Stay Classy, Cable News: Turn Elsewhere If You Want To Be Informed

I shouldn’t have been surprised when I started squirming in my seat during the movie Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. It wasn’t just for the reasons I was expecting – not the over-acting of Will Ferrell or the ridiculous raunchy lines coming out of Paul Rudd’s mouth.

Unfortunately, it was the characters’ realization that their news show – which was on at 2 a.m. on a new cable network back in the 1970s – would get higher ratings if they just glossed over all the important, yet boring news stories, and told everyone what they wanted to hear. Each episode ended with Ferrell’s character Ron Burgundy saying “Don’t just have a great night, have an American night.”

Aye, yai, yai.

Then there was the scene when Burgundy decided to be the first show to broadcast a local car chase live, in an effort to take away attention from an important and much more relevant interview on a competing channel. That is broadcast journalism at its most sensational and lowest point.

You guessed it – their plan worked. The show became the most popular on the network, and changed the face of America’s broadcast news landscape. Yes, I know, it’s a movie. But, if it wasn’t a great personification of how actual cable “news” shows impact American opinion, I don’t know a better way to explain it.

Maybe a 2012 survey from Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey will help. “What you know depends on what you watch: Current events knowledge across popular news sources” was a follow-up survey from the university’s 2011 PublicMind™ poll and showed that National Public Radio (NPR), Sunday morning political talk shows and even The Daily Show with Jon Stewart were more informative news sources than partisan outlets, such as Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.

In fact, out of 1,185 people surveyed nationwide, those who identified as having watched only one of those political news sources was less likely to correctly answer a series of national and international current events questions than someone who identified as having watched no news at all.

The average person could answer 1.8 out of four questions correctly on international news, and 1.6 out of five questions on domestic matters.

The results showed that people who didn’t watch any news at all could, on average, correctly answer 1.22 of the questions about domestic politics, either by guessing or from their existing knowledge.

Here’s the real kicker – someone who only watched Fox News (on average) could only answer 1.04 national questions correctly. NPR consumers got 1.51 questions correct and Daily Show viewers got 1.42 questions correct. The findings were similar for international questions.

Additionally, the survey noted the impact of the “ideologically-based” sources on the audience that consumed the information. Liberals, for example, did better on the questions when gleaning information from MSNBC; same with conservatives with Fox News. But, moderates and liberals who watch Fox News were worse at answering the questions.

Dan Cassino, political scientist and poll analyst, was quoted in the survey about the impact of the partisan sources on news knowledge.

“Ideological news sources, like Fox and MSNBC, are really just talking to one audience. This is solid evidence that if you’re not in that audience, you’re not going to get anything out of watching them,” he said in the survey.

Read the full survey results.

Reporting Truth is More Important Than Speed

When you work as a reporter at a small community newspaper, you learn early on that making a mistake – grammatical, factual or otherwise – will typically earn you a public flogging by way of scathing letter to the editor. So, you double- and triple-check your facts before printing.

But, something has happened in this 24/7 news cycle and Twitter-as-news cycle. Accuracy and truth in reporting has become less important than being the first to break a story.

I was shocked to observe it happening during the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. For example: The name of the shooter most news outlets had been using all day was the wrong name (it was the shooter’s brother). The first victim – the shooter’s mother – wasn’t, in fact, a teacher at that school. At one point there was a second shooter, and then there wasn’t.

Bad information. Just plain wrong. But it was out there and people were repeating it. Re-tweeting it.

It seems history is repeating itself with the Boston Marathon attack.

Shortly after the blasts, one news outlet said 17 people were killed. We all know that the actual number is three. Another outlet reported that a Saudi national was in custody and being guarded at a local hospital as a suspect. It turns out the innocent man was held down by frantic people in the crowd who thought he’d had something to do with it. He was never in police custody as a suspect; just recovering at a local hospital, like so many others.

Then, two days after the bombings, news outlets and social media erupted that a suspect had been arrested. An hour later: No arrests. It wasn’t until the Boston Police Department and FBI confirmed there had been no arrest made in the attack that the claims died down.

It dawned on me during the early moments of the Boston Marathon attack that as news consumers, we’re all part of the problem. We all want the information as quickly as possible. We re-tweet and share on Facebook the moment things are announced, whether or not stories contain a credible source. An “unnamed” or “unofficial” source does not count as credible, people.

Like so many Americans, Sandy Hook will always be on my heart. As a journalist, my mind will also linger on the shooter’s brother, who not only lost his family and has to live with the pain his brother caused, but whose name was vilified for the better part of a day, despite his innocence.

In the future, do your own fact-checking and wait for a named source. Contact the news outlet to let them know you value accuracy over rapidity.

It’s time to demand better.

There’s Only So Much (Political Advertising) a Person Can Take

Who doesn’t enjoy a good campaign commercial? With politicians lambasting their opponents, blaming them for the recession, mortgage failure, tax crisis, Midwest drought and McDonald’s taking away the McRib sandwich (okay, those last two are a bit facetious – obviously no one controls the weather), what’s not to love?

And no doubt you’re already saturated with political campaigns. “How can this be?,” you proclaim. “It’s only August!”

You are not wrong in your exasperation. The sheer number of television campaign advertisements shown so far this year is shocking (with three months to go before the election, even) and the amount of money spent by candidates and Super PACs is astounding.

Think you’ve had enough? Be glad you don’t live in Ohio. Or Florida. Or North Carolina. The money spent on the presidential election alone in this cycle has been $37.2 million in Ohio on TV ads; $36.3 million in Florida; and $20.4 million in North Carolina.

In fact, across nine “battleground” states (the three listed, along with Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire), the presidential campaigns and Super PACs have spent $174 million on television spots alone. And that amount was just for nine states through the beginning of July.

Let me put that into perspective: According to ESPN, in 2012 the average cost for a 30-second television ad during the Super Bowl was $3.5 million. That $174 million spent so far on presidential advertisements in nine states equals about 50 Super Bowl commercials. (Unfortunately, politicians don’t include the Budweiser Clydesdales or barking dogs dressed as "Star Wars" characters in their ads.)

It’s not just which states you are in, but also the networks you watch. For instance, if you are a regular Fox News viewer, chances are you’ve seen a number of the 479,055 advertisements that have aired on the network thus far. CNN is next with 191,027 campaign ads and another news network, MSNBC, aired 75,207, according to NCC Media.

You can’t really avoid it by changing the channel, either. ESPN, TNT, USA, Lifetime, HGTV, and the Weather Channel, to name a few, top the list of number of ads aired this election cycle. Even Food Network viewers can’t escape the barrage (33,118 ads so far interspersed between Paula Deen and Bobby Flay).

It’s safe to say that as the election draws closer, we will see even more of these ads. But, are they effective? Americans that are planning to vote most likely have decided which candidate they will support – but there are always individuals that can be wooed at the last minute.

One thing is for sure, however: The broadcast television industry must really love election time.

CBO Calls Stimulus Resounding Success… I Mean Failure (I Don’t Understand Things)

As a mushy moderate, I’m in the unfortunate position of actually trying to seek out facts when it comes to economic policy — so contrived sound bites from people who are paid to BS me for a living don’t really do it for me (my apologies to Fox News and MSNBC). So, if you will, please take this brief journey with me as I try to sift through analysis on the impact of the federal stimulus package — all based on from what I can glean is the exact same report from the Congressional Budget Office, mind you.

Jay Bookman of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contends… the CBO says it was a "major success":

The Congressional Budget Office has released its latest assessment of the 2009 stimulus package and the economic impact of its various components.

According to the CBO analysis of stimulus provisions:

They raised real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) by between 0.3 percent and 1.9 percent,

  • They lowered the unemployment rate by between 0.2 percentage points and 1.3 percentage points,
  • They increased the number of people employed by between 0.4 million and 2.4 million, and
  • They increased the number of full-time-equivalent jobs by 0.5 million to 3.3 million. (Increases in FTE jobs include shifts from part-time to full-time work or overtime and are thus generally larger than increases in the number of employed workers.)

 Two other points:

  •  The CBO estimates that the impact of the stimulus will continue to be felt over the next year, increasing GDP by up to 0.8 percent next year and creating up to 1.1 million jobs over what it would have been.
  • The longterm economic impacts of increased borrowing to fund the stimulus will be minimal or nonexistent. “In contrast to its positive near-term macroeconomic effects, ARRA will reduce output slightly in the long run, CBO estimates—by between zero and 0.2 percent after 2016,” its economists predict.

The Washington Times relays… Nay, the CBO says it was but a short-term fix, but will cause negative long-term consequences, sucka!:

The Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday downgraded its estimate of the benefits of President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package, saying it may have sustained as few as 700,000 jobs at its peak last year and that over the long run it will actually be a net drag on the economy.

CBO said that while the Recovery Act boosted the economy in the short run, the extra debt that the stimulus piled up “crowds out” private investment and “will reduce output slightly in the long run — by between 0 and 0.2 percent after 2016.”

The analysis confirms what CBO predicted before the stimulus passed in February 2009, though the top-end decline of two-tenths of a percent is actually deeper than the agency predicted back then.

All told, the stimulus did boost jobs and the economy in the short run, according to CBO’s models. At the peak of spending from July through September 2010, it sustained anywhere from 700,000 to 3.6 million, which lowered the unemployment rate by between four-tenths of a percent to 2 percent.

The Obama administration had promised 3.5 million jobs would be produced at the peak of spending.

For this current quarter CBO said the stimulus is sustaining between 600,000 and 1.8 million jobs, which has improved the unemployment rate by as much as 1 percent versus what it otherwise would have been.

The White House did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday afternoon, but officials there previously have said the Recovery Act stopped the economy from falling into another Great Depression…

CBO has re-evaluated the stimulus every three months, and its estimates for the total cost have varied. Initially the package was pegged at $787 billion, rose as high as $862 billion at one point, and is now projected to be $825 billion once all the money is paid out.

The nonpartisan agency also has changed its model for the spending’s impact on the economy, and the new calculations show the Recovery Act did less than originally projected.

CBO said it has concluded there is less of an indirect multiplier effect of federal spending.

Those changes caused it to drop its estimates for total employment sustained by the spending in 2011 from between 1.2 million and 3.7 million down to between 600,000 and 3.6 million.

As for the long-term situation, CBO said its basic assumption is that each dollar of additional federal debt crowds out about a third of a dollar’s worth of private domestic capital.

CBO said there is no crowding out in the short term, which is why the Recovery Act boosts the economy in the near term.

So, in closing, the federal stimulus package was clearly a wonderful/dreadful initiative.

FCC Report: Media Needs to Serve Somebody

There was big news in the world of journalism yesterday (for those who follow such things and/or care what the Federal Communications Commission has to say) when the FCC released a 470-page report on the state of the U.S. media. In summary, their conclusion wasn’t exactly a positive one, with the overall finding seeming to be that American media isn’t serving the public. What’s most interesting — or perhaps most telling — is that the Democratic and Republican commissioners seemed to have two entirely different takes on the report. Imagine that. National Journal reports

Federal regulations designed to ensure that broadcasters serve the public interest are broken, allowing stations to dump local-news reporting and lowering standards for news ranging from international developments to government scandals, the Federal Communications Commission said on Thursday.

"Over time, court rulings, constitutional concerns, and FCC decisions have left a system that is unclear and ineffective,” the agency said in a long-awaited report on the U.S. media. “The current system operates neither as a free market nor as an effectively regulated one; and it does not achieve the public-interest goals set out by Congress or the FCC.”

The 470-page study turns the tables, with the FCC reporting on media outlets that usually are the ones doing the reporting.

To promote public-interest programming on public airwaves, the report recommends more disclosure from broadcasters. It also calls for C-SPAN-like public-affairs networks in each state.

Too often, the report asserts, the FCC rubber-stamps broadcast licenses without ensuring that the outlets involved cover the local community.

Further, the proliferation of Internet-based news outlets has not improved the quality of journalism, the researchers found.

“It turns out you can have an abundance of media outlets and a shortage of real news,” said the report’s lead author, former journalist Steven Waldman. At the root of the growing dearth of quality reporting, he concluded, is the fact that advertising is increasingly disconnected from content.

“If ad rates were the same online as they are in print, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Waldman said. In a first for the agency, the report urges lawmakers to consider the “positive benefits” of online tracking when drafting privacy legislation. Such tracking, the report states, offers a possible way for news websites to attract more ad revenue.

To help strengthen the public service potential of media, the report makes six broad recommendations: emphasize online disclosure as a pillar of FCC media policy; make it easier for citizens to monitor government by putting more information online; consider directing more existing government spending to local media; foster an environment for nonprofit media outlets to succeed; promote broadband access; and ensure that media policy helps historically underserved communities.

The highly anticipated report didn’t go far enough for Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who has long called for tighter public-interest regulations.

“Enlightened policy that promotes the public interest is basically glossed over by the staff report as having been tried and failed,” Copps said at Thursday’s commission meeting, where the findings were presented.

He took the report’s authors to task for “tinkering around the edges” by not calling for major overhauls. “In the recommendations, there is some hedging about whether all that consolidation we are living with today—all these local, independent stations bought up by mega-media interests—has been good or bad,” Copps said.

But Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell said that the report highlights the competitive and innovative nature of the media market. Regulations and policies will only hurt, he argued. “The government should keep its heavy hands off of journalism,” McDowell said.

McDowell stressed that the report is only the beginning of a debate over potential solutions.

The findings contained few surprises in their evaluation of the media market, noting that many traditional news outlets have been decimated by economic challenges and shifting technology.

So what’s your take?

Luntz Described as ‘Evil Cleaver’

Here’s a recent description of pollster Frank Luntz, courtesy of a political blog: "the boyish charlatan who’s been concocting spin for conservative candidates and causes for what seems like a century now, but who still manages to look like the evil Cleaver brother."

Not exactly a Luntz fan, huh? But love him or hate him, he’s always interesting. And he returns for the Indiana Chamber’s 2011 Legislative Reception and Dinner. A few topics likely to emerge: 2012 presidential contenders, how serious is Washington about debt reduction, state legislative battles (think Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio to begin with) and more.

Here’s a BizVoice story when we had the opportunity to sit down with Luntz in 2008. I’ve heard him a few times now; can’t say I always agree with everything he has to say. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it.

See and hear for yourself on March 16.

The Passion of the Politics

Earlier this week, Minerva, Ohio City Councilman Phil Davison made an impassioned plea (that is now getting viral acclaim) to garner his party’s nomination to become Stark County treasurer. His approach is emotive, but he makes some valid points about… Albert Einstein and weaponry.

"… DRASTIC MEASURES. YES!!! WHO SAID THAT?!?!"

My only criticism is that he didn’t close with: "Good! Day!"

Oh, and Davison unfortunately did not win the nomination.

Advice for Tiger from a Communications Consultant

Communications consultant Fraser Seitel offered some useful advice for Tiger Woods regarding his current PR crisis. Whether you think Tiger’s dirty laundry should be aired or not, this advice could also be useful for any business that finds itself in a PR pinch:

So, my friend, as much as you value your privacy and as distasteful as the reality of this awfulness is, you really have no choice.

With apologies, here is the crisis management mantra to which you must abide:

 #1. Go Public
You can’t not. Those TV trucks outside your gates, and the Cro-Magnon creeps attempting to scale the wall around your community ain’t goin’ nowhere till you come out. I know you’re used to being hounded by paparazzi, but this is another dimension. You’ve got a “secret” they want. And they get paid only if they pry that secret loose. So forget about maintaining an “allow us our privacy” stocism. Nothing in the world of global icons is “private” — especially when there is the whiff of sex in the air. You’ve got to go public.

#2. Do It Yourself
When companies get in trouble, crisis managers typically advise CEOs to let spokespeople handle the explanation as long as possible. Once the crisis is escalated to the CEO level, you can’t throttle it back to a lesser light. On the other hand, some corporate crises — deaths, kidnappings, massive layoffs, etc. — must be handled by the top man or woman, right out of the box.

This case is of the latter variety. You can’t finesse this one through a spokesman. Only one person can suitably explain what happened and why. You.

#3. Do it Tuesday
The longer you let this linger, the greater the fervor among the reportorial bottom-feeders to bring you down. And trust me, they will.

You have a previously booked press conference scheduled Tuesday at the tournament you’re hosting in Thousand Oaks, CA. Use that opportunity to tell the tale and clear the air.

If you refuse to talk about the incident or, horror of horrors, cancel the press conference, you will learn first-hand the truth of the journalistic adage, “Hell hath no fury like a tabloid reporter scorned.” Continue reading

Stossel to Economic Club: Innovation Will Die as Government Grows

John Stossel, former ABC journalist and soon-to-be host on Fox Business Network, has won 19 Emmys for making viewers think. He did just that today as well, addressing nearly 950 attendees of the Economic Club of Indiana luncheon.

The key focus of today’s discussion was health care reform. Stossel notes his hesitation at referring to "Obamacare" as reform due to his contention that it won’t really improve anything. Prior to the speech, a video was shown in which he points out that Lasik eye surgery costs have dropped significantly over time in the free market, and tied that to the fact that the surgery is not covered by insurance (adding that costs of procedures that are covered have climbed over the same span).

"Obama says the current (health care) system is unsustainable, and he’s right," Stossel offered. "Medicare is $36 trillion in the hole."

Stossel referred to the program as a Ponzi scheme, adding, "We locked Bernie Madoff up for this."

He contended that though some may claim Europe has been successful with its government-oriented health care, the continent is reaping benefits of American innovation when it comes to procedures and technology.

"If you ask doctors what have been the most significant developments in the past 20 years… most are from the United States," Stossel said. "Europe is freeloading on American innovation. If the government gets more involved, the innovation will stop."

Additionally, he offered an indictment of community rating, quipping, "If they did that for car insurance, you’d be paying the same as Lindsay Lohan."

Possible solutions from Stossel included allowing insurance companies to offer different types of plans for different people, allowing those plans to cross state lines, and to promote tort reform (touting a "loser pays" system, something he claims the rest of the world already does).

When asked how he developed his "brand" as a libertarian and contrarian in the media, he claimed, "I think it comes from not going to journalism school. I just thought about what I would want to watch." 

For more from Stossel on these and other matters, see his July op-ed from Reason magazine and check your local listings for his new show.

Economic Club Speaker was Chided for ‘Outlandish’ Economic Predictions — That Came True

Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, was widely criticized by financial professionals and journalists for predicting a global financial crisis more than two years ago. Byrne, a native of Fort Wayne who received his education from Cambridge and Stanford, warned of a market meltdown perpetrated by cheap credit and writing checks on the bank accounts of future generations. The man who took Overstock.com from a half-million dollars in annual revenue to nearly $1 billion annually, takes little pleasure in accurately predicting our current economic situation but continues to advocate for what he feels are positive reforms – specifically to the controversial practice of short selling stocks.

Byrne will appear at the Economic Club of Indiana luncheon in Indianapolis on November 5. Get your tickets today.