When 24/7 cable news channels were introduced, it seemed as if the great promise of television as a tool to educate the citizenry was about to be realized. Some optimistic prognosticators envisioned day-long series of reports like those presented on Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now or CBS’s 60 Minutes. Perhaps those prognosticators should have looked more closely at what else was on television. Perhaps they should simply have known better.
Put aside that the news channels don’t provide news 24/7: that is, put aside the non-news programming that now appears on all of the cable news channels—from Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown that is broadcast on CNN during primetime to the endless prison documentaries that air after primetime on weekend nights on MSNBC. Still, the most astonishing and paradoxical thing about the cable news channels is how little of the air time is devoted to actually reporting news and how much of the time is devoted instead to commentary. Even on CNN, which superficially devotes more air time to simply reporting the news than either FOX News or MSNBC devote to it, each news item is usually followed by a more extended commentary, usually featuring someone from each end of the political spectrum to provide “balance.” Yet, there is very little actual dialogue, almost no debate in any meaningful sense. The commentators might just as well be wearing sandwich boards—or hats that would let us know what ideological viewpoint they are there to be represent.
Indeed, the only events that the cable news channels cover intensively are tragedies in progress. In those instances, the coverage is unrelenting—even though no one, least of all the reporters on the scene, really knows much of anything, even though most of the reporting is just a mind-numbing reiteration of the few verified facts accompanied by endless speculation about what the “facts” may ultimately turn out to have been. On Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment, Chevy Chase used to report, week after week, that “Spain’s Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.” If he had repeated that statement 20 to 30 times during the 15-minute segment and had interspersed speculation about the two to three dozen things most likely to have done Franco in, Chase would have nailed where cable news was headed.
So, the difference between what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been doing on the Comedy Channel and what most, if not all, of the talking heads on the cable news networks have been doing is much. much narrower than most people would recognize. It is all entertainment. Some of what is on the cable news networks may be enlightening, but most of it is little more than paid ideological promotion: that is, the talking heads are not so much expressing their own personal opinions as doing personalized riffs on very well honed ideological talking points.
Indeed, what has, paradoxically and ironically. set Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert apart from most of the talking heads on the cable news channels is that Stewart and Colbert seem to have been actually thinking about what they have been saying and, actually, simply to have been thinking. The paradox is, then, that their irreverent satire on the day’s events and, more narrowly, on the other media coverage of those events has come across as genuinely thoughtful, whereas the “serious” commentaries on the day’s events generally come across as prescriptive and venal.
More specifically, Colbert may have been parodying Bill O’Reilly, but what Colbert was doing was given much added dimension by the fact that Bill O’Reilly’s show comes across as a self-parody. One cannot help but think that whoever Bill O’Reilly was before he became a television personality, he’s left that person far behind. Whether he likes it or not, he is trapped in the persona that he has created for television. And, unlike Colbert, who was spoofing that persona, he himself cannot step out of that persona and do something else on television, or probably in any other medium or anywhere else.
A media persona is a marketing tool, but it is also a cage. When was the last time that you saw any talking head on the cable news networks, or elsewhere, seem genuinely surprised by or informed by a comment made by one of his or her guests? When was the last time that you saw any of the talking heads explain how his or her stance on an issue had been significantly challenged or changed as a result of some thoughtful discussion of that issue?
And yet that is precisely the ostensible reason why we should be watching—so that we can come to more informed and more nuanced positions on the issues of the day. And the failure of cable news to deliver on that expectation is why the audiences for all of the cable news networks have remained very small and, in fact, have been steadily shrinking. FOX News has some of the most highly rated programming, but that’s like saying that one oasis is the wettest spot in the desert while the other oases are somewhat less wet.
And if the analogy to a desert seems too heavy-handed or too snarky, consider not just what is covered on the cable news networks, but what is not covered. To focus on the central area of our own narrow self-interest, how many of the complex issues in American higher education have received any coverage whatsoever on the cable news networks? About a year ago, Melissa Harris Perry devoted two segments—less than a half-hour—to a panel discussion of the exploitation of adjunct faculty and its implications. That segment was so out of the ordinary that it was reported and commented on in almost every publication, website, and blog devoted to higher education.
Likewise, if student debt is affecting the economic possibilities of a whole generation, why is it receiving so little coverage?
Perhaps the millennials are paying so little attention to the traditional media and to political issues and races because neither the media nor the political establishment can be bothered to take more than very passing notice of the issues that are front and center for most millennials.