Instead of covering one of the largest banking scandals in history, American television news outlets have focused on the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, shark sightings, and a chimpanzee attack.
Last week, we documented how television news outlets are practically ignoring an emerging controversy over whether major financial institutions have been manipulating the LIBOR, a key interest rate banks use to borrow money from each other that is “used as a benchmark to set payments on about $800 trillion worth of financial instruments.” MIT professor of finance Andrew Lo told CNN Money that the LIBOR-manipulation story “dwarfs by orders of magnitude any financial scams in the history of markets.”
In the fifteen days after news broke that U.S. and U.K. regulators had fined British multinational bank Barclays $450 million for its role in trying to rig the LIBOR, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC spent only 12 minutes combined reporting on the story during their evening newscasts and opinion programming.
With few exceptions -- notably MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes and Current TV's Viewpoint with Eliot Spitzer -- the scandal has been largely relegated to financial outlets. In a post chiding ABC and NBC for ignoring LIBOR entirely during their flagship nightly news programs, Washington Post media writer Erik Wemple joked that ABC "[c]an't bump complicated, clunky old LIBOR for fins protruding from the ocean."
Wemple's suggestion that the networks' failure to cover LIBOR was not caused by their preference for other important hard news stories is depressingly accurate. The same outlets that found only 12 minutes of time to report on LIBOR from June 27 to July 12 during their evening programming devoted nearly 65 minutes to stories about sharks during that same time period.
The numbers are even worse when comparing LIBOR coverage to coverage of the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC devoted almost 91 minutes to stories related to the celebrity divorce, which is more than seven times longer than they spent on LIBOR during the same period. Only CBS' Evening News, which was the only network newscast to cover LIBOR during the time of this study, ignored the divorce.
Similarly, a story about chimpanzees attacking an American student at an animal sanctuary in Africa received more than 20 minutes of primetime coverage.
CBS was the only network to devote more coverage to LIBOR than to these trivial stories during the study.
When Hayes said during his July 7 panel discussion on the LIBOR scandal that “it hasn't been sufficiently covered here [in U.S. media],” he wasn't exaggerating. Our review of the primetime coverage of the broadcast and cable news networks reveals that -- with the exception of CBS -- they all devoted significantly more resources to frivolous and inconsequential topics.
Even though several outlets used the Cruise/Holmes divorce as a launching point for reporting on the Church of Scientology (and related stories like News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch tweeting that Scientology is “maybe even evil”), much of the coverage was little more than speculative gossip. And after these outlets spent numerous segments baselessly hyping potential drama related to the split-up, the former couple settled amicably.
CNN's coverage disparity between LIBOR and the other three topics was the largest in the period examined. Nearly 100 minutes (about 49 minutes for the celebrity divorce, 43 minutes for shark sightings, and about six-and-a-half minutes for the chimp attack) of their airtime was spent on the trivial stories versus roughly five minutes for LIBOR.
Emblematic of this disparity and the importance the network placed on the different stories was The Situation Room, which teased six shark-sighting segments over five shows (July 2, July 3, July 6, July 9, and July 12) twelve times in total -- that includes one July 6 shark story that the show teased four times throughout the 6 p.m. hour. In contrast, The Situation Room only broadcast a single, one-minute-long segment (July 3) on LIBOR that it did not tease at any prior point.
CNN's longest LIBOR segment on an evening newscast came during the July 3 edition of Erin Burnett Outfront, which devoted about one-and-a-half minutes to the scandal. But the network's Piers MorganTonight ran a more than 10-minute-long segment on July 10 featuring the chyron “When Wild Animals Attack,” which included discussion of “attacks across the country by bears, alligators, a shark, and a mountain lion.” CNN Newsroom and Anderson Cooper 360 each ran segments more than eight minutes long related to the Cruise/Holmes divorce, and Outfront broadcast a five-minute-long segment on the chimp attack.
Fox News' and MSNBC's evening and primetime coverage was similarly disappointing: Both networks offered little LIBOR coverage (about one minute for the former and 30 seconds for the latter) compared to more than 20 minutes each of combined reports on the celebrity divorce and shark and chimp attacks. Fox spent 18-and-a-half minutes on the split up, three-and-a-half minutes on sharks, and about half-a-minute on the chimp attack; MSNBC spent almost 16 minutes on stories related to the Cruise/Holmes split and more than five minutes on sharks.
Fox's longest LIBOR segment was Fox Report with Shepard Smith's July 2 show, which lasted about 44 seconds. On MSNBC, the longest segment was a mere passing mention on Politics Nation's July 3 broadcast.
In contrast, Fox ran a four-minute-long segment on the July 2 edition of The Five discussing the Cruise/Holmes divorce. MSNBC's Politics Nation broadcast a more than eight-minute-long segment on July 2 discussing the divorce and tweets from Rupert Murdoch about Scientology. The network's The Ed Show ran a four-and-a-half-minute-long segment on shark attacks on July 9.
ABC and NBC, the two networks to provide exactly zero coverage of the LIBOR scandal during the their flagship evening newscasts in the first 15 days after the scandal broke, found plenty of airtime to devote to the other subjects. ABC spent about seven minutes on the Cruise/Holmes divorce, seven minutes on sharks, and more than eight minutes on the chimp attack. NBC spent two-and-a-half minutes on shark sightings and nearly five minutes on the chimp assault.
And while both NBC's Nightly News and ABC's World News ignored the LIBOR scandal from June 27 to July 12, each found time to run a computer model of the chimpanzee attack during weekend broadcasts.
From NBC's Nightly News:
From ABC's World News:
CBS' coverage was again notable. As we originally reported, the network spent about five-and-a-half minutes on LIBOR during the period of our study. CBS also ran the two longest LIBOR segments of any network, running at almost three minutes and about two-and-a-half minutes, respectively.
Of the topics of less national importance, CBS only covered recent shark sightings, and a majority of these segments appeared on its weekend broadcast. Amounting to just over three minutes, this coverage was less than the time they devoted to LIBOR, making CBS the only network to give the banking scandal story more resources.
Media Matters searched the Nexis database for news transcripts of evening programs on broadcast (ABC, CBS, NBC) and major cable news (CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC) networks between June 27, 2012 (the day the Barclays story broke) through July 12, 2012 mentioning the Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes divorce, recent shark sightings and attacks, or the chimpanzee assault experienced by Texas graduate student Andrew Oberle.
We included all evening cable shows airing between 5:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. and each broadcast networks' nightly news program. For programs falling within these parameters that were not included in Nexis, we searched transcripts from our video archive. We reviewed the raw video of each result to time the length of each segment, teaser, and mention.
Included in the results are the following programs: ABC's World News; CBS' Evening News; NBC's Nightly News; CNN's The Situation Room, Erin Burnett Outfront, Anderson Cooper 360, and Piers Morgan, CNN Newsroom; Fox News' The Five, Special Report with Bret Baier, Fox Report with Shepard Smith, The O'Reilly Factor, Hannity, and On the Record with Greta Van Susteren; MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Politics Nation, The Ed Show, The Rachel Maddow Show, and The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell.
We did not include the first hour of The Situation Room, which begins at 4:00 p.m.