Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Failure of 24-Hour News Channels

Since CNN first demonstrated the 24-hour news network’s potential for success during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, millions of Americans have tuned into it and its rivals, FOX and MSNBC, for up-to-date coverage of breaking news and analysis of significant stories at any time during the day. However, a brief examination of the coverage given to recent events by these three networks gives the impression that, as institutions, they do not view the journalistic objective of keeping the public accurately informed as their chief concern. Instead, insightful, accurate journalism takes a back seat to the generation of ratings and revenue through sensationalizing particular stories while relegating other pertinent, and often more important events, to a few fragmented sentences scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

During Hurricane Katrina, the news networks televised the devastation and tragedy played out in New Orleans with such effectiveness that their coverage prompted a public outcry for action. In the process, this coverage highlighted the poverty plaguing many residents of the city. Regrettably such widespread poverty is not a phenomenon confined to New Orleans, and the growth of America’s underprivileged class undermines the strength and vitality of the nation as a whole. But this social stratification has received scant attention since the flood waters receded in New Orleans. Because the 24-hour news networks only cover those stories they believe will keep viewers in their seats, they tend to portray events such as the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina as an anomaly, rather than the result of underlying systemic problems, as doing so would require actual analysis of those causal societal problems. Failure to report on significant societal issues such as the desperation and destitute living conditions of millions of Americans essentially deprives the general public of pertinent information relating to the state of the nation.

While an event such as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is clearly worthy of such coverage, industry favorites such as a missing suburbanite child, a run-away bride, or the legal woes of certain Hollywood celebrities are less worthy of the attention lavished by the news networks. Michael Jackson’s child molestation trial and Natalie Holloway’s disappearance in Aruba each dominated the airwaves for several weeks; however, no corresponding stories are forthcoming regarding a comprehensive examination of the frequency of child abuse cases or the staggering number of child disappearances and abductions that occur throughout the United States each year.

Coverage of the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq serves as a vivid reminder that the news networks continue to subscribe to the broadcast news proverb of “if it bleeds, it leads”. Most of the 24-hour news networks’ coverage of the war in Iraq has dwelt upon casualties sustained by the American military and the Iraqi populace. Without question, so much loss of life is tragic — to date 2,238 American troops killed and another 15,955 wounded, while Iraqi civilian deaths are estimated anywhere between 38,000 and 200,000, with possibly another 300,000 injured. Casualties have become a metric for defining the success or failure of an effort without a corresponding examination of the larger context in which they occurred. There has been a lack of real in-depth analysis of Iraq’s history, the rise of sectarianism and tribalism; the difference between insurgents, foreign jihadis, and militiamen; the substance of new Iraqi constitution, the results of recent parliamentary elections, the state of the Iraqi economy, or the effects of the reconstruction effort upon individual Iraqis. However, part of the reason for superficial coverage is almost certainly due to the difficulties journalists reportedly experience in traveling throughout the country. Yet journalists embedded with American military forces in some of the more pacific parts of Iraq almost certainly have the opportunity to investigate and report on these sorts of human interest stories. Additionally, there are many experts on Middle Eastern affairs scattered throughout the various think tanks, colleges, and universities from which knowledge and insight could be drawn to offer more comprehensive analysis instead of interviews with the typical standard fare of punditry substituting for experienced analysis of comprehensive strategies for stabilizing Iraq.

Comprehensive journalism and analysis are also exceedingly deficient in covering legislative action and debate of the U.S. Congress, as well as rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. Refusal to regularly disseminate political debate and legislative action or court rulings that will directly affect the American people represents a severe dereliction of the media’s duty to report and keep the public well-informed. Although cable channels such as CSPAN televise the daily legislative activities of the House of Representatives and Senate, these channels typically refrain from offering analysis and dissection of the legislative process or discussion of how particular bills or Supreme Court decisions will affect the public. For this reason, one might reasonably expect the news networks to devote their journalistic efforts to substantive reporting and analysis of Congressional activity and Supreme Court rulings, such as the renewal of the Patriot Act, appropriations for the Defense Budgeting and Labor HHS bills, or Supreme Court cases involving imminent domain, desegregation, or the right of habeas corpus. However, as of late, coverage of the Supreme Court remains minimal – superficial at best, while Congressional debate and hearings are limited to a few minutes of live broadcast followed by political speculation without substantive analysis of the issue.

However, broadcast media networks point to ratings and various studies to explain their programming choices – suggesting that it is the American people who prefer the sensationalist coverage as opposed to viewing newscasts with a wider scope and breadth of information presented. Advertisers and particular groups such as Mediascope, a non-profit media research and policy organization, contend that "market research suggests that stories of crime and violence increase newscasts' ratings." Yet, other independent studies have shown that the American public would much rather view quality programming as opposed to what the broadcast media perceives as preferable news coverage. The Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded that, "many of the conventional ideas about what works in TV news -- high story count, flashy production, emotion over substance, targeting -- are demonstrably wrong." Essentially, the cable broadcast stations are using a false premise as an excuse to continue to inundate the American public with sensationalist and deficient news coverage.

The result of this trend of delivering shallow and sensationalized coverage by the 24-hour news networks creates an overall lack of awareness and understanding of important issues and events by the majority of the American public. This failure to provide all pertinent information relating to the various issues and events that, to one degree or another, could affect the daily lives of the general public, presents a significant danger to the future viability of the U.S. for the obvious reason that in a representative democracy, it is the people who ultimately decide the future direction of the nation through their choice of elected officials at the ballot box. FOX, CNN, and MSNBC have a responsibility, as significant media outlets, to provide accurate and up-to-date news and in-depth analysis of significant -- and sometimes not so seemingly significant -- issues that the American people want and need to be aware of in order to understand what the federal government is doing on their behalf. Until this trend of sensationalized coverage and inadequate analysis of important events is replaced with wide-ranging dissemination of information and greater scrutiny of the key issues, the American people will never posses the power that comes from true knowledge and understanding to hold the nation’s leaders and judges accountable for their actions.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Rethinking American Policy in Central Asia

The enemy of my enemy is my friend................not so much.

With the authoritarian regimes of Central Asia amassing less than stellar human rights records, it is small wonder that Islamic fundamentalist groups have found supporters and willing recruits among the increasingly desperate and destitute peoples throughout the region. The regimes' oppressive and brutal tactics may root out members of some of the more militant groups, but peaceful Islamic movements have also been caught in the crossfire as well as many innocent civilians. The continued abuse of human rights along with bureaucratic and economic mismanagement have contributed to an increasingly greater number of desperate people willing to support and/or fight for any alternative to the current regimes.....including fundamentalist groups committed to waging jihad against the West.

If the U.S. intends to make significant progress in the War on Terror, it should reduce the ability of Islamic militant groups to recruit followers by pressuring these regimes to initiate greater democratic reforms. Rooting out corruption, bureaucratic waste, and fiscal instability while promoting greater political freedoms and social programs are just a few of the critical elements required to create greater peace and stability throughout the region and diminish the appeal of militant Islamic groups.

Also, U.S. perceived largesse towards these corrupt, dictatorial, and dogmatic regimes only serves to further tarnish America's credibility as an exporter of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. In this war, American soft power abroad is as vital to battling Al Qaeda and other offshoot groups as much as military and intelligence gathering capabilities. Pressuring Central Asian regimes for greater reform will help to repair America's image abroad --- a necessity for garnering cooperation for any multilateral efforts in the future.

Response to Governor Strickland's State of the State Address

The education of children should never represent a partisan issue. Protecting America's future by ensuring it's children are healthy and well-educated should be one of the highest priorities. Yet, as of late, this lesson seems to be lost on many policymakers at all levels of government. Ensuring America's youth is equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to better their own lives and communities around them appears to no longer be tantamount to the discussion of education funding.

No more is this evident than in the state of Ohio. Since the passage of legislation in 1998 effectively allowing for creation of charter schools, focusing on ensuring quality education for Ohio's children has been overshadowed by partisan politics, egos, and greed. The state's teachers unions have gone to great lengths to ensure Democrats remain committed to dismantling the charter school system, while some of those on the other side of the argument have lined the coiffures of the Republicans for their own selfish and short-sighted interests.

The recently elected Governor Ted Strickland continued this tradition of partisan and petty political wrangling when he announced at the State of the State Address earlier this year that his budget would include a moratorium on charter schools and abolishment of voucher program. Governor Strickland may believe that he is saving Ohio's educational system and repaying the teachers union at the same time by attempting to reinvigorate the public school districts with a fresh infusion of cash at the expense of charter schools and the voucher program; but many indicators suggest the status quo is not providing students with the requisite tools to be competitive in the work force in areas such as science and technology, mathematics, business, and innovation on a national and international level.

Regrettably, many kinks still remain in the charter school system as the program is still in its infancy. Yet, attempting to effectively "snuff" it out prematurely could have long-term consequences on the future of the state. In fairness to Ohio's children, charter schools should be afforded the necessary resources and reasonable amount of time to succeed or fail in improving the state's educational opportunities. Considering that a majority of the student body in most charter schools is often comprised of severely impoverished, at risk youth with a learning disability or mental handicap -- children whom the public schools chose to forget about -- the movement should be given due consideration to show funding well spent. Public schools have had a considerable amount of time to produce students capable of competing on a national and international level as well as reaching out to those students with special needs; and charter schools should be affored at least a legitimate opportunity to contribute to Ohio's future.