How did the cable news networks become our main stage?
Nary a day goes by without somebody saying something stupid somewhere on cable that ignites a national uproar that seizes the news cycle for days. On Wednesday, Tucker Carlson praised the journalism of Infowars fantasist Alex Jones on his Fox News Channel show, and that sparked coverage in the Washington Post, the Daily Beast, HuffPost and elsewhere. Earlier in the week, the someone saying something stupid was Fox Nation journalist Lara Logan, and her venue was Fox News Primetime, where she directly compared Anthony Fauci to Josef Mengele, the Nazi war criminal who conducted ghastly medical experiments on the prisoners at Auschwitz. Drenching coverage poured out of every media orifice and continues as Logan spiked the outrage with a pinned tweet further accusing Fauci of medical wrongdoing. (An Associated Press fact-check, as if we needed one, absolves him.)
And while he doesn’t occupy the same realm of stupid as Carlson or Logan, misbehaving CNN host Chris Cuomo continues to thrive in the media limelight thanks to his suspension. Cuomo isn’t as stupid as he is vacant. I defy you to cite anything memorable he’s ever said beyond his “Let’s get after it“ catchphrase, yet the press has papered his scandal with endless op-eds and news accounts.
Why all this attention when cable news barely matters to most Americans? The average audience commanded by Maddow and Cooper and Hannity and all the others slithering down your cable cord is so tiny you can almost get away with calling cable news a niche media. According to October numbers from TV Newser, the three major cable networks attract an average audience of only 4.2 million viewers during primetime, which is when viewing peaks. In a nation of 330 million, that’s just a little over 1 percent of the population. Meanwhile, the three nightly news broadcasts together can reliably pull in 21.5 million viewers a night. The cable numbers pale even more when you analyze individual networks ratings. Cuomo’s erstwhile channel, CNN, drew, according to TV Newser, an average of about 700,000 viewers during primetime in one October week, which is about equal in size to the population of El Paso. Or compare the cable news audience to that of country music (31 million listeners daily) or Netflix (74 million subscribers) to gain another perspective. If country music vanished in a rapture, you’d have to deal with some pretty ornery people. But if cable news disappeared tomorrow, who would notice?
Well, I would notice, I’m slightly ashamed to admit, as I frequently write about the medium. And my colleagues in the press would notice, too. A whole cottage industry of media commentators and activist groups like Media Matters for America that monitor and respond in real time to cable outrages has taken root. If Tucker Carlson expresses the slightest nativist sentiment, you can count on a rapid response to your inbox. Modern newsrooms keep the cable fire burning in the background all day. At Politico, almost 30 TV monitors hang from the ceiling and are screwed to the walls, and they’re tuned 24/7 to cable news and C-SPAN. And that’s not counting the TV monitors in the top editors’ offices, the commons areas, conference rooms, the office canteen, and the lobby. At some point, I expect to see screens in the bathrooms, too.
TV monitors abound in newsrooms not so much because they’re essential to reporting the news but because journalists have bought into the idea that because the press secretary held a presser or the president attended a rally, or somebody somewhere said something stupid we’ve got to be on it. This is a slightly unfair exaggeration. We journalists need access to breaking news to do our jobs, but what qualifies at breaking news for cable is an extremely low bar. (Another reason big newsrooms love cable: Most of their reporters lust a side-gig sharing their views on camera and love to study the form.)
This is not to say Fox or the other networks have no influence. Fox has been especially effective in the margins by giving people seemingly coherent talking points, like the anti-vaccine propaganda it presents. (See this roll of Fox’s anti-vax messaging aired on CNN and this piece by Media Matters.) But the idea that Fox deserves our wall-to-wall attention because it has become the tail that wags the American political dog is laughable. Fox has been trying for decades to elect a president of its choosing and has repeatedly failed to move its first choice to the top of the ticket. (And that goes for Trump in 2016, too.) The best Fox has been able to do is support whomever the Republicans nominate.
Obviously, some devoted viewers of cable news would notice if their channels disappeared. Its “being there” ability to report from disaster sites, war zones, polling precincts, political demonstrations and Cape Kennedy lift-offs is unmatched. Or is it? Broadcast networks do a decent job getting rain-lashed during hurricanes and they rarely have to resort to the filibustering that cable hosts engage in during lulls in the news. Likewise, Republican talking points would have to find a new means of transmission if Fox went missing and gullible Democrats would suffer if Joy Reid and Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes weren’t around to dispense their political nostrums.
Cable news exists and persists because as small as its audience is, it’s a highly profitable business. Pew Research estimates the three cable networks earn a combined $4 billion a year. But the median age of the cable news audience is in the 60s, as Jeremy Barr of the Washington Post noted, with the median age of MSNBC viewers clocking in at 68. For reasons that are personal, nobody has more reverence for the aged than I, but can we agree that cable news has devolved over time from a useful headline service (Ted Turner’s original vision at CNN) to a day-to-night eldercare operation? It’s one thing to tolerate cable news. It does, after all, keep people employed. But do we really want to continue to indulge an aged minority’s irrelevant obsession with who said what on cable news? Can’t somebody turn the damn thing off?
Bother me no more about what incendiary thing Tucker Carlson said last night. Banish from ear-fall any future mention of Lara Logan. And whatever the outcome of Chris Cuomo’s suspension, promise me that you’ll never speak his name to me again. I’m not swearing off cable or vowing never to write about it again. My job description won’t allow that. But I’m donning a special set of blinders starting today to shield me from cable’s deep foolishness.
When Michael Kinsley stays in hotels, he flips the TV to the various networks until he sees somebody he knows and then he turns off his set. Send TV programming tips to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts live for the BBC. My Twitter feed tunes to C-SPAN. My RSS feed watches only the test pattern.