Alumni Column: Framing the News



Truth is a relative thing. One man’s lie is another man’s breaking news story.  Consequently, the way in which today’s television network and cable news frames any given story will shape the way in which the viewer perceives it. Since point of view is critical, the difference between a story presented on Fox News and that same story on MSNBC becomes a gaping abyss. Is one more correct than the other?  Or are both preaching to their respective choirs? Or, in fact, is there a murkier truth behind all television news?

In April 1962, Aldous Huxley came to Colgate to deliver the keynote speech for an International Symposium on Hypnosis hosted by Dr. George Estabrooks, then head of the Psychology Department and renowned expert on the subject of mind control. Among the subjects addressed by Huxley was subliminal messaging.  In September of that same year, Walter Cronkite took over as the anchor for the CBS Evening News. His entire telecast lasted only 15 minutes per night.

Cronkite’s career had begun in radio where he’d covered such critical events as the Normandy Invasion and the Nuremberg Trials. His gravitas and sincerity instantly connected with the American public and the following year “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” was increased to a full half-hour with minimal commercial interruption.

Essentially, news in the early ‘60s was seen as a kind of public service. The Nielsen ratings that determined the fates of dramatic and comedy shows did not apply. Sponsorship of the news was seen as something a company might do to enhance their status in the mind of the American public. A kind of triumph for quality over hucksterism.

But with the Vietnam War, news coverage began to expand as the first “televised war” spilled over into living rooms across America. Consequently, the perception of news by the networks shifted from that of quasi public service to a lucrative source of revenue. In line with what Estabrooks and Huxley had foreseen, television advertising could be used to induce behavior in subtle and not so subtle ways. As a result, Newscasts began to compete for viewers to boost their Nielsen ratings. These ratings, in turn, determined what the networks could charge their advertisers.  

By 1975, the year the North Vietnamese captured Saigon thereby officially bringing the war to an end, it was determined that the most effective way to retain viewership of the news was to employ images of violence – a dead body, a weapon, blood on the sidewalk, etc. – every four minutes. Essentially, the violence that had kept Americans fixated on their televisions throughout the war in Southeast Asia was now being put to work in the service of “selling” the news, which in turn sold soap and cornflakes. The rule became:  “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Today, most broadcast news programs intentionally court controversy. Salacious stories of rape, murder and missing children are reported nightly regardless of the proximity of such crimes to the viewing audience (e.g., a serial killer in Ohio plays to a nationwide audience purely for ratings). The more outrageous the story, the more people seem willing to watch and listen.

Some so-called news programming is really a thinly veiled attempt to provoke a reaction. If the viewer agrees with the networks’ point of view, he or she feels vindicated. If they disagree, they wrap themselves in the righteous rage.  Either way, the sponsor wins. The more viewers, the higher the ratings, the greater the profits. And to be certain to maximize viewership for the advertising, all news programs tend to break for commercials at approximately the same time during the broadcast so that even if you attempt to switch channels, you are still watching ads rather than news. Moreover, provocateurs like Fox’s Glenn Beck and MSNBC’s Keith Obermann take ever more extreme positions in order to boost their ratings. “News” on such shows takes a backseat to editorializing. For example, take the current flap over the Obama White House’s public disgust with Fox News. In truth, Fox News could not hope for better promotion. It makes no difference to Fox whether they are right or wrong on the issues as long as they deliver the ratings.

Even more insidious is MSNBC’s “Morning Joe with Joe Scarborough.” Since “Joe” is also slang for coffee, not only is the show sponsored by Starbuck’s, a Starbuck’s logo is actually incorporated into the show’s onscreen title as well as being prominently featured on the coffee mugs they use – a process known in the business as product placement. Literally, the entire newscast can be viewed as one extended subliminal Starbuck’s ad.

So assuming news matters, where does one go to find relatively unbiased reporting? The BBC World News Service and PBS’s “News Hour with Jim Lehrer” both attempt to make fairly even-handed presentations. The key is that these news services are essentially devoid of commercials (foundational and public support notwithstanding). In the UK, the BBC News is underwritten by the government. In this country, PBS is not. Whether we decide to support Public Broadcasting or not, the choice is still ours.  But given that the alternative is news framed between and frequently focused on commercials, such support deserves our serious consideration.