The news media shutdown

By David Rohde
October 3, 2013

At 7:00 p.m. Wednesday night, Fox News reporter Jim Angle, citing conservative experts, reported that Obamacare would force young people to pay vastly higher premiums, face large deductibles and leave 30 million Americans uninsured.

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews called Republican opponents of the program “political lightweights” and “puppatoons.” Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said House Republicans were “sickening.”

A night of debate on the first federal government shutdown in 17 years and the country’s largest new government program in a generation had begun. On balance, Fox was worse than MSNBC. But both broadcasts were emblems of America’s failing news industry.

The triumph of opinion-driven cable TV and the collapse of newspapers has created an American news media that does an increasingly poor job of informing the public. And an excellent job of dividing it.

The media, of course, is not solely to blame for America’s political polarization. Complex dynamics — including a weak economy, gerrymandering and rapidly-shifting demographics — are fueling growing partisanship. But an economically battered news industry in desperate need of a new business model is a core part of the problem.

Creating cable television and social media bubbles where one’s political views are affirmed has proven popular and profitable. Angrily declaring one’s opponents imbeciles enriches pundits, corporate executives and stockholders. The result for many Americans, though, is confusion, cynicism and division.

I’m not suggesting a false equivalence between Fox and MSNBC, or the far right and left — which James Fallows has rightly criticized in The Atlantic. Hard-line Republicans egged on by Fox are responsible for the government shutdown. They have taken the government hostage in their obsession to end Obamacare. Yet if one watches only Fox, radical steps are needed to prevent the cataclysm that conservatives believe Obamacare represents.

There are some reasons for hope. The emergence of non-profit news outlets and the Web’s breadth of information and instant accountability are promising. But simplistic, reassuring narratives are more profitable than dispassionate descriptions of complex public policy problems. For a collapsing, digital-age news industry desperate for income, partisanship is an economic lifeline.

That was evident Wednesday night. Flipping between Fox and MSNBC for several hours — something I suggest you try — produced two completely different realities.

On MSNBC, Matthews and his guests called House Republicans “whacko-birds,” “birthers” and “crazy, angry.” They said opponents of Obamacare were driven by bigotry and selfishness.

“There is very little sense on the Hill that they’re there for something bigger than themselves,” said Susan Milligan, a columnist for U.S. News and World Report.

At 8:00 p.m. on Fox, Bill O’Reilly upped the rhetorical ante. Two days after its introduction, Obamacare was “not ready for prime time,” according to O’Reilly, riven with so many problems “it was pretty much impossible to list them all,” and likely to spawn delays in medical care and fraud.

Over on MSNBC, Chris Hayes opened his 8:00 p.m. show with a screen logo declaring far-right opponents of the law “frauds.”

Back on Fox, Sean Hannity called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) a “sick, twisted old man” who engaged in “casualty cruelty.” Hannity also mocked the 18 House Republicans who had said they no longer supported a shutdown as a way to stop Obamacare. According to Hannity, they were willing to “bend down at the altar of Reid and Obama.”

Finally, over on MSNBC, 9:00 p.m. host Steve Kornacki, substituting for Rachel Maddow, said that Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was following the example of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and using “stunts” to make himself a hero to the Republican base.

“Newt Gingrich, more than anybody else, may be responsible for where we are, what we are now seeing playing out inside the halls of Congress,” Kornacki said. “He wrote the script and Ted Cruz is following it to a t.”

Over the course of the night, Fox made more exaggerated claims and out-of-context statements. But theatrics, demonization and smugness reigned on both networks.

Polls, meanwhile, show vast public confusion about Obamacare. The law is the latest example of the polar opposite narratives Americans are hearing about the state of the country. There is more information than ever available to Americans, but few ways to reliably gauge it.

Cable pundits, meanwhile, enjoy unprecedented wealth and influence. Rush Limbaugh earned $66 million last year, according to Forbes. Last month, the conservative website Town Hall  declared him the most influential leader on the American right.

Glenn Beck, who earned an astounding $90 million last year, was ranked number 10. Hannity, who took home $15 million, was number six. O’Reilly, who made $20 million, received an honorable mention. Five of the six most influential conservatives were media personalities or former politicians — not current Republican office holders.

On the left, Maddow makes an estimated $7 million a year and Matthews $5 million. Within liberal circles, MSNBC’s influence is soaring.

What do Americans get in return? A hyperbolic political debate that rewards extremism and poorly informs the public. Hard-line conservatives are to blame for the current crisis. But, sadly, so is America’s failing news industry.

PHOTO: Chris Matthews, host of “Hardball with Chris Matthews”, takes part in the NBC News Decision ’08 panel at the NBC Universal summer press tour in Beverly Hills, California July 21, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Prouser 

 

 

13 comments

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Phony coverage comes from a phony premise. At no point in the debate about ACA or Healthcare reform, has one executive or employee had to admit they they made a ridiculous profit off of the old system. I personally do not know one person that works for a private healthcare company, but what I do know is that if they did, they have not had to deal with one consequence of having contributed to the poor state of health care in this country.

This is probably the fault of the Democrat Supermajority, who were happy to let the GOP be a “human shield” for the status quo. At least during the Iraq War, people could tie Dick Cheney to Halliburton, even though I would bet money that not one person knows the current CEO of Halliburton.

If discourse in this country is skewed towards the vague and irrational, it is because corporate profit deserves more protection than it deserves.

Happy to clarify or debate this here.

Posted by JRBROOKLYN | Report as abusive

If the central objective of an industry is to make money, and the politicized news industry is making off like a bandit, who’s to say that they are “failing”? Sure the industry’s success is to the detriment of our society, but the fact that it’s profitable still means it’s successful.

Also, I have to wonder to what extent the internet really mitigates the impact of Fox News. Conservatives have always attacked any non-conservative media as “biased towards liberals”, so anybody who buys into the Fox News narrative would likely reject anything else they hear or read. And lastly I find Fox News to be especially insidious, as it seems to use the principle of the big lie to establish their “mental furniture” in people’s minds in order to crowd out other viewpoints. It is a thoroughly rotten and dishonest tactic.

Posted by delta5297 | Report as abusive

One thing is certain. The political gridlock in this country is fueled by pervasive voter ignorance and the triumph of rumor over fact. We face challenges in this country on complex issues, and success requires an informed public. The job of informing the public is traditionally the job of journalism, but journalism has let us down by providing propaganda instead of information. Perhaps that is because, economically, journalism is part of the entertainment industry, where the most successful producers are often those who pander the most shamelessly.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

Years ago, the media pundits salivated over the prospect of increasing numbers of “channels” for news sources, expecting that would lead to great improvements in the quality of news.

Wow! Looking back now, it seems the only concern of news outlets is to generate profits through massive commitment to controversy and heat generating “coverage”. Jack Shafer recently labeled even CNN as a tabloid based on programming over the past year or so designed to compete for viewership with Faux News. Instead, CNN is circling the drain, and once vaunted reporters have been turned into clowns, often criticising each other on air for their unprofessional speculations and conjectures. And, we thought it was only Faux News that was commited to setting the standard for unfair and unbalanced.

Now the news is often centered around reporters interviewing other reporters – too much work to track down bona fide sources – with contributions from screaming, argumentative (often rude) if not downright stupid political strategists (whatever that is) adding to the polar, sound-bite screaming of personal opinions by “reporters”. What does “reporter” mean? Someone who thinks his or her personal opinions are on a par with those they are interviewing?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

If we use a conservative 12 P/E ratio it would seem that Glenn Beck’s opinions are worth more than a billion dollars and Rush Limbaugh’s close to it.

That’s a frightful number considering that the Washington Post, the friggin Washington Post, could only fetch $250 million as a newspaper. How much are its political opinions worth given that many people read the paper for sports scores, crime news etc.

It would seem that in the market place of ideas the left is bankrupt and thus is forced to use inflammatory rhetoric and pin itself to the bosom of government spending to make itself worth anything.

Posted by sangell | Report as abusive

A couple of the comments above seem to me to exemplify the premise that is at the heart of many of this society’s problems – “they make lots of money, so they are successful” coupled with “they’re successful, so they must be right/good”.

By this logic, the drug cartels must be some of the best people on earth – they make lots of money, don’t they? They’re successful, so they must be “right”.

Any conversation about the problems of this society/country that DON’T start with a long hard look in the mirror are simply delusional. Too many of us have bought in to selfish greed as the yardstick by which we define our “success” – at the cost of any true moral standard.

For the record, I’m a mid (perhaps even lower) middle class guy who is quite comfortable with where I am. I have what I NEED, and can work toward any realistic WANT that I might have. (Emphasis “realistic”) As such, I cannot be bought, or bribed – by marketing groups, politicians (is there a difference?), or the “successful” media as it now exists. I’m the worst nightmare of all of the above, and those who support them – I can’t be bought off, and I think for myself…

…. and I’m not alone. Be advised.

Posted by TheWhiteLine | Report as abusive

The job of the media is to help advertisers sell their stuff. This is what they get paid to do.
The means to achieve this goal is to provide cheap (or low-cost) entertainment to a large number of people.
Practically speaking, there is hardly such a thing as a proper News Industry. The ‘news’ events serve as raw or semi-processed material for various entertainment shows tailored to various audiences.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

Once again failing to gain traction with it’s own watered-down version of the events of the day, and reflective of its inherently fearful approach to controversy, Rooters decides to appeal to it’s base and throw milquetoast at the TV set.

Well, I suppose even the rancid, opinion-less independents need a place where they come and let their hair down.

Posted by HamsterHerder | Report as abusive

It’s dissapointing no one seems to have recognized the irony of an article about media bias which is, itself, pointedly biased. The author’s final statement, “Hard-line conservatives are to blame for the current crisis.” clearly articulates his own bias, and clearly undermines/invlaidates his stated intent.

Posted by MikeMongo | Report as abusive

So… there actually IS some pork in “Pork & Beans” journalism.

Posted by k2d2 | Report as abusive

I’ve been happily living with TV sets for four years. I had three of them.
First, I gave up watching news and any political programs. Only NatGeo and similar stuff.
Then, I refused from television entirely.
Sure I download the best.
However, only browsing various news sources can provide a more or less objective picture.
And no ads – thank God!

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

@TheWhiteLine:
So, you’re good with the Plutocracy that rules this country, corrupting our government and decimating jobs – the “jobe creators” (in foreign countries)?

“I was okay when they took away someone from another town. I was okay when they took down a neighbor across town. I was even okay when my neighbor down the street was “disappeared”. Then, “Yikes! OMG! They’re coming for ME!”

Welcome to the class of Pee-Ons, the 99.9%, ruled through the Idiocracy. Too bad there are so few insane asylums left…

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

@ptiffany-

Wow – not sure where you got THAT conclusion from – read that post more slowly. Absolutely things need to change – but to what?

Reading YOUR post I sense a high level of vitriol, anger, and dare I say jealousy of that Plutocracy – is it possible that deep down inside YOU want to become THEM? If so – what does that solve? Still the same problem, just a new face on it.

My point was, as long we allow that Plutocracy to define what is “good” or “right” – as long as we as a society buy into “gimme more” as our highest aspiration, then we will NEVER be able to shrug off, ignore, dismantle that Plutocracy. The true revolution begins when all of us peons look upon those in their towers with sympathy and shame – instead of envy and jealousy. We GIVE them their power by accepting the ground rules that THEY have laid out – “This is how our society works, because we said so. Just accept it.”

Well I don’t. And as I said above, I’m not alone – there are more of me everyday. Are you going to be one of them?

Posted by TheWhiteLine | Report as abusive