Saturday, January 7, 2012

The American News Media
An Overview

Much of my coverage of the media concerns the factchecking of specific claims or segments. In this post, I plan to take a big picture look at the American news media by discussing its most influential and farthest reaching news sources. As with virtually all media analysis, my commentary will be completely subjective. Much of my commentary will seem self apparent to my American readers, but for those who do not live in the United States I hope it will serve as a valuable introduction to the American news-media.


National newspapers usually cover important stories with more depth than television news. They also have a smaller audience and thus avoid the unimportant human interest stories that periodically consume TV news. Newspapers were around before any other mode of spreading the news.

The largest circulating newspaper in the United States is the Wall Street Journal. Its reporting is exceptional, but its editorial page is conservative and often fraught with errors. The New York Times is a great newspaper with a liberal editorial page. The Washington Post is famous for breaking the Watergate scandal in the Nixon administration. USA Today and the Los Angeles Times are also credible and influential national newspapers.

Talk Radio

Talk Radio in the United States is known primarily for being racist, inflammatory, and inaccurate.  Most of the most popular talk radio personalities (Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, and Neil Boortz) fall into this category. The most popular talk radio hosts are conservative, but even some of the liberal commentators are known for inflammatory rhetoric that sometimes crosses the line. You have to get farther down the list to hosts like the conservative Laura Ingram or financial advise-giver Dave Ramsey before the hosts become reasonable.

National Public Radio

NPR is my favorite source for news. They cover important topics in depth and from a variety of viewpoints. Their investigative journalism is one of the standard bearers in the industry. I explained why NPR is my favorite news outlet in an earlier post. NPR’s sister outlet, PBS, is also known as public television. Its reporting is very good as well. 

Network Television News

First, let’s get some terminology out the way. A television network is a channel that sends signals over the air in addition to carrying the signal through cable. Thus in technical terms, all TV networks are channels, but not all TV channels are network, some are exclusively cable.

There are three networks that carry national news: ABC, NBC, and CBS. ABC is the most likely to obsess over the latest unimportant human interest story like the Casey Anthony trial or the Conrad Murray trial. They also do the best coverage of poverty as well as the best debunking of deceptive advertising. NBC primarily covers breaking and developing news stories. CBS is best known for its analytical pieces on important public policy issues. Most of CBS’s best work is done on 60 minutes, which does agenda setting investigative journalism as well as the less important, but still interesting, biographical pieces on singers and politicians. ABC and NBC both have shows that imitate the investigative style of 60 minutes.

Each of the networks has programs that fit into distinct categories.  All of them have early newscasts at 4 AM that greatly surpass the quality of the news on their regular morning shows. Each also has morning shows that are known to focus on fashion, celebrity gossip, viral videos, royal weddings, and all other forms of non-fiction not fit to be considered news. CBS’s morning show is the only one that covers important issues with any regularity and it will be reformatted soon with new hosts.

Each network also has an evening newscast that lasts a half hour. Many older people have developed a habit of watching the news at these newscasts at 5:30 from a time when we didn’t have 24 hour news channels. That is a good habit to have, the quality of the evening newscasts are quite high. ABC has a news show that airs at 9 PM called Nightline. It got its start during the Iran hostage crises during the Carter administration.

Each network also has a Sunday news show where they interview politicians and pundits on national politics. They are all high quality.

Cable News

There are three cable news channels that carry news 24/7. Fox News is the conservative channel. Its opinion programming regularly carries inaccurate information about issues of public importance (like the stimulus or climate change) and invents fake scandals through the use of deceptive video editing or outright falsehoods. Its news side is fairly reliable even though it doesn’t do much investigative journalism and is clearly conservative.

CNN is the most balanced cable channel. It has its moments of misconduct, but they are rare and far between. CNN’s best journalist is Anderson Cooper, who is known for his “keeping them honest” segments. I am also a fan of Christine Romans and Ali Velshi because of the economic knowledge they bring to their reporting.

 MSNBC is the liberal channel. Like Fox, its news shows are reliable but slanted. This often comes in the form of inviting on more guests from the political party the channel supports. MSNBC’s opinion hosts make mistakes from time to time, but never invent fake stories out of whole cloth like Fox’s pundits do. I find MSNBC opinion programming to be mostly trustworthy.

Each of the three cable news channels falls for irrelevant court room dramas and celebrity mishaps during their news coverage but not nearly to the degree of NBC and ABC’s network morning shows.  Each channel also does some good work as well.

There is also one other 24 hour cable channel that carries stories some people mistake for news: HLN. They mostly cover courtroom dramas and celebrity mishaps. The things that they cover that are important get at most a three sentence summary, hence the name Headline News.

This is far from every important or enlightening news outlet in the United States. However, they are the largest and most important to understanding the American news landscape.

Author’s Note (5/25/2012): I have written an addendum to this article which contains information about organizations I did not mention in this post. To learn about the Associated Press, Thomas Hartmann, and C-SPAN, click the link above.

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