Not only am I willing to cut US news networks some slack for their decision to provide hours and hours of live coverage of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II on Monday. I am also prepared to defend their general indulgence of America’s fascination with the British royals, even in the face of more obviously urgent and important news.
I fully concede that the royal funeral had pretty much zero news value, while damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Fiona is a huge ongoing story. (“Hey @MSNBC - Maybe cut away from the endless funeral of the monarch of ANOTHER COUNTRY and let us know what is going on in #PuertoRico where ACTUAL AMERICANS are in crisis?” read a typical message on Twitter.) Nevertheless, I can’t really blame CNN, Fox News, MSNBC or any of the other news channels or websites that provided live coverage.
News programs are produced and broadcast by private corporations, which care about readers and viewers. And like it or not, it has never been the case that news coverage alone is enough to sustain a business. Back when Americans bought newspapers, I bet more of them got them for the sports scores, stock market reports, classified ads, TV listings and comics than for the sober analyses of Washington legislation. Sure, a lot of people paid some attention to the news, and maybe some people paid a lot of attention — but even then, the news has always had its share of celebrity and spectacle.
To survive as a business venture, the news media have to fulfill the demand for plenty of things that aren’t important. Yes, news outlets have some self-interest in being seen as conveyors of serious information about the world, and therefore in establishing reputations for strong journalism. When they fall short in significant ways, such as when CNN went out of its way to boost Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential nomination process, they deserve criticism. But no realistic media critic should expect them to be interested in only that, or to take a pass on high-interest, basically harmless spectacles such as a royal funeral.
And I’m not going to blame the audience, either. I myself have well below average interest in the royals, and I’ve watched almost none of the coverage. And everyone has something that fascinates them that isn’t exactly consequential. Put on hours of coverage of the purely ceremonial aspects of the opening day of a new Congress, and I’ll be there. (Thanks, C-Span!) Celebrity-watching in general strikes me as nothing to be embarrassed about — no worse, and probably a lot better, than being fascinated by the various forms of violence that also produce reliably robust TV ratings.
Nor is there anything wrong with proudly free Americans gawking at the fancy trappings of foreign aristocrats — even ones who once considered the US their personal property. After all, it’s been almost 250 years, and the US and the UK have been good friends for about half of that. Many of us live in places there were never British colonies, and most of our families entered the US long after it was independent. Enjoying the pageantry of the royals isn’t really much different than listening to The Beatles or Amy Winehouse or, for that matter, watching Shakespeare.
At any rate: The news media was prepared to provide this coverage, and maybe even made a little extra money doing it. They do need eventually to get around to covering serious problems in the US. But I’m not going to begrudge them the time they spend paying their respects to the queen — and to the audience that wanted it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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