What’s the Matter with Cable News?: The media’s incivility reaches a fever pitch

Popular opinion has led us to believe that the infection to be worried about this fall is swine flu. Given its generally mild effects, I beg to differ–the real epidemic we should be on guard against is the insidious rise of talking head-itis, easily identifiable by its common symptoms: disregard for evidence, angry invocations of historically unpopular authoritarian leaders (Hitler is the go-to guy if you’re feeling uncreative), and finally, frequent and strategic amplification of the vocal cords.

The leader in the Talking Head movement has undeniably been Fox News Channel, also known, apparently, as “The Most Trusted Name in News.” From 5 to 10pm every weeknight, Fox lays waste to political discussion by offering up the perfect trifecta of talking heads: Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity. The three serve up so much inane conservative vitriol that any viewer with even a mild respect for reason is likely to feel fatigued.

But really, abusing Fox News is beginning to feel so prosaic. It would be unfair to exclude MSNBC, a network that has tried so hard to follow Fox’s example that it has trotted out its own series of nightly talking heads: Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow.

The problem is not that there are opinion shows. Any interesting news medium will offer opinion in some form or another. It is, rather, a series of problems that accompany these talking heads that make their existence and context so insidiously harmful to journalism.

Problem the first: The universality of talking head programs on at least Fox News and MSNBC, which, combined, share nearly two-thirds of the cable news viewers (interestingly, Fox News leaves MSNBC completely in the dust, with more than three times the amount of viewers.)

Assuming that most people work from 9 to 5pm, these cable news channels have strategically designed the programming to give viewers a very strong exposure to punditry, and a cursory experience with actual reporting. By sandwiching Shepard Smith, a reasonably responsible reporter, between the likes of Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, Fox is offering a morsel of neutrality with a beginning and ending emphasis on rage and conservatism.

On this issue, MSNBC is far worse than Fox. From 5 to 10pm, it offers an uninterrupted stream of talking heads, with news being delivered in the form of liberal analysis.

This promotion of opinion over actual reporting would be somewhat less disturbing if it weren’t for problem the second: the lack of diversification among the talking heads of different networks. MSNBC, between 5 and 10pm, supplies an endless stream of (generally frustrated) liberals, a rapidly increasing trend for the channel which started putting together the line-up in 1999 and has most recently added Maddow in 2008 and “The Ed Show” in April of this year.

One can only assume this trend from MSNBC has been a self-conscious reformulation of its network identity into a liberal rebuttal to Fox News, whose highest-rated shows include “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Glenn Beck.” Beck, who moved to the network in January, may have spurred “The Ed Show.” Or perhaps it was the dropping out of soft-hearted liberal Alan Colmes from “Hannity & Colmes,” which caused network heads to simply drop the entire back-and-forth debate schtick and reward Hannity with his own hour.
This undiversified stream of ideological political thought is dangerous, in that it allows its viewers to marinate in a self-satisfied, comfortable, and familiar political rage, without being encouraged to rationally question the statements being made.

Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer, whose blog, “The Frontal Cortex,” explores interesting correlations with neuroscience in everyday life, touches on an issue with this in a post called “Information Addiction.” Here, he quotes the research of Yale political science professor Larry Bartels, who found that, when a sample group of Republicans were asked what happened to the deficit during the Clinton presidency, the more media-savvy Republicans were just as likely as the less media-savvy to proclaim that it increased.
Lehrer posits that this is because “it didn’t jive with their preexisting models. Not only was this information not addictive–it was actively repellent.” He goes on to note, “The same thing is happening right now with health care reform. I enjoy reading all these articles about uninformed conservative voters getting upset about ‘death panels’ or telling senators to ‘keep the government away from Medicare’. Why? Because those facts enrich what I already believe–they confirm my lazy liberal stereotypes. So while I’m “addicted” to this information, I’m not particularly interested in any dissonant alternative views. I’m not emotionally motivated to seek them out.”

If you can watch hours of commentary dismissing your ideology, or hours confirming it, which seems more appealing? With such choices, MSNBC and Fox News have created a citizenry that has no tolerance of or interest in the views of the other side. This helps explain how Fox News was voted both the most (30%) and least (26.2%) trusted news source in a recent poll by Sacred Heart University.

It also brings me to problem the third: the loss of civil discourse. Within these opinion shows, it is an absolute priority that the host be right within the context of the program. Not that the host be discussion-oriented or curious–that the host appear correct. This is framed by the choices for interviews, which, if they get too out of hand or thought-provoking, are often interrupted by the spitting, screaming host and occasionally a demand that the sound people “cut the mic”–a favorite method of O’Reilly.
No mature adult society should be exposed to as much screaming and interruption as ours presents us with on a daily basis from cable news. One can see the effects trickling down into our everyday political life, with screamers at town hall meetings and Joe Wilson’s now infamous “You lie!” line during President Obama’s health care speech to Congress.

Throughout the summer, the best health care debate I saw was not on any cable news channel. Rather, it was Jon Stewart’s interview with Betsey McCaughey, the journalist often credited with starting the “death panel” rumor. Before the discussion, McCaughey came to the stage with the bill in its entirety, and she and Stewart quoted and read from it, exploring different interpretations of an article.

While Stewart disagreed with his guest, he never yelled, and the discussion was actually productive–it highlighted much of the obscurity behind the health care debate, which is that the language of the bill can be open to interpretation, leading to disagreements about the reality of the situation.

With the television news satirist taking the reins of respectful and serious debate, it’s not difficult to understand how Stewart was recently voted “America’s Most Trusted Newsman” in an online Time Magazine poll. Rather than bemoaning the results, we should consider, with hope, what they mean: a growing legion of Americans are tired of irrational discussion and divisive punditry. More people are seeing the contrast, even if it needs to take place on a comedy news show.

My hope is that the current talking head-itis pandemic can be checked by a growing influx of disillusioned young people either finding their way into the mainstream news, or ignoring that which is not useful. I put it to my generation. We are inheriting the garbage, and now we need to take it out.

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