Bill On Media

Opinion: News Networks Tripped Over Themselves Trying to Cover History

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Yesterday’s Congressional debate over the results of the Electoral College was history in the making.

But our television networks often failed in their coverage of this incredible political drama — a show that was better, more interesting and more educational than any political movie drama, documentary or news report.

Of course elements of the coverage and some of the news broadcasters were able to break as all this unfolded was excellent.

But none of the networks could resist the opportunity to insert too much of themselves — and their commentary — into the live coverage that was one of the most critical moments in our nation’s history.

It was amazing television. And, yes, there were times when context or even commentary was appreciated. But only in small doses. Sometimes its best to stick to the bare minimum. Just the facts.

Network after network got in the way too often.

When Sen. Mitch McConnell opened the initial joint session with his shocking remarks condemning any effort to circumvent the election results, I was watching a network that didn’t immediately cut to him. Commentators were too busy “setting the scene” while a silenced image of McConnell showed in the background.

Are you kidding me? I had to switch networks.

When McConnell opened the second Senate session, NBC didn’t switch to him when he rose to make another heartfelt and surprising speech. I had to switch networks. Again.

Later, when Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) rose up in the Senate to speak against objections to the Electoral College results, the commentators on MSNBC were babbling on about their own opinions.

You missed MITT ROMNEY, obviously a key player in this drama, so one of your commentators could talk instead?

Unforgivable.

Here is what Romney said: “We gather today due to a selfish man’s injured pride and the outrage of his supporters whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning. What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States. Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy. They will be remembered for their role in this shameful episode in American history. That will be their legacy.”

While watching a broadcast network, my local news team interrupted the process both at 6 p.m. and again at 11 p.m. for a full half hour of local news. Really?

I’m a big proponent of localizing national news, but it was just silly to watch local news anchors giving me their perspective on what was happening in Washington. And covering a meaningless house fire or car accident while history was in the making was ridiculous. This day called for a truncated local report so readers could be taken back to Washington as quickly as possible. I know those local ad dollars are a big deal, but local broadcasters need to know when not to interrupt.

We often have truncated local broadcasts before, after or during halftime of big sports events. But not for this night? Sigh.

Much later, when Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) defended Pennsylvania’s election process in the session after the first Senate vote, all the major networks were babbling on with commentators about what it all meant. And so they missed a Republican senator saying this:

"Joe Biden won the election . . . It was an honest victory,” he said, outlining a long list of common sense reasons why we should accept Pennsylvania’s results. And then he said this: "We witnessed today the damage that can result when men in power and responsibility refuse to acknowledge the truth. We saw bloodshed because a demagogue chose to spread falsehoods and sow distrust of his own fellow Americans. Let’s not abet such deception.”

This is wow stuff.

And no viewers of our major cable or broadcast networks got to see Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) live comparing what happened in the Capitol to what his father witnessed in Cuba when communists took control of the government there. He told his colleagues how fragile democracy can be. He talked about how the only winners today were China, Russia and Iran.

"People have lost their minds over politics,” he said.

Indeed.

The only reason I saw these historic speeches was that I finally abandoned my channel switching ways and tuned in to C-SPAN, the only network that didn’t get in the way of history.

While last night was extraordinary and it was difficult to monitor the action in both the Senate and House at the same time, this is a lesson for every day events as well.

It drives me crazy when I’m watching a game and the commentators are babbling on about something not related to the game. I have tuned in to WATCH THE GAME. Sure you want them to insert context and tell their side stories, but those interruptions should be brief and to the point and they should stop talking anytime anything important is going on.

I don’t want to hear about some other game or anecdotes that have nothing to do with MY game.

I see local broadcasters do this all the time when they talk over sources or comment when they could allow real people to do the talking.

There is a lesson here for broadcasters and reporters everywhere: When you are covering history, listen first. And try to let history tell its own story.

Bill Ostendorf is president and founder of Creative Circle Media Solutions and has led thousands of workshops for the newspaper industry in 23 countries. He has led the redesign of nearly 700 print publications and about 350 media-related web sites. Creative Circle's software arm offers a full suite of highly customized software for media companies, including a dynamic web CMS, print production software, a pay wall, specialized web apps and native and classified advertising platforms.

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