My grandpa has MSNBC on during the announcement that Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris to be his Vice President. It was non-stop praising as to be expected. We decided to check out Fox News for their take and as you might suspect, it’s like an entirely different person was chosen. Tucker Carlson said, “there are time-share salesmen are more trustworthy than Kamala Harris.”
But instead of ripping on Fox for their hypocrisy in ignoring every Trump lie, scandal, or ridiculous tweet, I want to draw attention to the major cable TV news networks in general. While studying for my B.A. in Communications at The University of Michigan, I learned some basic principles of the media that everyone should be aware of.
The media doesn’t just tell us what to think, but what to think ABOUT. They prioritize our own thoughts for us and what we deem important as a news story in itself. Why do major cable news networks like CNN and Fox and MSNBC etc., constantly talk politics despite news happening all across the world that would surely be a higher priority?
There are a couple of obvious reasons, politics is one of the easiest stories to report — but not only that, it gets some of the most viewership. It requires the least amount of effort for some of the highest reward — ratings/viewership. Better yet, amp up the personality and partisanship to drive emotions and suddenly people are tuning in all the time, rotting in front of it. Continually aligning with it and allowing it to almost fully dictate what they are thinking about, not necessarily their specific opinion. Reporting politics constantly is low hanging fruit that drives ratings.
According to Pew Research, “cable talk shows tend to hammer away at a somewhat narrow news agenda that magnifies the day’s more polarizing and ideological issues. The Nielsen data make it clear that cable’s audience is staying for a healthy helping of that content.”
There’s another aspect of this equation, however: The 24-hour news cycle, which was created when Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980, making it the first 24-hour news operation. As anyone might suspect, non-stop news means some stories will be reported on at great length, simply to fill time. That has proven without a doubt to have caused its own problems.
The amount of time spent reporting a story can be as powerful as the story itself if not more so. Imagine if instead of reporting about Joe Bidens VP or Trumps non-stop flubs, what if major cable news networks spent a week reporting the latest NYT story about UFOs and materials “not from this earth”? Can you imagine the reaction if they decided that was the story to spend almost all their time on? It would likely cause people to prepare for an alien invasion.
Obsessing over whatever political fruit came out of the oven that day or week is what prioritizes those stories in people’s minds. As previously mentioned, cable news does this because 1) It’s easy 2) It fills time 3) It drives ratings.
It’s much easier to ask some political pundit to give ‘their take’ on Joe Biden’s decision or Trump’s latest scandal than it is to have reporters chiseling away at stories that could take months to develop and may not attract a wide audience, but they still need to fill that 24-hour news cycle, so how can for-profit media companies do this while maintaining ratings: focus on politics.
In many ways, cable TV news has become much more of a media outlet for political parties, with some news sprinkled in.
This myopic focus on politics by mainstream news media has caused the population as a whole to have the same near-sighted, insulated view of the world and this country. Even worse, the partisan and emotion driven reporting has driven us further apart. Yet we walk around feeling well informed and ready to have adult conversations about politics while news anchors deliver downright childish and toxic “news” monologues every night. By allowing cable news to dominate the national conversation, we don’t have the bandwidth to think about much else, leaving us nearly blind to what is actually happening throughout the world and where we live.
This non-stop political drum on cable news is enough to drive me crazy after only an hour. Thinking about my grandpa who spends hours in front of it every day just makes me sad. As a millennial, I see change on the horizon and I’m very happy about that. I hardly know anyone paying for cable TV. According to Pew Research, viewership of television for a source of news is declining across all age groups, with 18-to-29-year-olds dropping to 23%, while ages 65+ dropped from 85% to 82%. Obviously, age is a massive factor.
Younger generations do have their own set of problems including YouTube channels and fake memes on social media (studies found that social media news consumers are much more likely to have heard about false or unproven claims), but on the plus side, reading articles found on social media is certainly a better outcome than watching cable news. Pew Research found that now 1 in 5 adults primarily get their news through social media in 2020. However, they also found that those who rely most on social media for their news are less likely than other news consumers to closely follow major news stories and also tend to be less knowledgable about those topics.
Maybe I’m biased, but I’ll take the trade-off of not knowing every detail of Trump’s mishaps or constant Coronavirus numbers to preserve some of my sanity. It’s a shame what they have done to parents and grandparents, especially since the creation of Fox News in the 90s — which was intentionally created to be a partisan news network for conservatives created by billionaire Rupert Murdoch.
Fox News changed its motto from “Fair and Balanced” to “Most Watched, Most Trusted,” in 2017. This should give you an indication of where major news network priorities lie — pun intended.