Cable News and the Ways of the World

It’s human nature to want a single explanation for anything that happens. We usually look for the reason, not the reasons. Thus, when the new management at CNN fired John Harwood and Brian Stelter, both of whom have openly criticized the former president (and full-time criminal), the reason that immediately came to mind was a political one. CNN’s new owner, Warner Brothers Discovery, wants the company to be nicer to Republicans.

An article from Vox written a couple weeks ago suggested that’s one reason, but there’s probably another as well:

In [one] version of events, Stelter is the victim of John Malone, the billionaire cable magnate and the most powerful investor in Warner Brothers Discovery Inc., which now owns CNN and the rest of what used to be called Time Warner.

Malone’s politics lean quite right/libertarian…. More to the point: Current and former CNN employees believe Malone’s view of CNN is entirely colored by Fox News. “John Malone doesn’t watch CNN. John Malone only watches CNN via Fox News,” says a CNN employee. “If I watched CNN via Fox News, I would hate CNN too.”

And Stelter, who spent most of the Trump era criticizing the American right’s embrace of disinformation, was already a target of Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson…. Then, after Stelter’s boss, Jeff Zucker, was pushed out in February, Stelter went after Malone, who had said he wished CNN was more like Fox News because Fox News had “actual journalism.”

Asked about this theory by the New York Times, Malone gave one of the most candid admissions you’ll ever see a public person make in the guise of a denial: “Mr. Malone said he wants “the ‘news’ portion of CNN to be more centrist, but I am not in control or directly involved.” Translation: Yes, this pleases me.

So in this theory, … Malone and his managers — CEO David Zaslav and Chris Licht, the executive Zaslav hired to replace Zucker — will find other CNN journalists they want off the air as well. [In fact, they already have. They fired John Harwood this past week — he called the Republican front-runner a “dishonest demagogue” on his way out the door].

Then again, maybe they’ll need to let go of a lot of people because of theory No. 2:

Warner Brothers Discovery has a heavy debt load, but Zaslav has told investors that won’t matter, in part because he’s going to find $3 billion in savings.

We’ve already seen signs of budget-cutting in the company’s entertainment properties … but there will be many more cuts to come this fall. So Stelter, who reportedly made close to $1 million a year, was an easy cut: His show … was a big deal in media circles … but not a huge draw for normals.

Under Zaslav/Licht, CNN has already made one significant cut: Killing off CNN+, its brand-new streaming service, weeks after it launched … But that may not be anything close to enough to help the parent company hit its numbers. In which case, Stelter’s departure could be the first of many, and we’ll spend less time worrying about CNN’s politics and more time worrying about its ability to provide first-class news coverage.

But there’s another theory. Someone who goes by YS on Twitter and claims to have worked at CNN for 18 years says it’s all about who watches cable news:

Each quarter, the cable operators [like Comcast and AT&T] release their subscriber base. For seven consecutive years, the cable operators have seen subscriber declines… It’s called in the TV biz, “Cord Cutters”.

97% of “Cord Cutters” are under the age of 50. The majority of what is left watching cable are … old people. As demographics for cable TV has changed … the networks remaining with any traction (ESPN, news networks, etc.) have to – HAVE TO – appeal to who is sitting on their couch watching.

In the ratings war, the scorecard is usually based on the A18-49 demographic. But not for news. All advertisers on these networks buy them for A50+. [Aiming for that demographic] MSNBC went left. Fox News went right. CNN tried to play the middle.

But between 2008 and 2016, CNN lost 60% of its 50+ audience. Fox News, saw a 70% increase in the same demographic during the same period (mostly men). Fox News gave the audience what they want, an aggrieved white man perspective…. While the rest of America is out there cutting the cord, Fox News doubled down on old people. And won. 

News networks are not here to defend democracy. There is only one goal and one goal only. Higher CPM’s [i.e. what they can charge advertisers to reach a thousand viewers. On average, advertisers pay $20 to reach 1,000 viewers, which adds up when 100 million people watch the Super Bowl]. CPM is the currency used in TV to reflect the value of the programming.

[CNN’s new boss] was given one edict. Raise CPM’s. That’s it. That’s all he has to do. And he believes [becoming more “centrist”] is how.

Whether there’s one reason or several for CNN’s management to change its programming, the basic fact is that many old people (although not all of us) watch cable TV and will accept a kind of fascism if it comes to that, and the people who call the shots for big corporations tend to be Republicans who have some doubts about democracy and no doubts at all about making money.

Those TV People Are Arguing Again

I stopped watching television news during the Clinton administration (the real one, not the administration Comey killed in its cradle). I got sick of lengthy, supposedly balanced coverage of the Whitewater non-scandal and the Clinton/Lewinksy episode. But from what I hear, TV news has gotten even worse during the past 20 years. Vox has a little bit of text and a six-minute video that helps explain why:

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, CNN president Jeff Zucker described the network’s approach to covering politics, saying, “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.” That politics-as-sport approach has placed a heavy emphasis on drama, with much of CNN’s programming revolving around sensationalist arguments between hosts, guests, and paid pundits.

… CNN’s fixation on drama and debate has turned the network’s coverage into a circus of misinformation. CNN’s [DT] supporters derail segments critical of the president, misrepresent [his] positions to avoid tough questions, and peddle false and misleading information on national TV while being paid by the network. In many cases, CNN’s [DT] supporters repeat the same lies and talking points that CNN’s serious journalists spend all day trying to debunk….

All of this would be fine and normal for a [sports] network like ESPN — but when you treat politics like a sport, you end up with news coverage that cares more about fighting and drama than it does about serious truth telling.

The video is interesting in a train wreck kind of way. Everyone who watches CNN should watch it.

But so should everyone who wants to better understand what the hell’s going on in our modern world. The Vox thing reminded me of Neil Postman’s classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published way back in 1985. Here’s a quote from Mr. Postman:

… television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this world almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information–misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information–information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.

In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well-informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?

And it’s gotten worse since then. Here’s the video.

When Balance Is Just Wrong

Jeff Zucker is in charge of CNN. Before that, he helped the Orange Monster become a reality TV star. More recently, he helped the Orange Monster become President-elect. Zucker gave the O.M. millions and millions of dollars of free advertising. CNN broadcast unfiltered everything the O.M. had to say. They broke away from other news, including other candidates talking, to show the empty podium where the O.M. might later share his thoughts.

This explains why Zucker was yelled at by both Republicans and Democrats at a recent conference. The angry Republicans had worked for the O.M.’s opponents in the primaries. The angry Democrats had worked for someone who actually loves America. But they all agreed that Zucker and CNN had given the O.M. special, advantageous treatment.

Here’s what Zucker said in response:

Half the people want to blame us for Trump, and half the people want to say that we’re terrible to Trump. That’s how I always think we’re doing the right thing.

Zucker has made a lot of money in his career, so he must have a brain in his head. But that is one lazy, dumb justification for misbehavior. The correct, honest answer would have been:

We gave him special treatment because he’s so damn entertaining. We make money by getting people to watch our so-called “news” network and people watch that bastard whether they like him or not.

But isn’t it fair for Zucker to parrot the journalistic cliché, according to which half the audience says we’re too mean and half says we’re too nice, so we must be doing something right?

Imagine a country that takes ice cream very, very seriously, much more seriously than the Germans take beer. The whole country loves ice cream. It’s the official national food. Then along comes an ambitious politician with a brilliant idea. Let’s have a referendum! Let’s choose our nation’s official ice cream flavor! The nation erupts in controversy. Should it be chocolate or should it be vanilla?

Conscientious journalists air both sides, delving into the pros and cons of each flavor. Nevertheless, the vanilla-lovers are angry because they don’t think the journalists are being fair to the flavor that’s clearly the best. The chocolate-lovers are angry for the very same reason.

When the votes are counted, one flavor comes out slightly ahead (I hope it was vanilla). A bunch of journalists, hanging out in their favorite ice cream bar, look back and decide they must have done a pretty good job. After all, half the people thought they were terrible to vanilla and half thought they were terrible to chocolate. Fair enough.

But suppose there’s a country that’s less concerned with ice cream and more concerned with the shape of the Earth. The flat-Earthers look around and see the Earth is flat. The round-Earthers, well, you know. So they decide to take a vote! Journalists report and analyze. Both sides are heard from and criticized in equal measure, because the journalists want to be balanced. One side wins (if it were modern-day America, it would be a close election), but neither side is happy with the news coverage. The flat-Earthers hated hearing they were wrong, especially by smarty pants scientists. The round-Earthers hated that anyone took the flat-Earthers seriously at all. But the self-satisfied journalists look back and say, well, we must have done something right!

To make a long story short, the assumption that you must be doing something right if both sides are displeased only applies when the subject is a matter of taste. Vanilla is better than chocolate! No, everyone loves chocolate! Or a matter of vague philosophy. Small government is better than big government! But a big country needs a big government! Or with the unknown. We aren’t alone in the universe! So where is everybody?

When you’re dealing with known facts, however, balance isn’t necessary. In fact, it’s seriously bad.

Imagine, for example, that a pathological liar runs for President. Or a strange old man who knows next to nothing about America’s history and government. Let’s call him Donald. When Donald spends 30 minutes in front of an enthusiastic crowd telling lies and making crap up, journalists broadcast every word, even though they know he’s plain wrong about so much. News networks even pay people to come on the air to repeat his fabrications, because it’s hard to find anyone who will lie in public for free. In the spirit of journalistic balance, however, they also let Donald’s opponents appear. Journalists even point out that Donald is often careless with the truth.

And what’s the result? Both sides are unhappy. Donald’s supporters are unhappy because they didn’t like hearing bad things about their hero. Donald’s opponents are unhappy because so much of what Donald said wasn’t challenged and he was treated with respect he didn’t deserve. Nobody is satisfied with the news coverage except the journalists. They congratulate themselves, citing “evidence” like this:  

Half the people want to blame us for Donald, and half the people want to say that we’re terrible to Donald. That’s how we know we’re doing the right thing.

If your goal as a news organization is to make both sides unhappy, all you need to do is what CNN and others did this year. Give a loudspeaker to a demagogue and his propaganda machine, but sometimes admit he’s a demagogue. Both sides will be unhappy, because your coverage is “balanced”.

On the other hand, telling the unvarnished truth would anger one side and please the other. Congratulations would be in order for the conscientious journalists, because they didn’t strike a balance between what was plainly true and what plainly wasn’t.

New Video From That Day in Ferguson, Missouri

New witnesses to the apparent execution of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, have come forward. CNN has cellphone video of them watching what happened and, oh yeah, they’re two white contractors from out of town. Isn’t it funny how that “white” part makes a big difference (to us white people)? The video and the description of events offered by these witnesses is strong evidence that Michael Brown was indeed executed that afternoon.