When “the news” stopped being about news

Ezra Klein, filling in for Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, looks at the “decline” of cable news and suggests that it’s not so much the news channels that are to blame as the fact that the news itself these days is both generally depressing and (worse) usually pretty boring:

The Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi sees a grim future for the industry. He argues that cable news is pretty much where newspapers were a decade ago: Their audience is aging, their medium is being disrupted by new technologies, and the next generation of viewers is developing habits and preferences that they’re poorly placed to serve. (This is probably a good moment to note that I’m a contributor to MSNBC.)

Perhaps that’s right. But while Farhi’s account of cable news’ woes focuses mainly on the cable part of the equation, it’s also worth considering the problems all three networks are having with the news itself.

But now it’s an unusually dull period in American politics. Congress is gridlocked, and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. The United States, thankfully, isn’t reeling from a terrorist attack or a financial crisis. We haven’t invaded Iran, at least not yet. And it’s not just cable news that’s losing viewers because of it. Turnout in the 2014 election was the lowest it’s been in 70 years.

You see this, I think, in the specific fortunes of the cable networks. Farhi reports that MSNBC lost 14 percent of its audience in 2014, and Fox lost 2 percent. But CNN prime time—which swung away from politics towards covering plane crashes and airing documentaries—is up 10 percent in 2015.

But if you ask me, his concluding paragraph contains the biggest reason why cable news, ratings or not, has totally flown off the rails:

But year to year, a lot of the ups and downs might just be the appeal of what’s actually in the news. If President Scott Walker goes to war with Iran, MSNBC’s ratings are going to go up. If President Hillary Clinton takes away everyone’s guns, Fox is going to boom. But for now, relative peace and stability are bad news for cable news.

Obviously Klein is talking specifically about ratings while I’m talking about quality, but when cable news has become a contest to see which network can scratch a particular group’s itch the best, that’s a sign that the whole project is rotten. It would be one thing if these networks were competing on the basis of legitimate specialization in news coverage: maybe CNN would be better on war and foreign news, MSNBC on stories like police misconduct and protests, and Fox on covering Congress or something. But instead their areas of specialization — Fox at shading the news to appeal to conservatives, MSNBC at shading the news to appeal to liberals and/or Washington insiders (i.e., Morning Joe), and CNN at doing unintentional comedy — which highlights the fact that we’re missing a US cable news network that just tries to cover the freaking news.

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One thought on “When “the news” stopped being about news

  1. Neil Postman nailed this thirty years ago with “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” which Aldous Huxley forshadowed in 1932 with “Brave New World.” One could even argue that it all goes back to “Nicomachean Ethics,” in which Aristotle put the smackdown on Plato – who refused to stay down, condemning us all to fight this battle anew with every generation.

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