Tuesday, October 13, 2009

People Like to Put the Television Down

Matt Yglesias is back in the U.S.A., and distressed about the cable news networks:
It makes you think about the strange influence that daytime cable news has on American politics. The three networks combined have an aggregate daytime audience of roughly zero. But even though the audience, looked at nationally, amounts to rounding error the networks are hugely popular among the tiny number of people who work in professional politics. Just like traders have CNBC and Bloomberg on in their offices, political operatives are constantly tuned in to what’s happening on cable news. The result is a really bizarre hothouse scenario in which people are basically watching . . . well . . . nothing, but they’re riveted to it. How things “play” on cable news is considered fairly important even though no persuadable voters are watching it. And cable news’ hyper-agitated style starts to infect everyone’s frame of mind, making it extremely difficult for everyone to forget that the networks have huge incentives to massively and systematically overstate the significance of everything that happens.
I love that he doesn't qualify that "no persuadable voters." Rightly so; presumably there must be one or two people out there who (1) vote, (2) are interested enough in politics and public affairs to watch daytime cable news, and (3) are swing voters, but we're talking about a tiny, tiny, sliver of the population. Not 1%. Probably not 0.1%. Really, no one.

On cable news generally, when I first started grad school (leaving a Hill job), I remember wanting to keep in touch with the way that practitioners thought about and talked about politics, and so I tried to make it a point to watch the evening network news. Later, I thought that watching the network news broadcasts was no longer necessary -- but CNN was.

And then a couple of years ago I basically hit the point that Matt talks about today, and I decided to stop watching the cable nets. Oh, sure, I'll scan past them once in a while, but I think the days when you had to watch CNN (or Fox, for that matter) to know what people were talking about and how they talked about it are receding. The blogs are now -- along with a real newspaper -- sufficient. I'm not sure when the line was crossed, but I'm sure that one couldn't really get the 2000 election without cable nets, and I'm sure one could be well-informed about the 2008 election without them. And note I'm not just talking about the basic facts, which were always available via newspapers. But I don't think anyone reading just newspapers could understand, in 2000, the "liar" vs. "idiot" frame surrounding Gore and Bush. Now, however, I think just the cable nets isn't enough -- I don't think you could really understand Palin, or Clinton/Obama, without online resources. But I do think that online-only (plus a newspaper) is sufficient, although it does require watching stuff that originated on cable news, or even, as with Palin, on the broadcast networks.

Meanwhile, I recommend to Yglesias that he gets the TVs switched over to C-SPAN. Yes, there's plenty of junk on C-SPAN, but it's not as vapid as car chases, or as useless as weather stories, and it certainly solves the problem of an overly frenetic atmosphere.

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