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Cable news mood management

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Thursday, Oct 15, 2009

Matt Yglesias noted the other day that no one but pundits watches cable news.


Just like traders have CNBC and Bloomberg on in their offices, political operatives are constantly tuned in to what’s happening on cable news. The result is a really bizarre hothouse scenario in which people are basically watching . . . well . . . nothing, but they’re riveted to it. How things “play” on cable news is considered fairly important even though no persuadable voters are watching it. And cable news’ hyper-agitated style starts to infect everyone’s frame of mind, making it extremely difficult for everyone to forget that the networks have huge incentives to massively and systematically overstate the significance of everything that happens.


You’d think it would be sensible if they all simply stopped watching, since hyper-agitation is in no policymaker’s best interest and it leads to superfluous and counterproductive commentary. With not enough organically occurring news to fill 24 hours, the news channels are becoming ongoing emotional barometers instead, but they are tuned only to themselves. They try to make news themselves with a variety of cooked-up debates and pseudoevents and that sort of thing, reporting on the import of their own reports—nothing new, as Daniel Boorstin’s 1961 book The Image demonstrates. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that if you don’t watch TV news at all, you are better informed than those who do, even if you are completely ignorant. (At least then you are capable of a genuine response to something that you learn about.) The recursive meta-news that makes up cable news regarding what’s being talked and talked about on cable news just seems like information pollution.


Like Kevin Drum, I get virtually all of my news from online versions of newspapers and from blogs. I’m skeptical of TV news generally because I don’t like emotional presentations of news or pretentious newsreaders or phony objectivity (as though the choice of presenting a story isn’t subjective) or the oversimplification. Most “news” strikes me as attempts to regulate my mood—build my confidence in the government or the economy or undermine it, bludgeon me with scare tactics (“What item in your closet is slowly poisoning your infant? News at 11”) or feed me “human-interest” stories to, as Stewie Griffin might say, “make me smile.” Am I just weird in that I want news as neutral and unengaging as possible, that puts me in a state of suspended emotionality? I miss the old Wall Street Journal.


Anyway, this interview at Boing Boing with a health news watchdog, journalist Gary Schwitzer, whose organization gave up on trying to critique TV health stories, offers some perspective.


In the early days of CNN, we had this tremendous, exciting opportunity. The channel could be place to go in-depth with background and be analytical and contextual. But then the management side swung the other way and preferred to be the wire service of the air—take anything happening anywhere and report it with a quick turnaround.



If cable news simply was a wire service, that would not be so terrible, but when you pit three commercial would-be wire services against one another, we see what happens—noise.

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