As a card-carrying, Obama-supporting member of the mainstream media, I rolled my eyes when I learned that Fox will air its new crime drama "Lie to Me" tonight instead of President Barack Obama's news conference discussing his first 100 days in office. But broadcasters who loathe the politics of Rupert Murdoch's media empire are probably wishing that they had the guts to turn down the White House.
The days of media companies agreeing to show presidential news conferences over their flagship networks are probably coming to an end. Slowly but surely, the networks are off-loading their labor-intensive coverage of events such as political conventions to cable networks. There is too much money to be made in selling advertising on prime time programs to sacrifice time for presidential news conferences. I bet the networks would gladly exile the State of the Union address to the smaller channels if they could get away with it.
Much as I would love to bash News Corp. (NWS) yet again, I am having a hard time seeing the company as the bad guy. For one thing, the Obama administration has already asked for airtime three times during the past three months. (Granted, we are in the worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression.) The fact that Fox will broadcast the news conference over Fox News and Fox Business Channel is hardly the end of world.
Why should the networks sacrifice their prime time advertising dollars to allow President Obama to pat himself on the back as he reaches a milestone that the media has deemed significant? Moreover, other networks have told the White House "no" for requests for airtime and have not suffered any consequences.
Though broadcasters are supposed to operate the public airwaves in the public interest, what that means has been the source of debate for years. Former FCC Chairman Newton Minow described the television programs of the 1960s as a "vast wasteland." With cable, satellite, and internet offerings, the wasteland has become exponentially more vast.
For the TV networks, news is a profit center just like any other type of programming. Gone are the days when broadcasters thought they had some sort of duty to educate the American people. It may sound crass, but the networks were never particularly civic minded. Remember that Edward R, Murrow, the patron saint of broadcast journalism, hosted a celebrity interview show called "Person to Person."
News was a luxury that the networks could afford when they were the lords of the media jungle, sending a generation of high-profile correspondents such as Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Morley Safer to hot stories around the world. As audiences for network news dwindled, the broadcast networks scaled back their news divisions just as cable ramped theirs up. So we really shouldn't be too surprised to see second-tier presidential news conferences following suit.