If Cable News is Dying, Here Are Four Reasons Why
Lessons from the lineage of Ailes, Zucker and Licht
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
With the second annual CNN boss-firing now behind us, you’ve probably read a bunch of hot takes about how the chaos there masks how cable TV news generally is in a decline of which the shenanigans of Jeff Zucker, Tucker Carlson and Chris Licht are only a small part. This week I want to get behind and perhaps beyond that.
A big piece of what’s going on, of course, is “cord-cutting,” the fact that millions of people, many of them younger, are just doing without cable. But that’s not new, and it’s not especially interesting for journalism, because nothing about it is particular to journalism.
Instead, here are four factors that are about journalism, and go a long way toward explaining what is happening:
Good journalism doesn’t equate to good ratings
The man who did more than anyone else to invent modern cable news remains the late, unlamented Roger Ailes, who, when he wasn’t sexually harassing his staff, first grasped that appealing to the prejudices of viewers (racial, but also political and class antagonisms) would garner a committed audience, and who didn’t scruple that it would also entail crossing ethical lines or deceiving viewers.
Ailes’s competitors, looking jealously at the economics of what he had built at Fox, told themselves they were different: The prejudices to which they could appeal wouldn’t include race, the deplorables deserve class prejudice (although it’s impolitic to use those terms) and, if they were being tendentious or sometimes unfair, their targets deserved it. Also, in Zucker’s case at least, yes, they were violating clear workplace rules, but consensually.
This isn’t false equivalence, or any other kind of equivalence. CNN and MSNBC at their worst were never Fox. But the business leaders of CNN and MSNBC envied Fox, and acted on that to the detriment of their journalism.
Advertisers and core viewers want different things
Advertisers were appalled with all of it. They crave environments of trust and safety, and abhor constant conflict and toxicity. The result was that the cable networks traded off larger audiences, won on the Ailes/Fox model, for lower priced, lower quality ads from the purveyors of adult diapers, prescription drugs and scammy insurance, as well, periodically, as targeted political spots that had the effect of doubling down on the polarization. The upshot was the near-collapse of one leg of the revenue stool, resulting in even greater dependence on the cable fees that flowed from—and required—large and rabid audiences. The circular effect became increasingly self-fulfilling.
News avoidance is a big and growing problem
As cable news became ever more dark (no matter whether or not events in the real world were trending toward what viewers want— as they are in many ways now, with crime and inflation and migration across the southern border and COVID deaths all falling), it should not be surprising that many viewers simply turned away. Sure they would be back for a short time if the sun was blotted out by ash or if Trump got indicted again or if a new variant resumed killing people in droves, but that viewing was almost involuntary. When they felt they could choose, many viewers chose to tune out.
I know I have quoted it before here, but this from Franklin Roosevelt, likely the greatest communicator in the history of American politics, is worth bearing always in mind:
public psychology, and for that matter, individual psychology, cannot, because of human weakness, be attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest note on the scale.
Cable news has become premised, in part, on a belief that this is no longer true. But it still is.
Cable news still can’t handle demagogues
Finally, and most damaging to CNN—which, lest we forget, cynically used Donald Trump for fun and profit in 2016, only to try to slay its Frankenstein monster beginning in 2017-- journalism has always had trouble with demagogues. And while much of the press has made progress on this tough question over the last eight years, cable news remains a laggard.
Brian Stelter, the former CNN host and author of a book on Fox with another on the way, wrote recently that any candidate to run CNN needs to be asked “What should an anchor do when a guest says something untrue?” I agree that it’s an important question, but shouldn’t it have been on the front burner eight years ago and resolved by now?
For starters, you ought to try to avoid placing yourself in such a position. That means that someone who told an average of 20 lies per day, every day for four years as president of the United States, should never again (at least through next year’s election) be live on your air as a guest or giving a live speech.
More generally, let’s pause a moment on those words “host” and “guest,” which is what people speaking on news shows are called. If a guest in any other circumstance egregiously violated the basic values of the home or business they were visiting, they wouldn’t be invited back. The same should be applied to anyone who lies on live TV news. You can still report on what they say, tape (and if necessary edit) interviews, show video of them doing things, or saying things that are merely opinion (or actually true), but you don’t have them back to defile another show.
Imagine what might happen if a cable network announced such a policy and then began to actually enforce it? It’s easier if you try.
As an experiment, the illustrations for this column were generated using Open AI’s DALL-E 2. Let me know what you think, if you are so moved, in the comments.
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