Lost in all the political falderal for the last five years is the fact that teevee media “news” departments–once immune to budget constraints and concerned more with getting the truth to the American viewing public than ratings–have become farther from actual “truth-seekers” than professional wrestlers have become to the youngster participating in the sport you might see at the Olympics…or any high school cross-town slugfest for that matter.
Recently, and unsurprisingly simultaneously, conservative experts, reported that Obamacare would force young people to pay vastly higher premiums, face large deductibles and leave 30 million Americans uninsured, while over in liberal-land, a popular liberal pundit was calling Republican opponents of the program “political lightweights” and worse. Congresspersons on both sides of the aisle were also calling each other one name or another and generally playing pin-the-blame-on-the-other-guys.
On a recent spot on Morning Joe, on MSNBC no less, Chuck Todd, NBC analyst and White House Correspondent, finally said out loud what most of us have thought for a very long time— He doesn’t think it’s his job to make sure his audience knows when Republicans are lying to them. I guess that’s why he only appears on MSNBC, the so-called liberal network, in the mornings like his conservative peers Morning Joke and Andrea (Greenspan) Mitchell.
Oh How the 4th Estate Has Fallen
Debate on the first federal government shutdown in 17 years and the country’s largest new government program in a generation has been going full guns a-blazing. On balance, Fox is far worse than MSNBC. But both broadcasts are emblematic of America’s deteriorating news industry.
The proliferation of opinion-driven cable TV and the total disintegration of once-numerous and respected newspapers has created an American news media that does an increasingly pitiable job of informing the public–but an excellent job of dividing it, and raising ad revenue in the meantime.
The media, of course, is not exclusively to blame for America’s political polarization. Multifaceted dynamics — including a weak economy, gerrymandering and rapidly-shifting demographics — are fueling the rapidly growing and ferocity of partisanship. But an economically battered news industry in desperate need of a new business model is no doubt a central part part of the problem.
Creating cable television and social media bubbles where one’s political views are affirmed has proven popular and profitable. Angrily declaring one’s opponents imbeciles enriches pundits, corporate executives and stockholders. The result for many Americans, though, is bewilderment, distrust and division.
I’m not suggesting a false equivalence between Fox and MSNBC, or the far right and left — which James Fallows has rightly criticized in The Atlantic. Hard-line Republicans egged on by Fox News are as responsible as bribed politicians for the government shutdown. Citizens’ United has emboldened and financed fringe right-wing zealots as never dreamed possible before the Roberts-led SCOTUS. They have taken the government hostage in their obsession to end Obamacare, and are nothing short of insurgents. Yet if one watches only Fox, radical steps are needed to prevent the calamity that conservatives believe Obamacare represents.
There are some reasons for hope. The emergence of non-profit news outlets and the Web’s breadth of information and instant accountability are promising. But simplistic, reassuring narratives are more profitable than unemotional descriptions of intricate public policy problems. For a collapsing, digital-age news industry desperate for income, partisanship is an economic lifeline.
This new “reality” can be evident on essentially any given primetime night. Flipping between Fox and MSNBC for several hours produce two completely different realities for the same stories.
On MSNBC, Matthews and his guests called House Republicans “whacko-birds,” “birthers” and “crazy, angry.” They said opponents of Obamacare were driven by bigotry and selfishness.
“There is very little sense on the Hill that they’re there for something bigger than themselves,” said Susan Milligan, a columnist for U.S. News and World Report.
At 8:00 p.m. on Fox, Bill O’Reilly raised the rhetorical ante. Two days after its introduction, Obamacare was “not ready for prime time,” according to O’Reilly, riddled with so many problems “it was pretty much impossible to list them all,” and likely to spawn delays in medical care and promote fraud.
Over on MSNBC, Chris Hayes opened his 8:00 p.m. show with a screen logo declaring far-right opponents of the law “frauds.”
Back on Fox, Sean Hannity called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) a “sick, twisted old man” who engaged in “casualty cruelty.” Hannity also mocked the 18 House Republicans who had said they no longer supported a shutdown as a way to stop Obamacare. According to Hannity, they were willing to “bend down at the altar of Reid and Obama.”
Finally, over on MSNBC, 9:00 p.m. host Steve Kornacki, substituting for Rachel Maddow, said that Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was following the example of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and using “stunts” to make himself a hero to the Republican base.
“Newt Gingrich, more than anybody else, may be responsible for where we are, what we are now seeing playing out inside the halls of Congress,” Kornacki said. “He wrote the script and Ted Cruz is following it to a t.”
Over the course of the night, Fox made more exaggerated claims and out-of-context statements. But theatrics, demonization and smugness reigned on both networks.
And Where Would We Be Without Polls?
It’s no surprise to me that Nate Silver abandoned his lofty perch at The Washington Post–where he proved to be uncannily astute at predicting election outcomes—for the safe confines of ESPN where sports fans are merely fanatics—not armed, vicious, and threatening violence when facts don’t meet their desired results.
Polls, meanwhile, show vast public confusion about Obamacare. The law is the latest example of the polar opposite narratives Americans are hearing about the state of the country. There is more information than ever available to Americans, but few ways to reliably gauge it.
Cable pundits, meanwhile, enjoy unprecedented wealth and influence. Rush Limbaugh earned $66 million last year, according to Forbes. Last month, the conservative website Town Hall declared him the most influential leader on the American right.
Glenn Beck, who earned an astounding $90 million last year, was ranked number 10. Hannity, who took home $15 million, was number six. O’Reilly, who made $20 million, received an honorable mention. Five of the six most influential conservatives were media personalities or former politicians — not current Republican office holders.
What do Americans get in return? Hyperbole at heights never seen before regarding political deliberations that rewards extremism and poorly informs the public.
Hard-line conservatives and the media that fans their flames are certainly to blame for the current crisis. But, sadly, so is America’s failing news industry.