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Why did networks fail at covering Wendy Davis's epic abortion bill filibuster in Texas?

Why did networks fail at covering Wendy Davis's epic abortion bill filibuster in Texas?

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Texas State Senator Wendy Davis (Credit: Wendy Davis/Facebook)
Texas State Senator Wendy Davis (Credit: Wendy Davis/Facebook)

What's wrong with the major US TV news networks? That's the question many are asking online in the wake of Texas Democratic state senator Wendy Davis's epic, 11-hour-long successful filibuster of an abortion restrictions bill on Tuesday night, which hundreds of thousands of web users watched on live streams and followed along with on Twitter, while the major news networks mostly aired reruns. Davis, relatively unknown outside of her state prior to standing up on runner's shoes and speaking out against the bill from 11AM to 10PM local time Tuesday night, has since become a national internet and political sensation. Some political writers are saying she's a shoo-in for national office as a result.

"I checked the third screen ... No such luck."

But viewers of the major national cable and broadcast networks would be forgiven for not knowing who she is or what she did on Tuesday night. After all, during the filibuster's momentous conclusion, CNN aired a repeated segment of Piers Morgan and Anderson Cooper discussing the calories in a blueberry muffin. MSNBC ran a rerun of the earlier airing of Rachel Maddow, despite covering the bill's passage in the Texas House earlier in the week, and Fox News ran a repeat of Greta Van Susteren. "As the clock hit 11PM in Texas I checked the third screen — TV — once more, thinking that by now the cable news execs would have gotten wind of the story and broken into regularly-scheduled programming," wrote entrepreneur and CNN contributor Rachel Sklar on Medium. "No such luck." Many other viewers offered up more withering critiques on Twitter.

Broadcast news faired slightly better, but mostly at the local level, with Texas CBS and ABC affiliates dutifully reporting the story as it unfolded. Their national counterparts did not follow suit. "GMA aired it this morning and Dan Harris is reporting on this story tonight for World News with Diane Sawyer," said an ABC News spokesperson when asked by The Verge about how the network covered the issue. "You can’t plan, program, or promote for this," wrote ABC news local Orlando anchor Mark Joyella on his Tumblr. "You just have to be smart enough — and flexible enough — to jump when it happens. All the indications are that most of the major news operations simply didn't anticipate the interest in the vote or simply weren't aware of it."

"You can’t plan, program, or promote for this."

Indeed, the one media outlet that was heralded for broadcasting the filibuster live in its entirety was a local publication — The Texas Tribune, whose live stream drew upwards of 200,000 viewers as Davis's filibuster neared its conclusion around midnight Eastern, when a special session on the bill was due to end. The Tribune, a three-year-old online news organization, regularly covers the Texas state legislature, and acquired rights to the video feed long ago. But Tribune co-founder and executive editor Ross Ramsey said he's unaware of anything that might have prevented another news group from obtaining the video rights on a short-term basis. He told The Verge that if the major networks had been paying attention, they might have caught the story. Ramsey said it became obvious on Sunday that the debate was headed to a filibuster. The Democrats got the vote pushed to Tuesday and that was well "within filibuster range," Ramsey said.

Under the terms of the deal with Texas state officials, The Tribune is allowed to share the video with other written publications like itself, but Ramsey said he wasn't sure if The Tribune is allowed to share it with TV news outlets. Certainly, the major TV broadcasters would have been allowed to use snippets from the publication's broadcast. The Tribune is also allowed to post the video feed to its web site as well as to the publication's YouTube channel. "While the filibuster was going on, our YouTube channel had over 200,000 viewers," Ramsey said, adding that it was unprecedented traffic for the company.

"When it became a national story the national media wasn't in position to cover the story."

"When it became a national story the national media wasn't in position to cover the story," Ramsey said. "There was a time when there was a national story you went to the three big networks, and at another point you turned on the 24-hour news channels. Now, when you look at the media universe, when I start flipping for the places to go for news, the internet is one of the places that directs people to where the news is."

Aside from The Texas Tribune, other web users turned to Twitter, following tweets and Vine videos posted by those actually present in the galleries of the Texas Senate chamber. President Obama's social media team was savvy enough to promote the moment on his official Twitter account, and one hashtag, #StandWithWendy, quickly rose to the top of the worldwide Twitter trends.

To be clear, this is hardly the first time major TV news outlets in America have been criticized for failing to keep pace with online media in accurately covering breaking stories. CNN is mocked on a weekly, if not near-daily basis by Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, for reporting on animals and other relatively insignificant ephemera when grave national stories about serious issues are transpiring. Earlier this month, in attempting to explain a precipitous drop in MSNBC's audience, the network's president Phil Griffin told The New York Times that "we're not the place for that [breaking news]. Our brand is not that." Instead, Griffin said MSNBC was focused on providing political analysis. "We are a news and information channel that focuses on politics and what’s going on in the country," he said.

"Our brand is not that."

Even the Times has been criticized this time around for its coverage of the Wendy Davis filibuster. Satirical DC blog Wonkette observed that the paper of record initially failed to actually name Davis herself at all until the 17th paragraph of its story on the fight over the bill, SB 5, which would have banned abortions after 20 weeks and required doctors performing the procedure to have admittance rights at hospitals within 30 miles of where they were performing abortions, the latter provision which would have forced most of the state's clinics to close. However, after Wonkette's critique was published, the Times updated its story to move Davis' name up to the second paragraph.

It's difficult to say right now if the networks and major newspapers have learned anything from this story, and whether they will provide live coverage of other news events sweeping social media going forward. But they will get another shot with this particular bill, as Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry today called another special session on July 1 to get it passed this time around. In the meantime, the coverage of the filibuster itself marks a clear example of social media's ability to provide viewers with accurate information in real time — however disjointed it might have been, coming as it was from multiple sources. There's nothing to prevent mass media outlets from using the same channels to keep their viewers informed, much less their far more popular TV channels and websites. The question is whether they have the will.

Additional reporting by Greg Sandoval.