So now I have sat through six hours of cable-news TV shows, three hours with FOXNews and three with MSNBC. After all of it, what exactly have I learned? (Other that this experience is one that should come with a “Do Not Try This At Home” warning, that is.)
I really came away with two big takeaways: The first was the discovery that 24-hour cable news television is – surprisingly – much, much worse that I have always assumed; the second was the far more surprising revelation that it doesn’t have to be.
Let’s take a moment to look at what I discovered.
First off, let’s take a quick look at the editorial decisions used by both networks in terms of what kinds of segments to run. First I needed some kind of baseline. Most journalists I know (Republican and Democrat) speak highly of the reporting in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, even if one is seen as a mostly liberal outlet that covers politics and culture, and the other a mostly conservative outlet that covers mostly business and economic news. But for lack of a better choice, I decided to take stock in the front page stories that ran in each on May 31, the day I TIVO-ed my cable news shows. Here are the stories that made the front page for the New York Times on May 31:
NY soft drink ban
Israel considers new borders for Palestinians
Unrest in Syria
Liberian leader sentenced to 50 years for war crimes
Racism problems at the Euro
Exercise may increase heart risk for some
Here are the same for the Wall Street Journal:
Worries about financial stability in Europe (2 stories)
Human interest story on software developer
Public employee unions in WI losing members prior to election
(Note: As readers of the Journal are aware, much of it’s front page is taken up with blurbs of other stories inside the paper, and as a result it has fewer front page stories than the Times.)
Any of these stories (save the obligatory human interest pieces) seems quite important and easily justifiable as news worth covering. It’s interesting to note, then, that the only story that is covered on either front page and the cable shows is the Wisconsin recall election. But what about the other segments for the cable shows? I divided them into categories and graphed them out:
As you will note, anything that actually reports on factual matters – even if through a tainted or biased lens – I am willing to call journalism, and you will find it represented on the graphs in some shade of green. Stories that aren’t journalism at all but straight propaganda that are negative to the “other side” are a represented by a shade of red; those that are propaganda that are positive to their “own side” are represented by shades of blue. Human interest stories that are not used as propaganda in any way are yellow. Not surprisingly, the graphs are not that dissimilar, though FOX does appear to spend more time propping up its own side with positive propaganda than does MSNBC. However, I would argue that the instances of actual journalism and human interest stories on MSNBC are highly skewed by the Rachel Maddow Show. In fact, if you remove her content the MSNBC pie looks like this:
Still more interesting is this: While each adds a few extra individual original bits, all three shows on FOX essentially cover the same four stories, in different orders. (Those stories are the Wisconsin recall, birtherism, planned parenthood promotes gender-based abortion, and the obligatory anti-Obama story.) There is some variation in the Obama smack-downs, but all of the others hammer home the exact same arguments using the exact same verbiage; each is pretty much interchangeable with the other, and might well have been penned by a single source. (Which is not to say that it was.). On the other hand, MSNBC has only one story covered by all three programs: the obligatory anti-Romney segments, which do not have the uniformity in commentary that FOX has with its anti-Obama segments. (And the truth is that grouping Maddow’s commentary with Shultz’s or O’Donnell’s is a huge stretch. Shultz and O’Donnell’s Romney rants seem more akin to the FOX anti-Obama screeds, politics aside.) Past that there is very little overlap at MSNBC. Whereas FOX’s shows have the appearance of a concerted and strategized effort, the hosts of MSNBC are all over the map.
Similarly, there is a consistency in production quality in the FOX shows that MSNBC lacks. While I have to say that Maddow is intellectually superior to anything I saw on FOX, her two compatriots are just as vile as their cross-channel rivals without being nearly as entertaining or engaging. MSNBC was a tale of two sides of the spectrum, while all the FOX shows seemed to be one long, amorphous hack job.
There were other differences. One that I noted on my MSNBC post is the way each deals with dissenting voices. FOX likes having “opposing views” – or, to be more precise, FOX likes having the illusion of opposing views. The people they choose to “debate” the host are terrible; whether they are really poor debaters of are simply under contract to not point out the huge flaws in the host’s reasoning I can’t say. They are also picked, as I have noted, because they are young, attractive women who have that car-show model look, which helps feed the white, male misogynist stereotype of a FOX viewer that many liberals have. Having the jowly, elderly male host “win” and then chuckle over how “cute” the failed efforts of the pretty young lady were is really quite nauseating. MSNBC, on the other hand, goes a different and equally bad route – they only have guests on that tell the hosts how clever and awesome they are. The result is something that comes off as being tremendously sad to watch, and is the very definition of “the echo chamber” its hosts are so willing to call FOX. The exception, really, was Maddow, who basically does her show herself. (Though she did have one guest, another journalist that went into more depth about the Florida voter purge story, and in truth that guest didn’t really add anything.)
Another difference was one that I couldn’t put my finger on until I looked back, and it’s what I might call Lakers-Blazers Fan Perception Discrepancy Syndrome. To explain: Having been raised in SoCal, I am a die hard Lakers fan. Since I moved to Portland, everyone here talks to me about how the Lakers and the home-town Blazers are one another’s bitter rivals. But they aren’t; Laker fans often forget Portland exists, even though Blazer fans constantly obsess about LA. It’s the same way with FOX and MSNBC. MSNBC talks about FOX all the time. I mean, constantly. Watching their network, you’d think that MSNBC and FOX used to date until FOX dumped MSNBC for that slut CNN. FOX, on the other hand, didn’t mention MSNBC once. Pushing this same strained metaphor farther than I should, it’s like you have to remind FOX that they actually dated once. (“No we didn’t, if we had I’d rememb- oh wait! We did date that one time! I totally forgot. What are they up to, anyway? Are they still broadcasting?”)
Differences aside, the truth is that with the exception of Maddow they are all terrible, and those that defend them on one of the Three Standard Cable TV News Shows Defenses have either never actually watched them or are as unreliable a source as the shows themselves. The Three Standard Cable TV News Networks Defenses are:
1. They’re just telling the stories the Lame Stream Media won’t report.
2. They’re not news, they’re opinion.
3. They’re not news or opinion, they’re entertainment.
All of these defenses are – pardon my language – bullshit.
Let’s start with the first excuse, that the cable news shows simply report stories that the Lame Stream Media won’t report. Based on what I witnessed, this is actually the case – because the stories they are reporting aren’t actually true. Instead, each show very purposefully participates in propaganda that is the willful spreading of misinformation. Each show is rife with examples, but I’ll just focus on what I found to be the two worst offenses. In The Ed Show, the main segment focuses on Mitt Romney’s plot to eliminate the middle classes. Not, I want to be clear, advocating for public policies that may unintentionally result in negative outcomes for the middle class, but an actual willful desire to eliminate the middle class. Ed says this over and over. He does discuss reasons that he believes those policies that Mitt campaigns on are bad economic choices, but then he immediately jumps from that to the “fact” that we have now learned that Mitt Romney wants to destroy people like you and me. This is absurd, of course, but if you only watched MSNBC for your news would you really know just how absurd?
Sean Hannity’s most outrageous disinformation campaign was actually worse. Ed reported that facts combined with twisted logic “proved” something that they didn’t, but Sean just flat reported something he knew was a falsehood. And not just any falsehood, but the rather slanderous lie that President Obama “leaked” the name of an American operative working in Pakistan so that he would be arrested and, I would assume, tortured. Worse, he reported this with an ex-Secretary of Defense and White House Chief of Staff. In my FOX live-blog, the single entry that was added at a later date was due to this claim, which was repeated numerous times. I hadn’t heard this claim prior to watching Hannity, and as it turned out this was for good reason. Researching it took me all of 10 seconds. This “story” came from an erroneous claim by GOP Congressman Peter King. If you are not familiar with Rep. King, note that he is the same congress critter that claimed during the Ground Zero Mosque brouhaha that he had “proof” that 85% or American mosques housed terrorists – so we’re clearly talking about someone who’s wild claims should be taken with a grain of salt. But King had long since admitted that he basically made it up, which was reported on FOX’s website a week earlier. And yet Sean Hannity and Donald Rumsfeld were still willing to say that the White House had given the operative up over, and over, and over, knowing that there was no merit to it.
These are the kinds of stories that the Lame Stream Media won’t report – the totally fictitious kind.
But what about the other defenses, that “everyone knows it’s just opinion or entertainment?” These arguments come with the line that of course people that watch them know it isn’t news. I’m not so sure. If you are interviewing the ex-Secretary of Defense about how the White House gave up an American operative in between segments where you have “reporters” doing “exclusive exposes,” I think the “we’re just entertainment or opinion” line is trying to have your cake and eat it too. And in either case, it doesn’t mean that viewers don’t get that it’s bullshit. Since this episode aired I have heard the claim that that Obama gave up the Pakistani operative many, many times – all on FOXNews radio programming. I will tell you right now that the people that called in to the various hosts in spittle-flecked rage about the treasonous actions of our president were not aware that this was not “news.”
And yet for all of that, I do believe that Rachel Maddow shows that there is a legitimate place for quality cable news programming. What’s more, she proves that you don’t have to be a pretend centrist to produce good television journalism.
Rachel is very clearly progressive and has a distinct political agenda, and the stories she tells certainly reflect this. And yet she is still able to produce quality journalism instead of propoganda. The Maddow Show has several key differences that separate it from the tripe it is surrounded by, regardless of their political stripe. None of these differences are inherently progressive, and so there is no reason that liberals, conservatives, and libertarians alike couldn’t produce similar quality. Perhaps it’s possible that the ratings for bad journalism will always be better than the ratings for good, and I would guess that the good is slightly more expensive to produce. (Research costs can’t be huge if you’re modus operandi is making shit up.) But assuming that there is a market for quality conservative or liberal cable TV journalism (and I believe there has to be), what does Rachel know about journalism that her peers don’t? A few things:
The Narrative Should Follow the Story, Not Vise Versa. For everyone else I watched, there was clearly a desired political narrative that came first, and stories were forced into that narrative – even at the expense of the stories not being true. Maddow’s stories, on the other hand, are simply great stories. They’re interesting in the very best sense of that word. Some are fascinating, some are entertaining, some are informative, but in each case the story itself stands on it’s own merit without needing to be propped up by any political narrative. When I listened to the MSNBC shows that bookend Maddow, all I wanted was for them to stop talking. With each Maddow segment, I found myself thinking “that would have made an awesome post.”
Every Day Doesn’t Have to Be 9/11. When watching the other shows, it was hard to shake the sense that part of the reason they were pulling such whoppers out of their ass was that they perceived a need for every story to come across to the audience as the most important news story in the history of journalism. But we just don’t live in a world where those kind of stories occur every day, and God willing we never will. The only way you can make it look that way is to either just make things up, knowingly exaggerate and take things out of context, or both.
The story I found the most interesting out of the entire six hours was Maddow’s segment on Iowa Congressman Bruce Braley who had a mysterious source buy millions of dollars in negative campaign ads to convince voters he was a terrorist sympathizer. That story wasn’t breaking news; the bizarre events had actually occurred almost two years ago. Despite that, it was riveting and (thanks to this year’s Superpac storm) relevant at the same time. But it didn’t pretend to be a bombshell that proved Obama was Kenyan or that Romney plans to put women in chains should he ever be elected president. It didn’t have to pretend to be anything – it was simply a great story.
Forced Pretend-Conflict Does Not Equal Quality… or Relevance. The most important story of my cable news sequester, I thought, was Maddow’s reporting on the negative consequences of voter fraud panic. As I said in my live-blog, Maddow didn’t try to make Republicans into an enemy. Rather, she treated them with respect, and crafted a story that warned how fearing things out of proportion can lead to bad legislation that has very real negative consequences for real people. It is not a story designed to hurl rocks, it was a story designed to bring people together to fix a problem. Had I been an advocate for voter purges prior to seeing this story, I would have had that belief strongly shaken if not reversed by this segment. I can tell you that none of the segments from any of the other hosts would have accomplished anything close to this – if anything they would have made me dig in my heels that much more.
In fact, if I could sum all of what makes Maddow superior to everyone else I watched it would be this:
Good journalism doesn’t echo, it informs.
So there you have it. All my thoughts after watching six hours of cable news programming and all of the subsequent alcohol that was needed to wash it down. Was I happy to find an example of quality programming that FOX and the rest of MSNBC could learn from? Sure. Do I have any illusions that either will do so? Nope.