One of my deepest convictions is that television news – cable news, in particular – is terrible for democracy.
Television is a medium that often prioritizes entertainment over being informative or enlightening or even useful. What the networks want is to grab your eyeballs and keep them. Viewers can always turn to the next channel, after all, to watch Friends reruns or a DIY show. The problem, of course, is that it’s much, much easier to grab viewers’ attention with drama and outrage than with coverage of politics and politics. So drama and outrage is what we get.
A few stories over the weekend show how the process works and why it’s so terrible.
The first, to Politics, documents “The Rise and Fall of the Star White House Correspondent”. Although it’s supposed to be about journalism in general – and the names of print journalists like Maggie Haberman of the New York Times – it’s really about the TV news industry and how over the decades the pace of the White House has transformed TV journalists like Sam Donaldson and Jake Tapper into celebrities with shows at prime time and book deals and very, very comfortable lives.
But the current group of journalists covering the presidency don’t seem to be on track for such awards. Why? Because Joe Biden’s White House is so boring, especially compared to its predecessor. There are fewer opportunities to take a stand, report ugly stories of palace intrigue, or burst into public consciousness like (say) CNN’s Jim Acosta and Kaitlan Collins did during the Trump administration. And it makes the job a whole lot less fun.
There’s news to cover, of course. A war in Europe. Inflation at home. There is still a pandemic, of sorts. Somehow, though, it’s just not as sexy or exciting. The audience disconnects.
“The job is much less rewarding because you’re no longer saving democracy from Sean Spicer and his Men’s Wearhouse suit,” an unnamed correspondent said. Politics Max Tani.
There is a lot of contempt and arrogance in this quote. But it makes it easy to see how TV celebrity inducements could distort the kind of Washington news we see nightly. And it’s not hard to ask to what extent these incentives in turn shape the electorate.
This brings us to the second article of the weekend — a series of articles, in fact — at the New York Timesabout Tucker Carlson’s rise to the top of Fox News, and as the natural heir to Donald Trump’s populist anti-immigrant policies.
Nick Confessor, the Time journalist, documented how Carlson failed in stoppages to CNN and MSNBC. When given the chance to run his own show at Fox News, Carlson and his team responded by paying close attention to minute-by-minute viewer ratings to see what audiences wanted. And what did the audience want? Hostility towards immigrants and minorities.
So Tucker gave it to them.
“He’s going to dub white nationalism because the minutes show the public eating it,” a former Fox employee said. Time.
There is a disturbing truth here. It’s easy to blame Tucker and other Fox News hosts for enraged their audiences and misled viewers. But it is also true that it attracts 3 million viewers per evening. (And for what it’s worth, he denied the follow-up notes.) A lot of Americans want what Tucker Carlson is selling. He is happy to sell. And of course, he makes the choice to sell it. “I don’t think people like Tucker are innocent victims of public expectations, so much as co-creators of a cage of madness in which they all find themselves trapped in a catastrophic endless grievance loop,” Atlanticit is Derek Thompson wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
The print media is not entirely immune to these temptations, of course. A whole generation of newspaper reporters entered the profession after watching Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman defeat President Nixon at the movies. And print journalism is not really to print plus: It’s all on screen and online, where tracking tools let editors and publishers know, minute by minute, what audiences actually want. Guess what? It’s drama and rage. They will probably get it. And our politics will suffer.
We’re all TV news now.
“American democracy is not a reality show,” President Biden said Saturday night at the White House Correspondents Association dinner. Unfortunately, he is wrong. We will regret it.
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