Blue Realities vs Red Realities
... in the World of Cable News
Editor’s Note: This free column is an updated, more detailed version of a recent "Off the Cuff" audio commentary about cable news – which received a lot of attention.
For 28 years, I covered stories for CBS News all over the United States, and from time to time the rest of the world. And during that time I can’t recall even one conversation about deciding what we should cover based on what our audience wanted us to cover.
Not once did any producer or executive tell reporters to cover this story or that story because liberals who watch us would like it or that conservatives in the audience would like it or that giving the audience the kind of news it wanted would be good for our ratings. It never happened.
We were the journalists. We were the professionals. The people in the audience had other jobs and were good at other things. They weren’t journalists and so we didn’t take into account what they wanted.
It wasn’t that we had contempt for the viewer – nothing like that. It was more like “benign neglect.” As I say, we were the pros; they weren’t.
That was when seasoned journalists like Walter Cronkite and later Dan Rather anchored the CBS Evening New. And Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings were anchors at the other networks.
But mostly, it was before cable news hit the big time. Cable news executives quickly figured out that it was opinion that brought viewers into the tent – and that opinion more than hard news is what translates into higher ratings and more money. Cronkite and the others never talked about red realities and blue realities. They never thought about the news in those terms.
Now, despite the fact that there are some solid journalists on cable, it’s all changed. Now, a lot of what passes for “news” is carefully crafted to make sure it’s the kind of “news” the audience wants to see and hear.
Even President Biden noticed what’s going on. At his recent nearly two-hour news conference, he said that many cable news viewers have "put themselves in certain alleys" and added that the vast majority of people who get their news from cable TV seek out news sources that reaffirm their political worldviews.
And he added, "Again, I'm no expert in any of this but I think you have to acknowledge is what gets covered now is necessarily a little bit different than what gets covered in the past,"
If I were among the reporters at the White House when he said that, I’d have jumped out of my chair and shouted, “Bingo!” He nailed it.
I used to say there were no conspiracies to slant the news, that bias was the result of groupthink. Put a lot of liberals in the newsroom and you’ll wind up with liberal bias in the news. But now producers know what kind of bias their audience wants, and they enthusiastically give it to them. If they don’t, they’ll be looking for a new job.
Conservatives who watch Fox News, for instance, pretty much want stories about what a disaster Joe Biden’s presidency has been. They want stories about how vaccine mandates are un-American (or pretty close to it). They want stories that tell them January 6th wasn’t as bad as liberals say it was, that maybe the FBI was behind the whole thing.
And over at CNN and MSNBC, it seems that every day is January 6, 2021. It’s a legitimate story, of course, but neither of those channels can get enough of it. If they’re not telling their audience that Donald Trump was and still is a “threat to democracy” then it’s probably because they’re in a commercial break.
At liberal channels the mess on our southern border doesn’t get a lot of airtime, not as much as Fox gives it anyway. Same with crime in big cities all across America – big cities, let's point out, run by Democrats. Those are not the kind of stories liberals who watch CNN or MSNBC, by and large, want to hear.
It’s as if liberal channels like CNN and MSNBC and a conservative channel like Fox News are covering two different Americas.
I understand that news is a business; that news operations have to make money. But journalism isn’t like any other business. If you build cars, it’s important to know what kind of cars your customers want. If they want big cars, you build big cars. If they want compact cars, that’s what you give them.
But news is different. News people shouldn’t hold a finger up to the wind to determine what kind of news the audience wants. Because then, they won’t get the kind of news – heaven forbid -- that actually makes the viewer question his or her own convictions.
But something is going on in the world of cable television news, something that President Biden picked up on at his news conference.
“A lot of the speculation and the polling data shows that the cables are heading south," he said. "They're losing viewership."
Right again, Mr. President..
According to Variety, “With no bombastic election cycle, and with COVID-19 coverage not as prevalent as it was before vaccines were developed, the major news channels and opinion networks faced deep dips in 2021. That goes for Fox News (down 34%, although still tops in cable), MSNBC (-28%) and CNN (-38%).”
But there’s another reason, I’m convinced, for the ratings crash. A lot of viewers, I believe, simply have had enough – enough of the same song and dance about how liberals are bad at Fox and conservatives are bad at CNN and MSBNC. What cable news is doing has gotten old. It’s gotten predictable. It’s even gotten boring. And in the world of infotainment, there’s no greater sin than boring your audience.
Walter Cronkite was once named the most trusted man in America. Does anyone actually think that the biggest attraction in cable news, Tucker Carlson at Fox, would ever get that honor? How about Don Lemon at CNN or Rachel Maddow at MSNBC? There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell – excuse the cliché -- that any of them would be voted “most trusted” person in America.”
But if there were an award for pandering to the audience, for feeding viewers the kind of information that reinforces their biases, then there’d be a whole bunch of talking heads up for that title.
Sean Coleman is back in John A. Daly's upcoming thriller novel, “Restitution.” Click here to pre-order.