“This is serious,” tweeted Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, a little before 5 pm on Friday. He was talking about the dramatic events unfolding in Russia that day, as private mercenary forces loyal to Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin rolled out of Ukraine and headed toward Moscow on a so-called “March for Justice.” Prigozhin’s bombastic pronouncements and the rapid progress of his troops proved to be so serious, in fact, that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military commanders were deploying tanks to defend the capital city of one of the world’s two foremost nuclear powers.
No one who knew anything about world affairs doubted that McFaul’s sense of urgency was well-founded—or that US Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, was right when she described the developments from midday Friday to midday Saturday as “breathtaking events.” For 24 hours, until negotiations orchestrated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko led to an eventual stand-down by Prigozhin, circumstances in Russia and Ukraine were dangerously uncertain.
A potential coup in one of the world’s most militarized and geopolitically significant countries is the definition of a huge news story—one that cries out for in-depth, knowledge-based explanatory journalism. Yet, for most of the afternoon and evening on Friday, Americans who turned to cable “news” outlets were left with less perspective than if they had continued to try to sort truth from fiction on social media. Instead of shifting their primary focus to actual news as it was developing, the cable networks kept feeding viewers a slurry of dated reports on Titan submersible debris, Donald Trump’s trials, and Hunter Biden. For hour after hour, the Russia story was relegated to the bottom of the bulletin, if it was mentioned at all.
“There’s a coup attempt happening now in Russia and I can’t find any US news channel that is reporting on it. Anderson Cooper is in Newfoundland. MSNBC is obsessed with Trump 24/7,” complained veteran diplomat and foreign relations analyst Martin Indyk at around 7 pm EST on Friday. Hours later, just before 10 pm EST, political science professor Chapman Rackaway offered a similarly dismal assessment:
A possible coup is going on in Russia. Here’s what the “news” is talking about
FOX: Hunter Biden
MSNBC: George Santos
NewsNation: True Crime
CNN: Titan submersible implosion
I miss the news. Somehow we seem to have killed it.
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— Chapman Rackaway (@DocPolitics) June 24, 2023
Americans who were desperate for information about the chaotic events that were unfolding within a global superpower with a stockpile of 5,889 nuclear warheads, about what those developments meant for the war between Russia and Ukraine, and about what they foretold for the United States and other NATO countries that have sided with Ukraine—not to mention the overall stability of the planet—struggled to find it. Many expressed frustration with the news judgment of cable networks that were once imagined to be sources of immediate and intensive news reporting on the breaking news of the day. “Tanks are on the streets of Moscow[.] The Kremlin is having a meltdown[.] And US news leads with ‘Submersible still sunk,’” griped SiriusXM radio host John Fugelsang on Friday night. Before the night was done, presidential historian Michael Beschloss tweeted, “Please pay attention to Russian political and military turmoil unfolding right now.”
Ultimately, the Russia story bumped its way up to the top of the news, but for hours on Friday evening, US media outlets came off as either arrogantly misguided or weirdly disengaged. There were a few bright spots—Chris Hayes, for instance, pulled off a compelling interview with The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, the author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, midway through his MSNBC show. But for the most part, America’s cable networks were on autopilot, as opposed to being on top of the news. Contrast that with the BBC, which was almost immediately providing comprehensive coverage—with reports from on the ground in Moscow, Kyiv, and other locations; detailed studies of the Wagner Group’s movements that relied on sophisticated satellite technologies and verification teams; and analysis from top diplomats and Russia scholars.
America’s cable news networks are huge enterprises, with teams of talented hosts, reporters, editors, and researchers. Like great ships, they are hard to turn. But when globally important stories develop, they have to do better than what we saw on Friday night—for their own reputations but also, more importantly, for the sake of the democratic discourse they help support. As someone who has appeared on all the major networks, I certainly understand that they are corporate institutions that are under pressure to make profits. I understand that they follow stories that they believe their viewers will tune in for and that, especially for Fox, speak to the ideological biases of those viewers. But this goes beyond issues of commerce, and even of right, left, and center. This is about what should be the basic premise of a television news operation: to give people the information they need and to form opinions about how the United States can and should act on the world stage.
Over the past two decades, Robert McChesney and I have written a number of books about the crisis of journalism in the United States. At the core of that crisis has been a downsizing of serious news operations—especially those associated with once-great metropolitan daily newspapers and magazines that operate in print and online. There has been a parallel downsizing from traditional broadcast and cable networks. International bureaus have been shut down at an alarming rate and, as a result, coverage of global news has been replaced with a flood of commentary that—on cable networks in particular—tends to feature the same talking heads talking about the same subjects, night after night after night. The routine is altered now and again for a royal coronation, a natural disaster, or a human tragedy like the Titan implosion, but these too tend to be relatively formulaic and comparatively inexpensive stories to cover.
The tougher task of keeping in touch with the global machinations of a nuclear power requires a much greater commitment. Bureaus have to be staffed and travel budgets have to be robust. More importantly, editors have to be free to tear up the plan for a night’s coverage when breaking news demands a change of course. If that doesn’t happen, Americans lose a sense of perspective regarding what really matters. And they become even less engaged with the flow of news, creating a circumstance that James Madison warned more than 200 years ago could be “a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.”