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Cable ‘news’ punditry should come with warning labels

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Talk is cheap. And, on cable news at least, it’s here to stay.

Fallout from special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s report brings a renewed round of handwringing in certain corners of journalism — re-opening the divide between shoe-leather and tongue-wagging.

Mueller’s findings were good news for hard news: Beat reporters using shoe-leather broke one exclusive after another — and, Mueller confirms, got the story right. But their work was often drowned out by the noisy flood of tongue-wagging, the endless stream of speculation from cable news pundits, whose predictions were often very wrong.

That matters because studies show many cable-news viewers have trouble separating fact from opinion. Worse yet, 74 percent of journalists believe the audience has this problem, and it damages the profession.

But it won’t stop because, in mass media, talk works.

{mosads}First of all — and this is always first of all in television — it’s cheap. Programming actual news, 24 hours a day, is not. You need reporters all around the world, digging for stories, doing the tough, grinding work of journalism. Talking heads chatting around a table — no matter how well-informed and well-spoken they are — dispense with all of that expensive trouble.

Every medium in financial straits turns to talk for this reason. Back in the 1970s, when FM radio became dominant in the ratings, AM radio increasingly replaced expensive DJs with the cheapest form of communication: the listener call-in show.  Daytime TV — which, unlike primetime, produces fresh product all year long — was always dominated by talk for financial reasons. And as daytime audiences shrunk, talk grew, while higher-priced soap operas were cancelled.

The same applies to cable. Reporting news around the clock was a breakthrough when CNN launched in 1980. But then the internet exploded and news headlines were available on your phone in an instant; cable channels began to feel ratings pressure and economic strain. Like others before them, they turned to talk.

But cheap isn’t the only thing driving this trend. Madison Avenue likes talk, too. Imagine a TV guide, and under “CNN” all it said for 24 hours, every day, was “News.” That’s risky for an advertiser; you don’t know what the content is or how big the audience will be — all of which fluctuates wildly, depending on events. It feels like a much safer bet to advertise on an actual show, with a title and a host. You know better what you’re getting for your ad dollar on something like “Inside Politics with John King.”  

Yes, advertisers absolutely will bolt as soon as some host makes an inappropriate comment — but they usually just move their money to some other host on some other show on the same channel.

Add this, though: Madison Avenue also likes talk because the audience likes talk.

As a programming executive, I learned something early on. Most viewers use talk shows to fill an empty house. Whether you’re a homemaker or a telecommuter or an older person on her own, talk shows help you connect with the outside world. They make you feel more in touch with other people. So, when your brother or best friend calls to check in, you have something to share — something you heard today that got you thinking.

{mossecondads}And, like advertisers, the audience at home doesn’t want to stare at a TV guide that simply says “News.” They want names. People. Wolf Blitzer, Brett Baier, Brian Williams — and, of course, Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow. They want to sit with “Fox and Friends” and share a conversation, like real friends. It’s a strange magic that talk TV pulls off but — in focus group after focus group — I came to understand that it’s very real.

No one should upset that alchemy. But cable executives need to tackle the fact-versus-opinion confusion. Back in the days of broadcast news, opinion was clearly labeled on newscasts, and speculative panel discussions were confined to the sunny corners of Sunday morning television. Now they’re everywhere, without warning labels.

One good trend does pop up: Studies show younger viewers are much better at identifying news versus opinion. They are more savvy when it comes to separating the wheat from the chaff, because they have to be: They grew up in a media world without labels, mixing fact and punditry in the same nonstop brew.

That means all of this should solve itself someday. Yet, until that day comes, a lot of people can use a little help. Remember, 74 percent of journalists think their profession may depend on it.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and has worked for ABC News and as a reporter or essayist for such publications as Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags Broadcast journalism Broadcasting CNN News Daytime television News broadcasting Rachel Maddow Robert Mueller Sean Hannity Television

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