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Who decides the news?

Posted by Kara Miller, Culture Club  August 19, 2010 10:47 AM

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At exactly 8:43 last night, there was a fascinating experiment in news-making on the three cable news networks:

-MSNBC was covering the last U.S. combat troops exiting Iraq – complete with live shots from Richard Engel on the ground with the troops. Rachel Maddow was in Baghdad, and Lawrence O’Donnell was in-studio with Keith Olbermann.

-On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly was wrapping up an interview with Ann Coulter by talking about “anchor babies.”

-And CNN, like MSNBC, was covering the exit of combat troops – albeit in a far more political way: correspondent Jessica Yellin was in-studio with anchor Rick Sanchez discussing Iraq's fallout for Obama.

So what was the top new story last night?

A quick check back in the 10 p.m. hour found that MSNBC was still working the Iraq story, Greta Van Susteren was talking to Ken Starr about illegal immigration and his new job at Baylor University, and CNN was discussing the fallout from Laura Schlessinger's use of the "N" word (with guests D. L. Hughley and Al Sharpton).

Were some channels broadcasting real news and others promoting sideshows? Who determines what's a sideshow and what qualifies as genuine, bonafide news?

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage suggested on "Charlie Rose" recently that American news has a tempest-in-a-teapot fixation, often covering the minuscule over the major, the insignificant over the important. Armitage said he gets almost all his news from foreign sources - the BBC, for example - which covers such exotic events as wars in Africa and elections in Europe.

Indeed the right-left bifurcation in our coverage (Fox vs. MSNBC) may be eclipsed in importance by the stunning insignificance of what cable channels so often choose to cover. Was the resignation of Laura Schlesinger one of the world's top stories yesterday? Or the threat of women rushing over the U.S. border to give birth? The end of combat troops came closest, but MSNBC rarely gives that sort of in-depth coverage to Afghanistan, an ongoing war. Moreover, would any cable news channel offer prolonged coverage of a serious war - in the Congo, say - that didn't involve Americans?

In this news climate, I doubt it.

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About the author

Kara Miller is an Assistant Professor of English, specializing in journalism, at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. She also serves as a guest panelist on WGBH-TV's “Beat the Press” and contributes to 89.7 FM WGBH (NPR). More »

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