4 Rules For a More Grown-Up Cable News Culture
His sudden post-Sandy Hook notoriety is no accident, however.
The average American doesn’t know what a “red top” is or realize that the now-defunct and disgraced News of the World was the British National Enquirer but with Princess Margaret taking on the role usually played by Bigfoot -- and Morgan serving as Eavesdropper in Chief.
Before that, Morgan abused his lofty position at the Mirror to do some insider trading, for which his wrist was merely slapped. He wasn’t so lucky after publishing hoax photos of British troops allegedly torturing Iraqi prisoners—that stunt cost him his job.
Yet Morgan keeps getting new ones, his stint as King’s replacement being the latest and greatest.
At least that was the idea.
He signed a three-year, $8-million contract with CNN, but Morgan’s ratings aren’t impressive. He draws half the viewers of Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow in the same time slot.
With his contract up for renewal this year, Morgan must have been itching for attention, maybe wishing for one of those nigh on unimpeachable “moral panics” of the sort that keep those British tabloids in business.
Along came Adam Lanza. (...)
With his contract renewal a crapshoot, Piers Morgan is clearly auditioning for his next gig, on a stage built with the blood and bones of dead children.
Let's survey the cable news scene briefly, shall we?
Mark Steyn calls CNN "the airport channel," just another bit of low-grade torture we're forced to endure whenever we're obligated to fly.
What with Al Gore selling Current TV to Al-Jazeera, would this be a bad time to mention that Fox News is partially Saudi owned?
I wandered into the living room during the wall-to-wall Sandy Hook coverage to find my mother-in-law tuned in to MSNBC, just in time to hear one of the presenters say something like, "Why is American culture so evil, anyhow?" (I'm paraphrasing because I've tried to erase her statement from my brain.)
Traditional news delivery via print and broadcasting, with their deadline-oriented format and relative slowness, have their own built-in flaws.
But in the deadline-free cable news biz, it's always 6 p.m., and that red light never switches off.
This 24/7 news cycle gives cable a bottomless appetite for sensational (and highly visual) breaking "news" of questionable import. ("Balloon boy"? Seriously?)
Countless critics have already pointed out that cable news rushes to judgement, with sometimes fatal consequences. (See, "Jewell, Richard.")
Case in point: Almost everything you think you know about Columbine is wrong.
And here's a list of some of the misinformation you were fed about Sandy Hook in those first few hours.
Newspapers at least make the occasional feint towards old-fashioned respectability by issuing the odd correction. You'll rarely hear such apologies on cable news, probably because they'd take up so much air time.
Did the relentless coverage of Waco infuriate Timothy McVeigh to the point of homicide? Do we really need to watch cannibalism in progress?
Cable news in its current format -- the breathless pace, the reliance upon what seems to be one rather odd individual's worn-out, twenty-year-old Rolodex for "expert" guests (Dick Morris!?) -- has been with us since CNN launched in 1980.
Despite all the criticism and parody, that format is so entrenched I doubt it can be dramatically altered.
However, if you'll forgive a foreigner for boasting, we Canadians might be able to offer a few tips.
The Sun News Network debuted up here a few years ago. Dubbed "Fox News North" by liberal detractors even before it aired, Sun, being new, had no "bad habits" to unlearn, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to start from scratch and thus avoid some of its predecessors' mistakes.
They operate on a budget that probably wouldn't keep CNN running for a day.
Yet Americans who've watched Sun segments via YouTube, my blog, and elsewhere typically exclaim, "Wow! Fox News wouldn't even do that! Not even John Stossel is THAT cool!"
Here's what they're talking about... (LANGUAGE WARNING for some of the videos below)
#4: Lighten Up and Go Crazy
That's Ezra Levant.
A few years back, he filmed his interrogation by a Canadian bureaucrat -- he calls her a "thug" -- after he "illegally" published the "Mohammed cartoons" in his magazine.
The video went viral and made already-famous-in-Canada Levant an international free-speech superstar.
Not surprisingly, he now has his own nightly show on Sun News, where he's distinguished himself as a workhorse who is unapologetic about his contrarian views.
The opening monologue he writes for every one of his 200 shows a year runs somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 words each, he notes. Add the on-air interviews, radio appearances, public speeches, books and columns, and his annual word count is easily in the millions. “I regard the occasional error as a natural side effect of me generally flooring it all the time,” he says. Press him on whether there are any such “mistakes” he wishes he hadn’t made, and the contrition becomes even harder to detect. “I’m sure there are hundreds of things,” he says. “But none of them weigh heavily on my mind.”
Here's Ezra in action:
Levant causes trouble pretty much every day.
Liberals file complaint after complaint about him to our version of the FCC.
Here's how that tends to go:
So how does all this prankish "going crazy" fit in with suggestions for creating a more "grown-up" cable news environment?
Well, what could be more helpful to the growth and maturity of cable than for it to shake off its tired "echo chamber" formatting and content, and risk offending the FCC, sponsors, and yes, even loyal viewers?
Anyway, Sun News has done other zany, one-of-a-kind stuff like staging a celebrity boxing match between Canada's John F. Kennedy, Jr. and a young senator who happens to be an Algonquin libertarian.
Alas, the Indian lost. But hey, it was for charity.
#3: Toss Out That Tired Old Rolodex
Why do cable news shows drag the same "experts" on the air over and over again?
Because when you're booking a TV show, especially on short notice, an idiot who agrees to come on is better than a genius who doesn't.
Yes, politics (personal and electoral) has a lot to do with it.
So does laziness and the relentless pressure of a ticking clock.
Having one-tenth the population of the United States (and far less money to throw around than Fox News and the like) should mean it is ten times harder for Sun News to round up decent guests.
However, satellites and Skype allow Canadian viewers to finally see friendly interviews with Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, and many other "controversial" people via Sun.
Non-celebrity Sun News guests don't necessarily live close to the studio (don't laugh...), or have plenty of free time and a bunch of letters after their name, or look gorgeous, or sound like they've taken way too much media training.
They might just be ordinary people possessed of extraordinary experience and expertise, relating information that the rest of our media either won't touch, or reports in the back pages, with barely concealed bias.
#2: Keep Annoying Enemies to a Respectable Minimum
There's "fair and balanced" and then there's just plain stupid.
Sure, they finally got rid of Alan Colmes, but don't you still switch off Fox News when Hannity calls Al Sharpton "a great American" for the hundredth time, or when Bill O'Reilly admits to socializing with the guy?
Sun News knows that.
Canadians have to listen to loud, ignorant progressives on every other TV channel, day and night.
They come to Sun to see and hear folks who reflect their values for a change.
Sure, Sun hired probably Canada's most hated Liberal Party operative to provide (very) occasional "balance."
But when he gets out of hand, they just cut off his mic.
#1: Hire and Utilize Your Obligatory Englishman Wisely
Which brings us back to Piers Morgan.
Without his English accent, Morgan would never have snagged Larry King's old job.
His journalism credentials are dubious; he's better known to Americans as a somewhat insufferable reality TV refugee.
Sun News, on the other hand, hired a real British-born journalist, Michael Coren.
Among other things, Coren worked at the New Statesman alongside Christopher Hitchens, has written bestselling books on lofty topics, and won numerous broadcasting awards.
He's no stranger to controversy, either.
Unlike Morgan, however, he has as many loyal fans as he has vehement critics.
To the best of my knowledge, nobody's started a petition to have Coren run out of the country. In fact, he recently received the prestigious Queen's Jubilee Medal for "services to media."
Michael Coren is also genuinely learned and witty, not simply a poseur like Piers.
I hesitate to say much more.
Someone at CNN might read this and hire Coren away from Sun once Morgan gets dumped or deported.
I guess that would be an irresistible career move, but we'd hate to see him or any of our Sun News favorites say goodbye.
Previously from Kathy Shaidle: