On the evening of Saturday, December 1, when three bombs went off in Jerusalem, causing mass carnage, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News all pounced on the story, showing footage from Israeli TV accompanied by interviews with Mideast experts. ABC and CBS stayed with their college football games, and NBC remained with the NBA. The contrast provided further evidence of how the center of gravity in television news is shifting from broadcast to cable. At any time of day or night, Americans have three newscasts they can tune into. That's the good news. The bad is that all three remain of pretty poor quality. Since September 11, Fox has solidified its reputation as the most blatantly biased source of news on TV. As Jim Rutenberg recently observed in the New York Times, the network has become "a sort of headquarters for viewers who want their news served up with extra patriotic fervor" inflected by "unabashed vehement support of a war effort, carried in tough-guy declarations often expressing thirst for revenge."
Yet CNN and MSNBC are not much better. If you watch the former for even a short while, for instance, you're likely to see retired general Don Shepperd standing before a map of the Middle East discussing US military capabilities. Shepperd makes no effort to divorce his role as a news commentator from his position as a former Air Force officer. Worse, CNN seems increasingly to rely on him to comment on political matters that extend well beyond his expertise. On a recent segment, for instance, reporter Catherine Callaway fed the general a series of leading questions about which countries the United States should go after next in its war on terrorism. "Do you think Somalia could be a likely target?" she asked. Well, yes, Shepperd said. "If you're serious about terrorism, you have to go against Somalia at some time."
The problem extends beyond flag-waving, though. For all its aspirations to be a global news network, CNN remains relentlessly parochial. Its anchors love to engage in happy talk, making the network at times seem like a local TV station. Interviewing Danny Glover about a benefit he was planning for Afghanistan, the endlessly effervescent Paula Zahn fawned all over him. Stories about September 11, meanwhile, tend toward the mawkish. "When we went by ground zero, what went through your mind?" a reporter asked tourists aboard a Circle Line trip around Manhattan.
Even more troubling, CNN, while devoting far more time to international affairs since September 11, has narrowed its definition of the world. In the initial weeks after the attacks, the network made at least a token effort to explore the nature of Islam and the politics of the Middle East. Over time, though, it has essentially conflated foreign news with the war on terror and the fight in Afghanistan. While obsessively covering the hunt for Osama bin Laden, it has spent next to no time examining Third World poverty, the exploding AIDS epidemic, the economic meltdown in Argentina or the changes sweeping Putin's Russia.
MSNBC has seemed similarly fixated. In recent days, for instance, as the military campaign in Afghanistan has progressed, it has become fascinated with the caves of Afghanistan, flashing sophisticated diagrams of underground bunkers as military experts describe how to penetrate them. Its daily show "A Region in Conflict," meanwhile, seems largely a star vehicle for correspondent Ashleigh Banfield. With her stylish haircut, designer glasses and plucky reporting style, Banfield has become TV's new "It" girl, but her dispatches from the field often seem cartoonish. In one early report from Peshawar, Pakistan, she charged into a marketplace in the middle of the night to interview displaced Afghans about their political preferences. "OK, which do you support, king, Taliban or Northern Alliance?" she asked over and over, moving restlessly from one startled subject to another, conveying little to viewers beyond the fact that she, Ashleigh Banfield, was willing to go out among the great unwashed at 2 in the morning.
In the past two weeks, however, MSNBC has given some sign that it is willing to break the mold of cable news. As retired general Anthony Zinni arrived in the Middle East on his peaceseeking mission--an event largely ignored by CNN--MSNBC correspondent Gregg Jarrett began a week of on-the-ground reports from Israel and Palestine. Peering into places TV cameras rarely venture, Jarrett took us to a neighborhood in southern Jerusalem that is so often targeted by nearby Palestinians that each apartment has at least one room with bulletproof glass, where family members can gather when the shooting starts. He also filed from a Jewish settlement in the West Bank--the first time I recall seeing such a report on American TV. Jarrett spoke with the parents of Yaakov Mandel, the 13-year-old boy who last spring was beaten to death while hiking in the nearby hills. Despite the guilt they said they felt over his death, the couple expressed their determination to remain.
On the other side, Jarrett reported from a refugee camp in Ramallah. "A lot of Americans wonder why Palestinians are so angry," he said. "They feel this is their land, and that it's occupied." In many areas, he went on, there are no running water, no toilets, no jobs. At an Israeli-manned checkpoint, Jarrett highlighted the humiliations Palestinians must endure, and in Bethlehem he showed the physical scars left from ten days of occupation by Israeli troops. One family showed him the remains of their house after the Israelis got done with it; they were living in a tent.
Overall, Jarrett did an extraordinary job of capturing the grievances on both sides and of showing the need for a peace settlement to end the escalating bloodshed in the region. He also showed what cable news is capable of, if only it has the imagination, and the nerve.