My ready illustration of talking heads with very little to say has long been the reporting in the immediate aftermath of the Challenger disaster. The nightly news anchors were on the air throughout most of that afternoon and evening, and each of them was provided with a rather large plastic model of the space shuttle, a model whose only remarkable feature seemed to be that the three large fuel tanks were detachable. So some of the most distinguished figures in American broadcast journalism were reduced not only to using that simple model repeatedly as a prop but also to talking about it as if it were something remarkable—as if it were even some sort of contemporary Rosetta Stone that might yet yield some fundamental insight into what had occurred.
The Challenger disaster was, of course, a true national catastrophe. It also occurred less than six years after the founding of CNN, the first 24-hour cable news channel. The premise of 24-hour cable news was that there was too much news to cover it adequately in the 20-minutes or so of news delivered by the major networks’ nightly news shows, and the promise of 24-hour cable news seemed to be that complex issues could be covered in depth and with nuance.
Three and a half decades after CNN first went on the air, what is most amazing to me is the way in which the many cable news channels have devolved into a weird and generally disappointing amalgam of the Sunday political-discussion shows on the major networks and of the local news. So, instead of extended and nuanced discussion of complex issues, the cable news channels are providing a stream of ideologically framed talking points that are endlessly recycled, not so much different from political ads. Likewise, instead of coverage of international events and issues that broaden our understanding of the world, we are treated to extended coverage of plane and train accidents, fires and floods, car chases, and murder trials with sensational elements—events of largely local “news” interest that nevertheless appeal to our almost prurient appetite for calamity and that generally serve to confirm, rather than to challenge, our preconceived notions about the world.
Although it has generated very good ratings, the endless coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner seems to me to represent a new low in cable news. Writing for CNN’s website, Ann O’Neill has provided a very nice survey of the whole gamut of theories about the airliner’s mysterious disappearance, from the most mainstream, authoritative suppositions to the most deranged hypotheses emanating from the most paranoid fringes of the lunatic fringe. The article’s title “Flight 370: Facts Few, Imaginations Run Wild” and its sub-title “Outlandish Theories Fill the Information Void” do, however, seem unintentionally ironic because, in order to sustain its endless coverage of this event that has been almost completely devoid of any verifiable facts, CNN has itself, in some manner or other, given air time to almost all of those theories, regardless of how unlikely it is that they may have any chance of being accurate, or even incidentally illuminating.
Even Russia’s “imperial reconquest” of the Crimea and the Far Right’s exclamatory concern that Putin has been “emboldened by Obama’s weakness” have been treated as relatively minor stories in the relentless effort to transform every new detail about the search for the missing airliner into “breaking news.” It’s kind of like watching a horror film that is just a long succession of screams. At some point, you just can’t take it anymore and turn first the sound and then even the picture off.
The cable news channels argue that they focus on certain stories in response to viewer interests. But, the viewership of cable news is an almost miniscule percentage of the total U.S. population, and so what the cable news companies are actually arguing is that their dubious programming choices appeal to a marginally larger but still miniscule audience.
Moreover, no major cable news channel in the U.S. has taken the approach to news coverage that is now distinguishing VICE: that is, no major cable news channel has committed to realizing the promise of 24-hour news–that complex issues could be covered in depth and with nuance–and to testing the programmers’ assumption that that sort of news coverage will not attract a substantial audience.
Consider the range and number of issues that we have been addressing in this blog:
- challenges to academic freedom and shared governance,
- the erosion of tenure and the growth of contingency among full-time faculty,
- administrative bloat and the exploitation of adjunct faculty,
- the decline in state support for public higher education and the increasing corporatization of public institutions,
- the shift from student grant aid to student loans and the dramatic escalation in long-term student debt,
- the treatment of increased access and a rise in degree-completion rates as institutional and political competing aims,
- the arguments over what makes a college education valuable,
- the over-reliance on quantitative assessments and the linking of all funding to such assessments,
- the competing trends in unbundling faculty responsibilities and increasing faculty workloads,
- the shift from using digital technologies to enhance instruction to relying on those technologies to replace instructors,
- the attention to and even acclamation of for-profit institutions and corporate “educational providers” all out of proportion to the expertise that they have established and the results that they have produced,
- and the value for faculty and other academic professionals of unionization and of organizing beyond formalized collective bargaining.
Think about how seldom any of these issues are being addressed on the 24-hour cable news channels. They are not even getting 10- to 15-minute segments in the pre-dawn hours. About a month ago, Maria Maisto of the New Faculty Majority appeared on a nicely organized panel on Melissa Harris-Perry’s weekend show on MSNBC. The panel was supposed to be given one segment, and the discussion was so engaging that it was extended over two segments. I would be hard-pressed, however, to come up with another recent illustration of effective, thoughtful discussion of higher-ed issues on cable news.
News percolates upwards. That’s why the major print and broadcast news sources seem consistently to focus on much the same stories, even when the stories aren’t especially timely. So the issue is how we can make higher-ed issues more interesting locally, statewide, and then regionally so that they have a better chance of getting attention nationally.
We are clearly focused on these issues, and one suspects that our active conferences and chapters are equivalently focused on them—and that there is even a flow of information and comment back and forth along the lines of communication both within the AAUP and within the broader profession.
But I suspect that at the member level, the number of people whom we are reaching is proportionate to the miniscule audience of the cable news programs relative to the entire population. So here are several recommendations that I would make:
- Many of our conferences and chapter have engaged in op-ed and letter-writing campaigns to address pressing institutional or statewide issues—for instance, contentious contract negotiations or legislation such as Ohio’s Senate Bill 5 or “right to work” in Indiana and Michigan. We need to adapt that approach, state by state, to create networks of faculty who regularly submit op-eds on issues related to higher ed to their local print and broadcast media (or their websites).
- The role of the state conferences and national office should to be to provide background materials, policy statements, and templates for op-eds that the individual writers can use largely as is or adapt to their own interests.
- We need to get past the notion that regular communications with our members are somehow off-putting to those members, and we need to disseminate the published items to our members to insure that they, above all, have received the messages and to impress upon them that the leadership is actively engaged and that there are many small ways in which they might also contribute to the cause.
- We need much more actively to establish relationships with the reporters and editors in our local media and to encourage them to contact us when they need information or commentary on higher-ed issues.
- We need to create active connections with other unions and progressive organizations and encourage them to disseminate at least some of our materials through their newsletters, blogs, and websites.
- We need to establish archives of written materials, photos, and video clips that we can provide to interested media and that we can recycle as needed to meet our own needs.