketing vehicle for advertisers targeting metro Twin Cities households. The unique, original content and high production values will offer a premium advertising environment, while the quarterly frequency and competitive pricing will make it easy for advertisers to fit Star Tribune Magazine into their promotional mix.

In the context of the kind of coverage of issues lacking at so many levels of journalism, (although papers like the Strib are far better on policy reporting than TV news), you can make your own call on whether the Twin Cities market needs yet another service journalism product, touting the best and brightest in restaurants and shopping options. On the upside, though, the paper’s willingness to venture into a magazine format in this dicey era for print shows it has the wherewithal to compete for ad dollars with entrenched interests like Mpls.St.Paul Magazine and Minnesota Monthly. The ad pricing battle among the three will be very interesting to watch.

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Comments (1)

Thanks

“…Television news, which no longer feels pressure from the FCC to provide focused, thorough coverage of matters of “civic interest” in order to validate its licenses, has become completely devoted to the revenue-driving facet of politics.”

Thanks, Brian, for the little tidbit that helps explain for a non-native why Twin Cities TV "news" programs are so woefully short on actual news, and instead feature stories, usually tear-jerkers, about puppies being adopted, or milking the obvious sadness and/or anger about someone's death or murder for days after the event. It also helps explain why there's not even a pretense of fairness in what little "news" is being covered. A couple nights ago, for example, KARE 11's 5 o'clock newscast had Belinda Jensen talking about fall colors, and in the middle of that, showing the audience a photo sent in by a viewer of a farmer's field in which the name "TRUMP" had been carved in 20-foot-tall letters. That was followed by a brief "story" on the campaign in which in which the clip of Donald Trump was long enough to allow him to tell his audience that they could beat the system, while the clip of Hillary Clinton was simply a few silent seconds of her on-camera.

My guess, not backed by research, is that readers who like to call themselves "conservative" can just as readily supply examples of a TV station doing something similar that leans toward Clinton rather than Trump. That stations get to put their respective thumbs on the electoral scale with impunity while using public airwaves as a profit-making device is just this side of criminal, and illustrates one of the more egregious flaws in corporate-style capitalism as it's practiced in this country.