Cable News Drops the Ball on Texas Abortion Protest Coverage

Bueller? Bueller....?

If you wanted live coverage of the dramatic filibuster of anti-abortion legislation in Texas last night, the best thing you could do was turn off your television and jump online. Neither CNN nor Fox News nor MSNBC carried special coverage during the lengthy public shouting-down of the bill, which would have restricted abortions in the state to 20 weeks or prior and would have required all abortion clinics to be registered as surgical centers, effectively shutting down most of them (MSNBC's Rachel Maddow did devote a segment on her primetime show to the filibuster, incorporating footage from the senate's own internal network).

State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) filibustered the bill for a solid 11 hours to the sounds of cheering from a gallery of protestors, whom Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (who tried to stop Davis midspeech) dubbed "an unruly mob using Occupy Wall Street tactics." It was a drama tailor-made for constant updates, rolling analysis and reports beginning with the words, "I'm standing outside the capital building," but no cable newser interrupted regularly scheduled coverage to comment on the events.

Part of it is undoubtedly the expense of maintaining or deploying resources all over the country—either you cough up for a plane ticket, keep a large Texas bureau on standby, or pass on the story and keep up your regularly scheduled programming. "It wasn't like it was going on in secret," mused veteran news industry watchdog Andrew Tyndall, who publishes the Tyndall Report

As CNN has reinvented itself, one of its hallmarks has become a newfound willingness to break into scheduled programming to report updates. But there seems to be a cost-benefit analysis going on here that doesn't jibe with the way other media handle the news cycle.

"[Cable news channels] came into their full fruition 20 years ago—it was a time when if you wanted video news 24 hours a day, that was the only place you could get it," said Tyndall. "You couldn't get streaming and that sort of thing. That position of privilege is eroding. Maybe the best way to state what happened last night is that this is the first glimpse of the future."

Ironically, CNN did have a good story on its website about the number of views the filibuster was generating for YouTube—180,000 livestream viewers, as of five minutes before the midnight deadline.

What's also true, though, is that recent stories of a similar vintage haven't made the splash with viewers that this story clearly did. The 2011 protests of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker's "budget repair bill"—which diminished benefits for teachers—was interesting but not a huge ratings generator (though it was criticized by political sites as underreported); nor was Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul's old-fashioned filibuster of the drone program (unlike Paul's stunt, Davis actually effected change—the Texas senate didn't make its voting deadline, and the bill didn't pass). Why is this story different?

Tyndall thinks that answer is pretty simple. "I think passionate young women talking about their sexuality is a much bigger story than laid-off school teachers talking about their pensions," he said. "You'd think someone at CNN would be able to notice that difference."

Publish date: June 26, 2013 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT