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EDITORIAL: TV News Fails Main Street

Help! That was the collective cry from Wall Street to Main Street last week as Congress took its sweet time about coming up with some kind of legislative aid package to an economy on life support.

But “Help” also should have been the plea to networks—on broadcast and cable—from viewers who have been woefully under-informed about the crisis. By Wednesday, even hardened Wall Street analysts were acknowledging that lack of public support for the rescue plan existed because no one fully (and simply) explained what had happened, and what needs to be done to fix it.

Many blamed Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson for ignoring the concerns of Main Street in his comments. But if he forgot the average person, then so did the most influential information dispenser in the nation: Television, particularly broadcast television, had an opportunity to provide the country with some much-needed perspective on what it all meant to the typical TV viewer. Raise your hand if you saw it.

Warren Buffett likened the meltdown to “a massive cardiac arrest” and said America “took an economic Pearl Harbor hit.” If you watched financial news channels or cable news networks, you at least knew the extent of the damage, as the contours of the crisis took shape. But to myriad Americans—young adults worried about a shrunken economy, middle-class parents worried about their jobs and retirement plans, and older Americans just worried about survival—it was not at all that clear. What was needed, and still is, is a TV version of a “Dummies' Guide” to the rescue plan.

We know that on broadcast TV, giving up such real estate to a news special would have been a tough sell, but not everything on every schedule was a must-see show. Not to pick on ABC, but instead of proceeding with a People magazine special about how a group of regular folks lost weight in Mississippi, it should have instead given us a thoughtful hour on how millions of us have been impacted by a confusing, dangerous financial scheme. Again, this is not about ABC. As far as we know, no broadcast network stepped up to the plate with a news special on the crisis.

And no doubt, people want to see it. CNBC and Fox Business Network drew the most viewers in their history last Monday, when the stock market tanked on news that Congress couldn't get its act together. Cable news networks across the board saw huge spikes as viewers tuned in to figure out what was happening and what it meant. In a montage-like promo about its coverage of the Wall Street meltdown, a Fox Business Network field reporter asked, quite legitimately, “The big question: What happens next?” It's amazing to us that large broadcast news organizations such as ABC, NBC and CBS aren't interested enough to help answer the same urgent question for Americans.