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Jewish World Review June 15, 2000 / 12 Sivan, 5760

Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly
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Consumer Reports

Network Snooze -- THIS WEEK, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released one of its periodic reports on the state of things in the land of the establishment media, and as usual, the state was wretched. This is cheering news, fresh confirmation that there is a G-dand that justice prevails.

Specifically, the report found that only 48 percent of Americans follow national news closely most of the time, a new low. Only 31 percent of younger adults say they enjoy keeping up with the news. In newspapers, which have long suffered from declining readership, the most recent drop has been modest. But in television news, which has been the great power among the modern media states, the collapse has been astonishing for its speed and depth. Viewership of the network news programs has, as Dan Rather might say, fallen faster than a drunken pig off a greased tightrope.

In 1994, 74 percent of those surveyed reported watching a news broadcast or news-based program on television during the preceding day. This year, only 55 percent said they had watched TV news "yesterday." Viewing time has similarly declined. In 1994, 37 percent of those surveyed reported watching at least one hour of TV news on the preceding day. The corresponding figure now is 23 percent.

Viewership of the networks' primary news programs, the evening broadcasts, has likewise pig-plummeted. Only 50 percent of respondents this year said they watched the evening broadcasts, compared with 59 percent in 1998, 65 percent in 1995 and 71 percent in 1987. The percentage of regular watchers of the evening broadcasts has fallen to 30 percent, half of what it was in 1993. Only 17 percent of those younger than 30 watch the nightly broadcasts regularly. In local news, the trend is likewise dramatically downward: Fifty-six percent of adults watch local TV news regularly, compared with 77 percent in 1993.

Where have all the sheepies gone? Naturally, to the Internet. One-third of adults now regularly get news online; among those younger than 30, 46 percent go online for news at least once a week. Moreover, as more and more Americans use the Internet regularly, more and more regular Internet users are learning to reject television news; two years ago, 35 percent of Internet users said they regularly watched a nightly network news broadcast; now only 26 percent retain the old habit.

All this tells us, of course, that the Internet is the coming thing--but more too. It tells us that the marketplace works and that a majority of people are not utter fools. Consider the standing of the oldest of old media, the newspaper, compared with television news. The percentage of adults who say they read a daily newspaper regularly is down this year from 68 percent to 63 percent, but that is still more than double the comparable figure for regular viewership of the network nightly news.

Consider also the health of cable's targeted information channels. About 33 percent of viewers now get their news from CNBC (for investors), MSNBC (for the young and the Netty) or the Fox News Cable Channel (for relief from the network news' rote liberal bias). ESPN, the sports channel, regularly draws 23 percent of the public, while 32 percent visit the Weather Channel. Thirty-seven percent regularly watch the History Channel or the Discovery Channel.

What these diverse survivors and thrivers have in common is that they all offer information the consumer wants or needs and cannot get elsewhere. Even a bad newspaper gives readers (for little money) an amalgam of information not available in any other form, including Web-based: at least some international and national news, substantial community news and commentary, weather, sports, stock data, feature stories. The niche cable channels likewise provide their focused customers with information that is both substantial and relevant to those consumers' sensibilities.

By contrast, network news offers more and more junk. The decline of the tube isn't just about the rise of the Net; it is also about the decline of the tube. Americans dropped the habit of watching TV news as TV gave up any serious effort to report the news, with the networks largely shutting down their national and international reporting operations to present faux newscasts cobbled together from live-disaster coverage, bits of rip and read and second-tier stories copied from that morning's New York Times. And what news there is isn't trusted. Pew reports that only one-third of adults say they believe most of what they see on ABC, CBS and NBC. With their chronic sensationalism and their chronic ideological bias, the network news divisions have forfeited trust.

To spend time absorbing information that is both largely irrelevant and untrustworthy is irrational--as now fully half of the American public has figured out.

Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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