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News balance bails out entirely

IT DIDN’T take long for the credit market crisis to reveal both the good and bad sides of television news coverage during a major crisis.

Adept as usual with breaking developments, the news networks delivered essential, real-time coverage of Monday’s pivotal House vote that defeated the Bush administration rescue proposal for Wall Street, which in turn precipitated the 778-point Dow plunge.

Ratings zoomed as the Dow dove. Between noon and 1 p.m. Monday, CNN, CNBC, Fox News and MSNBC had a combined audience of 6.3 million viewers, for an increase of 103% compared with normal viewing at that hour during the preceding month, according to Nielsen Media Research. CNBC alone averaged 565,000 viewers for the total day, a 139% spike over its average third-quarter ratings.

But when it came to on-air analysis and reflection, cool heads were few. In the wake of the House vote, CNN anchors at times came dangerously close to shedding any pretense of impartiality about the rescue package, the passage of which they obviously favored.

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“Everyone seems to be saying with one voice, in unison, something has to be done,” CNN anchor Rick Sanchez admonished after a parade of reporters and analysts struck ominous tones to discuss possible consequences of the bailout’s failure.

Ali Velshi, CNN’s senior business correspondent, said he sympathized with people who didn’t like the idea of a bailout but admitted, “I have been sort of saying to people, ‘You have to close your nose and swallow it.’ ”

At one point Tuesday morning, CNN ran a graphic that read, “The American Dream, R.I.P. 1789-2008.”

On CNBC, anchor Maria Bartiromo wondered why President Bush hadn’t just told House Republicans to “vote on this.” And Jim Cramer, the ever-excitable host of CNBC’s “Mad Money,” dismissed Congress (“They know nothing!” he shouted) for failing to pass a “much-needed bailout that I believe we needed to stave off a second Great Depression.”

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Amid all the table-thumping, many at the networks did not probe very deeply into why the bailout measure had failed, which probably sowed even more confusion for viewers.

A SurveyUSA poll released Monday -- the day the House voted -- found that half of Americans said they didn’t know enough about the bailout to express an opinion about it.

In some ways, it’s not surprising that TV is struggling to explain the crisis. The credit market panic involves financial instruments that even experts have trouble explaining, which is part of what got Wall Street into the current mess in the first place.

And the Bush administration itself was evidently unable to convey, to either voters or their representatives, why such drastic measures were necessary.

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TV is seldom effective at synthesizing and framing complex developing stories. For all its ability to capture events as they happen and seize the emotions of the moment, the medium is usually (though by no means always) terrible at offering context, detail, reflection and a sense of proportion -- areas where print and, increasingly, online news sources can dominate.

Americans saw the same dynamic after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when TV drew many early plaudits for depicting the violence and rallying the country. But in retrospect, news divisions and networks spent relatively little time seriously debating what drove the hijackers or how the nation should have responded, coverage decisions that probably cost the country in the long run.

In the current super-heated atmosphere, ad-supported networks that watch the ratings on a by-the-minute basis are probably at a disadvantage in dispensing hard truths to the same viewers on whose loyalty they depend.

The cable networks and news divisions have done plenty of segments about, for example, how to keep your money safe during the crisis. They have done far fewer pieces reminding viewers that Americans weren’t complaining so much about Wall Street fat cats a few years ago, when the stock market was riding high and home values were rising 20% or more annually.

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With another House vote on a (likely amended) rescue package in the offing, there is still a chance that TV journalists can probe the deeper meanings of the crisis.

But then, TV news does have a remarkably short attention span. By Tuesday afternoon, CNN was updating the financial crisis in drive-by fashion, in between lengthy reports on a campaign gaffe by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and the trial of a man accused of courthouse killings in Georgia.

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scott.collins@latimes.com

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