Powerhouse Roundtable – The Development of Opinion News

16 Oct

Raymond William’s discussion of televised news in Television identifies many of the qualities that can be variously emphasized for different approaches to the news, and manages to accidentally predict the rise of American cable news. Williams notes the major difference between American and British TV news – British news uses more of the visual aspects of television to tell a story and present information in a relatively unbiased fashion (during actual broadcasts) while American news takes advantage of the personal qualities of the medium to have the broadcaster function as a personality delivering the news directly into the homes of American families, with a slightly higher degree of editorializing (what Williams calls “visual radio”). The cultural reasons for the shifts in focus are unclear, but Williams suggests (with good reason) it may be at least in part attributable to the BBC’s status as a government-subsidized news organization in contrast to the corporate, independent structure of American networks.

That independence explains why Williams discusses the American government’s distrust of the media, which is deeper and more hostile than in Britain. Though the British media uses the form of television to present the news in as unbiased a fashion as possible, the explicit separation of the administration from the Fourth Estate in American politics makes the press far more dangerous (particularly after Watergate, which was ongoing at the time of the publication of Television). The concentration of the press’ power into conferences also heightens the personality-based nature of the American media, where direct questions posed by specific reporters are answered by a President who is continually elevated as a personality to a degree that never seems to befall British politicians.

The personalization of American news presages the development of the cable news era, which Williams seems to almost predict in his discussion of “public debate” programs. Williams limits the scope of discussion programs in America at the time (1973) to public broadcasting, which would best make his comparison with British television work. But he ignores the main alternative to British public affairs shows like Open Door – the Sunday morning interview shows. Meet The Press and Face The Nation were already airing, and ABC’s This Week was only a few years away. This Week‘s roundtable structure explicitly encouraged analysis from its beginning in 1981, effectively blending the interview structure of the press conference (and the more personal quality of straight news) with “informed opinion” from the often partisan questioners like ABC’s George Will. There’s an element of “discussion,” which Williams hates for its emphasis on personality rather than substance, but the line between the two, particularly when panels are composed largely of journalists, blurs easily.

Williams labels “simulating a representation by their own criteria” the worst possible quality in such programs. He finds that the “best” opinion shows assume as an audience people who are not already represented. But cable news is now almost explicitly targeted to the same audience it is representing. People who watch Fox News are people who are represented on Fox, and likewise for MSNBC. The blending of straight news and editorializing from anchors Williams notes has found its peak in “news programs” that are more or less venues for the anchor’s own opinion, turning the notion of “informed opinion” on its head. I don’t know how to go about comparing current versions of “discussion” programs, but it seems like Williams’ initial split between the visual and objective reporting of the news and anchor-based news with more opinion content has been blurred as the news business has progressed toward more options with more of a profit motive.

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