A particular finding by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism was both striking and at the same time not surprising to me: the accelerated transforming of the cable news channels into talk cable.
For a democracy, especially one which holds itself out to the world as the preeminent example for it’s openness and forward thinking. But the U.S. has been plagued by a toxic, highly partisan and deeply polarized political climate. And politics is the life blood on cable.
The report had two significant exposés on the cable front. First, coverage of live news events on CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC plummeted by 30% from 2007 to 2012, while interview segments — featuring all manner of pundits, commentators and bloviators — jumped by 31%
The second: The distinction between daytime and prime time on cable has blurred. While prime time has long been dominated by talk, the earlier hours featured a healthy dose of actual news. Not any more. The Pew report found that interview segments were equally prevalent in both time periods.
The most significant change came at CNN, the last, best hope for straight-down-the-middle news in cableworld. While Fox and MSNBC clearly tilt rightward and leftward, respectively, CNN had previously at least attempted to remain above the partisan fray with no obvious political orientation. And it is still the only one of the three that broadcasts more news than opinion. But the sharp cutback in reporting there is truly discouraging.
Pew found that during the five-year period it studied, the cable news pioneer had doubled the time it devoted to talk while cutting in half the airtime devoted to story packages. And it slashed the amount of news coverage during the day by more than 50%.
Change in Ownership Was Bound to have an Effect
As I said earlier, however, I was not surprised, just disheartened that it had come to pas as expected. After all, It's a lot cheaper to offer up talkers than cover the news. And in today's tough profit-driven media climate, that's clearly a tempting alternative. Especially in light of their competition.
MSNBC and FOX have been rivals for some time, with FOX and it’s willingness to seek out the much higher demographic of low-information, extreme partisans on the right, always coming out ahead in viewership.
But CNN, while owned by Ted Turner, was properly known as the place to go when real news was happening. That all changed when Time/Warner took over.
As with all the other major networks , both cable and what’s left of over-the-digital-air channels are now owned by mega-entertainment companies and are strictly profit-driven.
• ABC-Owned and operated by Disney Corp.
• NBC-Owned and operated by Comcast
• CBS-Once owned by Viacom, now bought back by CBS Corp.
• FOX-Rupert Murdoch with financial backing from the Tea Party Oil magnates the Koch Brothers
Historians will look back at the decades between 1960 and 2000 and see the shift from hospitals who cared for the sick and elderly to a profit-driven behemoth. The same will be said for the news industry. Where news once was a cost center whose expenses were the cost of providing a service to the people of the United States and a respected profession, by 2000 was an anything-goes-for-ratings-dollars medium.
Granted, MSNBC, which tilts to the liberal side of the spectrum will pound away at a particular side of a story across it’s datytime and nighttime programming, FOX will resort to just making things up, deliberately obfuscating the truth if it further the right-wing agenda, all without a hint of objective reporting.
Even as in talk radio, it’s pretty much a given that the conservatives in the red states are much more adamant in their “rage against the machine” and FOX is eager to point the fingers squarely at those dastardly liberals who seek to take all the hard-earned money from working people and give it to the “welfare queens” as Ronald Reagan portrayed the less fortunate or the “food stamp king”, President Obama, as he was constantly referred to by New Gingrich.
Let’s be clear, on the playground of politics, conservatives can call liberals, and especially President Obama, any name they choose, throw lie after nasty lie at President Obama or even his family, but mutter one minor innuendo at the Republicans and they squeal like a stuck pig. It is truly pathetic, and yet FOX conflagrates this animus at every possible opportunity.
Only WE THE PEOPLE Can Change This Erosion of News
The fact is, we need more facts and less hot air. Unless the public starts turning off these bloviating, bigoted big-mouths, they'll keep selling advertisers space to support themselves.
In another part of its report, Pew finds that politicians are gaining the upper hand over journalists when it comes to controlling the political narrative. Social media give the pols direct access to voters. And smaller news staffs often mean less scrutiny.
One of the bright spots in recent years has been the advent of more aggressive fact-checking of political ads and politicians' assertions. Too often in the past, news outlets would settle for he said/she said coverage that provided little illumination and much confusion. Now factcheck.org and PolitiFact do truth-squadding full time, while news organizations such as The Washington Post and the Associated Press have their own fact-checking operations.
Instead of offering up more political mud wrestling, cable, which covers politics for a living, should focus on helping sort out what is the truth and what is not. I would think that ABC, NBC, and CBS wouldtake the lead here, but that has simply not happened.
Instead, they largely have become nationwide local news. Their stories are tantamount to whose dog was snatched, how many shooting there were on the “bad side of town”, and some fluff pieces to fill in the 20 minutes of actual air time they produce.
And given that partisanship is such a huge element of the business models of FOX and MSNBC, it's unlikely we'll see a lot of impartial analysis from them. That's why it's so disheartening to see CNN retreating.
Don't get me wrong: I'm all for intelligent, provocative, well-thought-out commentary. There's a lot of insight to be gained from reading our best bloggers and columnists. Opinion writers with a clear point of view can be quite valuable as long as they are reality-based and write with integrity.
Sadly, that's not what talk cable is all about.
First, there's the preaching-to-the-converted model of Fox and MSNBC. Fox was launched as a conservative voice and has been a huge success, with an audience bigger than CNN's and MSNBC's combined. MSNBC, after years of flailing around in third place, gained traction by moving leftward, originally thanks to the success of former prime-time host Keith Olbermann.
You don't hear a lot of dissenting voices on partisan cable.
Fox has been slapped around for years by critics and liberals alike for its predictable slant. But the Pew report showed just how far MSNBC has followed its liberal path. Pew found that an astonishing 85% of MSNBC's content was opinion, compared with 55% on Fox and 46% on CNN.
But another type of interview programming too often found on cable is also problematic. It consists of two guests, one on the left and one on the right, who will predictably disagree about everything, often at high volume, often talking at the same time. It's not a conversation, it's not a discussion, it's combat. It's about scoring points, not enhancing understanding.
The country is bitterly split, and there is no doubt that many viewers are merely interested in having their opinions affirmed. But there is a substantial number of people out there who are persuadable, who remain open, who can be reached by factual reporting.
And, sadly, for them, cable is not a hospitable home.