Partisan News: The Return of a Nasty Weed
The New York Times has an interesting story about the slow dwindling audience share of CNN:
Since the beginning of March, CNN has fallen behind both the longtime ratings leader, Fox News Channel, which, as the voice of disaffected conservatives, again has an imposing lead, and the upstart MSNBC, which has tried to mirror Fox’s success by steering to the left.
CNN has even dipped behind its sister network HLN (formerly Headline News) on many occasions. Since the beginning of 2009, CNN has finished fourth in prime time among the cable news networks on 35 out of 84 weeknights.
The development raises an obvious question: With its rivals stoking prime time with high-octane political opinion and rant, can CNN compete effectively with a formula of news delivered more or less straight?
Executives of competitors and even some of CNN’s own staff members say recent trends suggest the answer may be no.
According to the article, here are the latest cable TV news ratings:
In March, CNN averaged 328,000 viewers in prime time among the audience that most news advertisers seek: viewers aged 25 to 54. Fox doubled that with 628,000. MSNBC averaged 375,000.
In April, CNN has been fourth. Fox has 668,000 viewers; MSNBC has 300,000; and CNN has 271,000. HLN has 277,000.
We’re witnessing the death of print journalism, which is being replaced by blogs (many of which are highly partisan) and cable TV news, which the above trends indicate is becoming more partisan.
In Discovering The News: A Social History Of American Newspapers, Michael Schudson argues that journalism in the early days of the Republic used to be a highly partisan endeavor. In the 20th Century, the ideal of neutral unbiased reporting came into vogue. This ideal has long been challenged, especially by the Right, which has contended that there’s a “liberal bias” in the media. Of course, it is impossible for media to be perfectly neutral, as complete neutrality is impossible, but the very ideal of neutrality now seems to be fading. News media entities like Fox News pretend to be “fair and balanced,” but this is just spin. In practice, Fox News knows where its bread is buttered — appealing to a partisan audience and telling them what they want to hear.
We’re being overloaded with talk radio, cable TV shout fests, endless tirades in the blogosphere — what strikes me as endless blather, screeching, shouting, ranting, and raving.
And it’s in the newspapers too. I’d like to see the end of editorial pages in the newspapers. I like the Wall Street Journal, but I’d like it more if it didn’t include the editorial page — I really don’t care what Karl Rove thinks. And I wouldn’t mind seeing the end of the editorial pages at the New York Times or Washington Post.
I don’t care what various Democratic “strategists” and party officials think — they’re just spinning. I don’t want to hear what O’Reilly thinks or Hannity or Beck or most of the people on cable TV think (if they think at all).
I don’t want my news spun and re-spun, pre-processed, drenched in special sauce, overwrapped in excessive packaging, cooked until all nutrients are gone, gussied up with gimmicks and jingles, and then told to me by hosts with “personalities” manufactured to pander to my particular biases.
But I appear to be in the minority. The market seems to be indicating that people want partisan news, which is growing like a nasty weed, slowly choking out more neutral journalism. And so we’ll see fewer real conversations on TV news — we’ll get more shouting matches. We won’t hear from experts who have really studied an issue — we’ll just get more hot-headed sophists sounding off on what people want to hear.
The thought that partisan news is returning with a vengeance is quite frightening to me, and very sad. The ideal of the neutral and objective media was a lofty yet laudable one. It wasn’t ever perfectly executed, yet it was much much better than the descent into bitter partisanship that we’re experiencing today.