Why is Cable News So Bad?
The 2008 presidential election started earlier than ever before. Americans crave political news—the Democrats held over twenty well-watched debates, and the Republicans had over a dozen, all of which were endlessly analyzed by talk radio hosts, bloggers, and TV talking heads.
It is possible to find a wealth of enjoyable, informative commentary on talk radio—Laura Ingraham (when she is not kicked off the air for—apparently—violating her contract), Rush Limbaugh, and Mark Levin, among many others, host intelligent programs. Likewise, the blogosphere provides interesting and amusing analysis of the news. Even network news, while often biased and shallow, does at least attempt objectivity and decorum. So why is cable news so stupid?
It is hard to find a cable news show that makes even the most cursory attempt to be either a) unbiased, or b) dignified. I confess to be unfamiliar with CNN’s shows—whenever I tune in to that channel, it always seems to be showing a program about such uninteresting topics as the plight of North Dakota’s turnip growers, or the growing market for grain silos. But I do watch both Fox News and MSNBC enough to be familiar with their entire prime time lineups. And both are pretty painful.
Fox News starts its prime time coverage with the O’Reilly Factor, aka the No Spin Zone. Bill O’Reilly is an extremely talented TV personality, and that accounts for his massive popularity, but he is also an egotist and a blowhard. His ego means that he is constantly getting into embarrassing arguments with other media figures (for example, Keith Olbermann), and starting understaffed social crusades (three million people is an impressive cable audience, but not enough to make a boycott really effective).
O’Reilly’s tough questioning ensures that few prominent political figures want to appear on this show, which means that the O’Reilly Factor often degenerates into Bill O’Reilly hollering his positions at some overmatched “strategist”, which turns what should be entertaining political debate into an embarrassing shoutfest. In addition, O’Reilly is a clever but shallow thinker, which means that his political positions are often ill-though-out.
MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann is worse. His show is built around the fact that he is not Bill O’Reilly—Olbermann seems to harbor a stalker-like obsession with O’Reilly. He often names O’Reilly his “worst person in the world”, fanatically covers every O’Reilly gaffe, and often launches into a bad impersonation of O’Reilly’s voice when especially angry (which is often). I personally thought the show jumped the shark when Olbermann put on a puppet show acting out some event in Bill O’Reilly’s life.
The rest of the show is a sort of liberal Biazzro World—Olbermann lets liberals pretend, for a moment, that Bush is a sort of Richard Nixon/Bond villain combo, a world in which Olbermann is Edward R. Murrow (Olbermann has even appropriated Murrow’s “good night and good luck” line). Olbermann is by turns a psuedostalker and a nut.
After Olbermann comes Verdict with Dan Abrams. Dan Abrams used to be general manager of MSNBC, but got tired of that job and reentered broadcasting. Abrams is perhaps most notorious in conservative circles for gleefully speculating that Rush Limbaugh might be arrested for vote fraud. However, in other circles, he is known for…not much really, but he is a vegetarian, which probably the most interesting thing about him. His show is about as interesting as he is.
Fox News fills the 9 p.m. hour with Hannity and Colmes, which is a sort of less intelligent version of the O’Reilly Factor. Alan Colmes is more interesting and intelligent than he seems on TV—his talents are not exhibited well against the combative and bullying Hannity, so he is usually just ignored and brought out when the frequent well-known conservative commentators need a liberal punching bag.
Fox News follows Hannity with On the Record with Greta van Susteren, which provides important coverage of missing teenagers, runaway brides, and celebrity sex scandals. The most amazing aspect of the show is that Greta van Susteren has a job—she is certainly not particularly attractive, has little personality, and has a gravely, annoying voice. Sadly, her show is quite popular, presumably among the same people who read supermarket tabloids a lot.
MSNBC fills the hour with a repeat of Countdown with Keith Olbermann, in keeping with their commitment to making sure that Olbermann is on air as much as possible. (When not on Countdown, Olbermann anchors election night coverage, and sometimes moderates debates).
Cable news, in contrast with other media, seems to almost universally either boring, stupid, or biased (or all three). Neither Fox News nor MSNBC has a prime time show which could be called worthwhile. Possibly, media leaders are simply responding to what viewers want, which is the ultimate arbitrator—but it would nice if cable news could inject some civility and balance into its reporting.