Viewing the American media through fresh eyes

For at least a decade, I was a 24/7 news addict.

Then I went to China and went cold turkey. Surprisingly, there were no withdrawal pains. Indeed, I actually enjoyed life more and had a lot more time for useful pursuits without the pain of my addiction to CNN, MSNBC, Fox and Twitter.

So what happens when I return from Tsinghua University for winter break?

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A short relapse.

One day of CNN was enough to cure me permanently. Here are a few thoughts on the disastrous state of U.S. cable news and the rays of hope for the rest of the U.S. media:

  • There is almost no news on cable news. CNN seemed to be mostly “reporting” on stories broken by other news outlets (“CNN has confirmed”) or filing “turn of the screw” reports on developing stories. MSNBC featured lots of opinions on the news from experts and hosts. Fox was, well, it was Fox. Within an hour, I was watching the BBC. I can’t reclaim all the hours I wasted watching American cable news during my years as a reporter, but I can avoid the temptation in the future.
  • American newspapers, even though they have declined, are still a valuable information source. I know it’s been fashionable in Washington, D.C., to diss the Washington Post and lament its deterioration. Well, I have some news for you. It’s still a heck of a good newspaper with a lot more exclusive news and analysis in one issue than you get in a day of cable news. I can’t vouch for the quality of the regional press, but the print versions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal can compete with the best papers in the world.
  • Newspaper web sites have become schizophrenic. There are two kinds of news web sites: (1) the good and (2) the bad and the ugly. The NY Times and the WaPo give you serious, substantive information with some very good interactive features. Most sites, like my former employer’s site, are desperately seeking clicks through crime, crashes, celebrities, boobs, animals, weirdness and weather. The quality gap between the good and the bad U.S. news sites is growing rapidly. Many papers have adopted a two-tiered system with quality content hidden behind a paywall. That may be a good business model — it remains to be seen — but it is a highly questionable journalistic model. After a semester of teaching multimedia journalism, I believe even more strongly that modern journalism is about community-building. Hiding behind paywalls keeps the community out and prevents non-subscribers from learning the quality journalism you may offer.
  • TV news is alienating its core audience while failing to win new viewers. None of my students — zero — watch TV news. Granted, for the Chinese students, that means state-run TV. But it’s a problem that U.S. television has, too. The younger generation wants information on demand. Social media is their favorite medium. Where does that leave television? Or newspapers? Ask my students. In my multimedia journalism course, we are re-inventing the future of multiplatform, multimedia news. Other than global leaders such as the New York Times and the Financial Times, I don’t see enough of that.
  • With all of its flaws, the U.S. media remains among the freest (and most freewheeling) in the world. We can be thankful for that.
  • Back to vacation. With the TV turned off.


    Ten things I really miss living in China — and ten I definitely do not

    Birthday barbecue: Plates of tasty food at Home Plate BBQ in Beijing (with Troy Hernandez, Agnes Kreitz, Sara Balajthy, Caroline Ward and Mengfei Chen)

    Birthday barbecue: Plates of tasty food and chocolate cake at Home Plate BBQ in Beijing (with Troy Hernandez, Agnes Kneitz, Sara Balajthy, Caroline Ward and Mengfei Chen)

    It’s been nearly three months since I arrived in Beijing, and I’ve finally had my first attack of homesickness.

    It started two weeks ago with a trip to a local Western market to pick up the fixings for macaroni and cheese (the real thing, not the Kraft version). It was followed by my birthday dinner of Texas BBQ and chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting. Then I broke down completely yesterday and went to Jenny Loo’s supermarket with my friend Eunice. My haul — a rare taste of Americana — included fresh bagels (“Montreal style”), feta cheese, olives, canned diced tomatoes for pasta sauce, fresh tortillas, tortillas chips, salsa, peanut butter and a Woody Allen movie.

    A pretty pricey splurge, all told, except for the Woody Allen movie (“Midnight in Paris”), which cost 13 yuan, or $2.16.

    I’m whipping up my famous linguini tonight with some of my big food purchase. But before I do, here’s a quick list of ten things I really miss after 11 weeks in China — and some that I decidedly do not.

    What I miss:

    1. My wife and family

    2. The National Press Club

    3. Live NHL hockey

    4. Hummus

    5. My good friends back home

    6. Weekend trips to Philadelphia or New York

    7. Trader Joe’s

    8. Gossiping with my Texas political sources

    9. Good wine at good prices

    10. Target

    What I Don’t Miss:

    1. CNN

    2. American cable news in general

    3. The newspaper world I left behind

    4. Cable TV

    5. Congress

    6. Driving

    7. Texas BBQ (I’ve been surprised by the fine barbecue here.)

    8. The Washington football team with the racist name

    9. Rush Limbaugh and the vast right wing conspiracy

    10. U.S. media coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination