Cable news is the tail that wags the political news dog

I do not watch TV. That statement requires some explication these days when there are so many ways in which one is surrounded by mass media. What I mean is that I live in too remote an area to receive any over-the-air broadcast network TV channels and I do not subscribe to any cable TV system that gives me access to those channels or to cable channels. I do have a TV that I use to watch streaming videos from various sources, some of which include TV shows that have been broadcast previously on network TV.

So what I mean by saying I do not watch TV is that I do not watch any of the nightly news programs on network TV or the 24/7 cable news channels like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. And yet, in my surfing of the web, I find myself bombarded by stories that have their origins in cable news. These channels seem to be less about unearthing and reporting actual news and more about generating news about themselves. My impression is not misguided. Jack Shafer says that these cable news networks have a very small audience and yet have an outlandishly disproportionate effect on public discourse and that it is time to cut the cord.

How did the cable news networks become our main stage?

Nary a day goes by without somebody saying something stupid somewhere on cable that ignites a national uproar that seizes the news cycle for days.

Why all this attention when cable news barely matters to most Americans? The average audience commanded by Maddow and Cooper and Hannity and all the others slithering down your cable cord is so tiny you can almost get away with calling cable news a niche media. According to October numbers from TV Newser, the three major cable networks attract an average audience of only 4.2 million viewers during primetime, which is when viewing peaks. In a nation of 330 million, that’s just a little over 1 percent of the population. Meanwhile, the three nightly news broadcasts together can reliably pull in 21.5 million viewers a night. The cable numbers pale even more when you analyze individual networks ratings. Cuomo’s erstwhile channel, CNN, drew, according to TV Newser, an average of about 700,000 viewers during primetime in one October week, which is about equal in size to the population of El Paso. Or compare the cable news audience to that of country music (31 million listeners daily) or Netflix (74 million subscribers) to gain another perspective. If country music vanished in a rapture, you’d have to deal with some pretty ornery people. But if cable news disappeared tomorrow, who would notice?

Well, I would notice, I’m slightly ashamed to admit, as I frequently write about the medium. And my colleagues in the press would notice, too.

He says that the problem is that we have spawned a vast news media system that is a voracious devourer of content and the people who work in these companies need to find stories to write about. There is only a little actual news on any given day but rather than using the remaining tine to do in-depth analyses of major issues, it is far easier to simply report on the latest outrageous thing that some obscure person said on cable news.

A whole cottage industry of media commentators and activist groups like Media Matters for America that monitor and respond in real time to cable outrages has taken root. If Tucker Carlson expresses the slightest nativist sentiment, you can count on a rapid response to your inbox. Modern newsrooms keep the cable fire burning in the background all day. At Politico, almost 30 TV monitors hang from the ceiling and are screwed to the walls, and they’re tuned 24/7 to cable news and C-SPAN. And that’s not counting the TV monitors in the top editors’ offices, the commons areas, conference rooms, the office canteen, and the lobby. At some point, I expect to see screens in the bathrooms, too.

That is quite incredible. What he describes seem to like hell. But he says that there is another benefit for reporters to covering what is said on cable news and that it can provide opportunities to them to appear on those shows and thus enhance their own visibility and careers.

He says that if cable news were to disappear, the people who would notice would be an extremely narrow demographic.

Obviously, some devoted viewers of cable news would notice if their channels disappeared. Its “being there” ability to report from disaster sites, war zones, polling precincts, political demonstrations and Cape Kennedy lift-offs is unmatched. Or is it? Broadcast networks do a decent job getting rain-lashed during hurricanes and they rarely have to resort to the filibustering that cable hosts engage in during lulls in the news. Likewise, Republican talking points would have to find a new means of transmission if Fox went missing and gullible Democrats would suffer if Joy Reid and Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes weren’t around to dispense their political nostrums.

Cable news exists and persists because as small as its audience is, it’s a highly profitable business. Pew Research estimates the three cable networks earn a combined $4 billion a year. But the median age of the cable news audience is in the 60s, as Jeremy Barr of the Washington Post noted, with the median age of MSNBC viewers clocking in at 68. For reasons that are personal, nobody has more reverence for the aged than I, but can we agree that cable news has devolved over time from a useful headline service (Ted Turner’s original vision at CNN) to a day-to-night eldercare operation? It’s one thing to tolerate cable news. It does, after all, keep people employed. But do we really want to continue to indulge an aged minority’s irrelevant obsession with who said what on cable news?

But despite my best intentions to avoid this kind of shallowness, I often find myself sucked into these non-stories. I am somewhat of a news junkie and I try to only follow links to stories that seem to offer real news, where something has happened that I did not know about and has a real impact on society. I have one list of sites that I try to read every day that offer mostly real news or investigative journalism. I have another list of sites that offer mostly commentary and analyses. The latter sites sometimes point me to stories that I missed on the news sites but those are usually buried in large amounts of non-news. Conversely, the news sites also offer commentary that can entice the reader into these unproductive byways. In short, either way, it is hard to avoid the dreck.


  1. Myra Greenwood says

    What a shame the cable news doesn’t go more in-depth in its stories. Maybe it would help the old folks watching to slow their dementia. I have tried on Twitter to get Anderson Cooper to do a story on MMT and the deficit link he promised on his show. The truth is the profits aren’t the only reason we have cable news junk. I think it is purposeful propaganda and diversion coming from the mindset of the elite that are running the world into the ground. I wish people could be taught in school at an early age that the rich usually do not have the poor in their best interests instead of you are poor because it’s you own fault.

  2. garnetstar says

    I agree with Shafer in general as to the overall uselessness of the majority of cable news. But, I strongly dislike the sneering reference to “eldercare”. People in their sixties are, in fact, rational and capable adults who can vote, and, for that many, so are older people.

    I also think that there are better targets at MSNBC, ones who merely bloviate and sensationalize, than Maddow, who is the one who most approaches hard news and rational analysis. I find, like Mano, that I don’t watch most of these shows, but only segments on a specific issue now and then.

    The thing to remember about all these shows is that aren’t purveyors of news, but only of editorial, opinion. And, the, ahem, “quality” of that opinion varies wildly depending on the host. It is possible to imagine a host whose editorial comment is as much worth listening to as the editorial writers in, say, the Times, reading which Shafer does not scorn as worthless eldercare.

  3. steve oberski says

    In the infancy of mass communications, the Columbus and Magellan of broadcast journalism, William Paley and David Sarnoff, went down to Washington to cut a deal with Congress. Congress would allow the fledgling networks free use of taxpayer-owned airwaves in exchange for one public service. That public service would be one hour of air time set aside every night for informational broadcasting, or what we now call the evening news. Congress, unable to anticipate the enormous capacity television would have to deliver consumers to advertisers, failed to include in its deal the one requirement that would have changed our national discourse immeasurably for the better. Congress forgot to add that under no circumstances could there be paid advertising during informational broadcasting. They forgot to say that taxpayers will give you the airwaves for free and for 23 hours a day you should make a profit, but for one hour a night you work for us. And now those network newscasts, anchored through history by honest-to-God newsmen with names like Murrow and Reasoner and Huntley and Brinkley and Buckley and Cronkite and Rather and Russert -- Now they have to compete with the likes of me. A cable anchor who’s in the exact same business as the producers of Jersey Shore.

    Will MacAvoy -- The Newsroom 2012

  4. billseymour says

    I’ve never watched cable news because I don’t watch enough TV to justify paying for cable.  I do have a regular daily routine though:  local TV news at 5PM, national news at 5:30, and The PBS Newshour at 6:00; but I’m becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the sensationalism, the both-sides-ism, and the obvious neo-liberal slant.  I remember one “Politics Monday” segment on The PBS Newshour back when Sanders was still a viable candidate:  Amy Walter could hardly construct a simple declarative sentence without some version of “electable” in it.  It wasn’t even subtle.  Indeed, I’d describe it as shameless.

  5. beholder says

    Cable news exists and persists because as small as its audience is, it’s a highly profitable business.

    I wonder if they’re being kept afloat by cable internet subscribers. There are far more Americans paying for that than watch cable TV on any given night.

  6. Mano Singham says

    beholder @#5,

    You are partially right. You can get cable internet without subscribing to cable TV channels. I for one do that. But if you want to get some of the popular channels like sports or the broadcast networks, you also get cable news whether you want to or not. I read somewhere that cable news is profitable because people cannot choose a la carte from all the options but have to subscribe to bundles that include them. That is where most of their revenue comes from and why advertiser boycotts of the most objectionable shows and hosts seem to have no impact. Ads are not the main source of their revenue.

    An a la carte subscription system would really expose their vulnerability.

  7. brucegee1962 says

    I have been an avid news reader for over 40 years, since I was around 16. Throughout college I would spend about an hour a day on a couch in the student lounge curled up with the Washington Post, from the front page to the comics. Nowadays I’m addicted to the news feed on my iphone, where I can pick and choose sources from dozens of newspapers and magazines. I run through the headlines at MSNBC daily, and check the websites of other print sources like the Post and my local newspaper as well.

    But I am definitely a READER. I pretty much always skip every video segment, unless it’s something with a strong visual element like a building collapsing. I like controlling the pace at which I get information. When I read I can easily speed up, slow down, or go back to get information at exactly my own pace — going at a fixed pace feels incredibly frustrating. Plus, with cable, you can’t just skip the stories you’re uninterested in. So I honestly don’t see what the appeal of cable news is.

    Nevertheless, as an educator, I see younger people all the time who want everything to be on video, and stare at me blankly when I tell them to read a chapter. I just don’t get it.

  8. johnson catman says

    brucegee1962 @7: I share your dislike of video everything. I also prefer to read my news stories.

    Nevertheless, as an educator, I see younger people all the time who want everything to be on video, and stare at me blankly when I tell them to read a chapter. I just don’t get it.

    I am sure that they feel the same way about your habits. They were brought up in a completely different world from the one we were raised in.

  9. billseymour says

    brucegee1962 and johnson catman:  I too would much prefer to read.  Back before COVID and working from home, I’d get up early, buy a copy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and read it over breakfast at a 24-hour Denny’s.  For the past year and a half, I’ve been stuck with TV news…very much less satisfying.

    I suppose I could have the paper delivered, but then I’d have to get fully dressed the first thing in the morning just to pick up the paper from the front lawn.  At present, this boomer is too lazy to do that. 🙁

  10. mnb0 says

    “In short, either way, it is hard to avoid the dreck.”
    Avoiding dreck completely is impossible. Instead I’ve trained myself to not read further than the headlines or the first alinea, except when I decide it’s important and/or interesting. Example: these days I avoid everything about crown princess Amalia, who has turned 18 a few days ago (I already have forgotten which day exactly). The last time I applied this technique to your blog was the post called “Don’t they carefully vet the White House physician?” This is not meant as criticism, it’s just an example. “The White House physician is an important job” convinced me immediately that I belong the majority of mankind that doesn’t care. AfaIc they pick him/her from the Encyclopedia of American Loons. So I saw no need to read any further.
    The next step is avoiding sites (whether they contain news or analyses) that make me click away too often.
    In Suriname I’ve never paid for tv. Before, in The Netherlands, I always found it easy to avoid channels I don’t like or that leave me cold.

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