While I don’t usually get worked up over politics, I have recently.
The problem is cable news. A couple of centuries ago a handful of dreamers built this country as a democracy whose success hinged on a knowledgeable electorate and a free and independent press. But it’s a different world today. Back then, people got their news from the printed page. Today, a stunning majority relies on television. Back then, a newspaper was a page or two of matters of importance. Today, there are multiple 24-hour networks with lots of shelf space to fill. And back then, news had a gestation period, usually 24 hours or longer, which gave reporters time to double-check sources, and editors time to sit and mull over a story before deciding to run it or not. Today, in an environment of instant news, talking heads and digestible sound bytes – one it almost single-handedly created – cable news is less like your wise, cautious grandfather and more like your crazy uncle who’s always saying the first thing that comes to his mind and never seems to have a private thought. But what makes me so mad is that cable news – especially its political coverage – has become reckless, polarizing and even mean. (Now understand, as I write this I can feel defensiveness rising from a particular cable network; but it can rest easy. This is not an indictment of one network, but something bigger – though those at that network might want to consider why it is whenever a media critic uses a term like "mean", its knee-jerk reaction is he’s talking about them.) You know what the trouble is? Ratings. At a CTAM conference a few years back, Barry Diller took at shot at Tom Johnson, then head of CNN, who explained his network’s falling viewership by saying, "CNN is not about ratings." Diller rolled his eyes and said, "Oh great. CNN has become the news equivalent of French Cinema." Of course, everybody laughed. But Johnson was right. A news service shouldn’t be about ratings. Why? Because what’s good for ratings isn’t necessarily good for the country. Want good ratings? Ignore hard truths. Report good news. Tell people what they want to hear. Better yet, find a desirable demo and tailor the news to it. Want bad ratings? Tell the truth without blinking. When the country’s at war, report the death toll along with the battles won. Why am I ranting to cable people? We have become an indispensable part of the political process. That much power carries with it responsibilities. And just because you’re a cable operator, doesn’t take you off the hook. It may not be your message, but you are the messenger. And it’s your money they’re playing with. I’m not sure about the fix, but during their next contract talks, I’d like to see MSOs exercise some power and tell the news networks to clean up their acts. I’d like to see the ad community find a way to qualify, not quantify, cable news coverage. But most important, I’d like to see a cable news equivalent of C-SPAN – one governed by a bi-partisan editorial board. It doesn’t have to be a full-time network right away; maybe to start simply a two-hour nightly broadcast. And while that may never happen, we should at least talk about it; consider it. Otherwise, we’re giving the bullies and propagandists our tacit approval; while gift-wrapping the one thing they hold most dear – our viewers.