Have partisan cable talk shows nearly killed 20th century killed broadcast news?
The issue is thrust into the headlines as the popularity of partisan cable news shows continues to grow. The broadcast networks’ early evening newscasts which once ruled the roost now seem like sick roosters ““ softly crowing to an older demographic that probably needs hearing aids. As America splinters into almost cult-like political factions, our weakened political center is under attack ““ and the once-iconic 20th century model of broadcast news aspiring to be objective and packaging facts appears wounded.
CNN’s John Avlon, noting the “Balkanization” of America, writes: “Americans are self segregating into separate political realities ““ responding to the proliferation of information by consuming news that confirms their political prejudices.” He notes that to some viewers the only “truth tellers” are the Keith Olbermann or Glenn Becks with others dismissed as biased or cowards. He adds: “We are devolving back to the era when newspapers were owned and operated by political parties.”
ABC’s Ted Koppel (who still looks like a grown up Howdy Doody) writes in The Washington Post that Olbermann, Beck, Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, and Bill O’Reilly are partisans egged on by corporate bosses who see big bucks in partisanship as news shifted from being a public service operation to a cash elephant or cash donkey.
Koppel declares: “[Fox and MSNBC] show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.”
Olbermann responded on the air with a convoluted “special comment” (one of those indignant, outraged comments he does umpteen times month after month) — saying objectivity-advocating journalists like Koppel failed to note the lie of the Iraq war. (So there.)
In all deference: Mr. Koppel. You are in the tradition of Walter Cronkite. But broadcast news’ decline is not due to just MSNBC, Fox and corporate owners.
In all deference Mr. Olbermann. Love your delivery and outrage but, no, you are not in the same class ““ or school, or school district ““ as a Walter Cronkite or a Ted Koppel or a Bob Schieffer. You and your fans may not be happy about that. But that is a FACT.
Another FACT: America’s news and political cultures have changed. Network TV newscasts caused many evening newspapers to close in the 1960s. By the 1974, when I was freelancing in India, some assignment editors wanted tabloid news journalism. By the 1980s, supermarket tabloids seriously competed with big newspapers for political news. By the late 1980s, Rush Limbaugh was radio’s conservative King, sparking a ton of sharply partisan talk show host wannabes.
In 1996 News’ Roger Aisles successfully grafted the radio talk show model onto cable TV news via Fox News. MSNBC added some shows using the Fox model. Network news became stagnant as broadcasting was overshadowed by political niche narrowcasting. American politics became like verbal professional wrestling where emotion and hate trumped serious policy discussion.
American political discussion’s tone changed. Read any website and you’ll see comments that immediately go after a writer rather than seriously discuss the issue raised. Politics on all fronts is now “search and destroy” — and attempts to negatively define and discredit.
It’s within this larger American context that partisan talk shows blossomed and objectivity-objective broadcast journalism waned.
Seriously sifting facts is now less important than scoring partisan points and undermining the other guy’s political “sports team.” And moving into the 21st century you can expect more yelling and demonizing in a country called the UNITED States of America. Those who question this are (naturally) the enemy. After all, you HAVE to choose one of the two sides, you know”¦.
Or do you?
Copyright 2010 Joe Gandelman
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be booked to speak at your event at mavenproductions.com.
Follow Joe Gandelman on Twitter @joegandelman