Why You Should Quit Cable News
This morning, I briefly switched back over to cable news after months of tuning it out completely. I had two immediate reactions:
Cable news is a sport; a verbal sparring contest where there is never any clear winner from day to day.
Cable news is not a public service. It's an investment opportunity; a profit and ratings driven behemoth founded upon the cozy, quid pro quo relationship between beltway politicians and pundits.
It's easier to make these determinations now that I'm further removed from caustic but addictive political spin cycles. Months ago, I climbed inside a virtual escape pod and pulled away from all the noise. I broke out of orbit, at the far edges, where the incessant chattering and whooshing/rustling sound effects could no longer reach my ears. If it weren't for those months of extraction from the siren call of the news cycle, I might have succumbed this morning to that old urge to listen, but after only a minute of hearing the ham-handed narration of the affable but thick Thomas Roberts, I switched back over to a nice Chopin sonata, and spent the rest of my commute in blissful peace.
Though cable news is an almost complete waste of my time, politically passionate creatures like me are easily shackled to its daily political spin cycles due to our thirst for acquiring as much real-time knowledge as we can. The problem is that so much of it is useless noise masquerading as urgent reporting. Filtering the pivotal from the garbage is exhausting. If you listen to your favorite programs each day, like the flagship punditry on MSNBC, Fox, CNBC, or to radio icons like Rush or Ed, you feel this sense of urgency in even the most trivial things. With each ebb and swell of the news cycle, the gold and the refuse swim along at the same rate.
Broadcasters in the 24 hour cable news arena deliberately create spaces of urgency and arbitrary 'make-or-break' deadlines. These can be related to anything from legislation, social issues or general political goings-on. The not-so-subtle message to viewers is this: if you don't listen to us, you will lose your grip on what's going on, and you will lose control over the issues that matter. The other underlying message from cable news to its viewership is: we keep you informed on the issues you care about. That is the big lie, though, because as a consequence of being shackled to cable news, I would argue that we become less informed. I would also argue that the issues on ours minds, those 'trending topics' of the day, are only going through our minds because we're being told it's important - by cable news.
One would think that constant access to such a steady barrage of information would make us more knowledgeable. It doesn't. It just makes us more wonky. Access to steady streams of information doesn't even improve cognition if it isn't organized or presented in a clear way. Cable news doesn't concern itself with facts. It deliberately injects uncertainty and suspense into every story it tells, because the last thing it wants for the viewer is any sense of resolution. So long as an issue remains unclear and frustrating, cable news retains viewership, perpetually teasing us with the promise of resolution.
And so we stay, peering over the next crest of the next hill, hoping something will be resolved. A deadline will be met. An appointee will be confirmed. A bill will pass. A popularity contest will be decided. A moral battle will be waged and won. These are the unconscious promises that cable news implies will be solved after the next break. Why do you think that the term 'breaking news' is now synonymous for 'the day's news?' News is always breaking because it never takes a break. This 'manufactured urgency' gets us to care about the channel dishing out the news, but it does nothing to bring us closer to the issues themselves. This a ratings/profit game, and in every sense, a ratings/profit cycle. That is it. Nothing else matters.
Access to constant streams of information results in a more confused viewership. The answer, of course, is in what the information is, how it gets communicated, and whether or not there is an emphasis on clear narrative. In most cable news, there is no clear narrative, and this is a problem. I'd go as far as to say that NPR is the only broadcast news source that values narrative. I've heard some criticism directed at NPR, lumping it in with all other mainstream news, but I don't agree.
NPR's editorial philosophy emphasizes clarity in reporting. I admire how National Public Radio, despite its irritating tendency to lionize the most vocal fringe views in Congress, gets at the heart of a story with an emphasis on narrative by editing out the vital information, rather than simply throwing everything at the wall and waiting to see what sticks. By subjecting viewers to six or seven two-hour blocks of programming per day, all of which cover the exact same trending news of the day, cable news broadcasters are practically forced to pad the most minute issues into Olympic Ceremony-grade pomp and circumstance.
During my months away from cable news, my access to information did not wane. With the theatrical stage dressing stripped away, though, I was better able to discern which news mattered most to me, and I relied more on trending topics such as those calculated in social media. I felt more informed than ever.
It's hard to avoid the impression that cable news is really just a commercial advertising station for politicians and the pundits who feed - or kill - their careers. I mean, do I really miss the the dead-pan zingers during Mitch McConnell's many grasping press conferences? Do I miss the cheerful and lunk-headed proclamations of prime time pundits, or the wonky runaround storytelling of politics geeks like Rachel Maddow and her alternate universe male twin Chris Hayes? I've forgotten just how exhausting it all is. I have no doubts that many of these newscasters - particularly Maddow - care about the issues at hand, but they're chained down to a system that requires they treat wonkish fights about earmarks with the same level of meticulousness as, say, civil war in places like Syria or Turkey.
I don't blame any one broadcaster for the ills of cable news. I don't even blame the wrecked evolution of the news model itself, this hegemony borne from news as a purely profit driven apparatus rather than the hybrid of public service, journalistic ethos and - yes - competition that heralded the Murrow / Kronkite era. What I blame is our inability to parse and manage the increased flow of - and access to - information in this information heavy age. When information flows easier and more rapidly, it can be hard to resist simply using it to increase news cycles per day, increase the amount of information on the screen, or the number of voices talking at once in a round table format. News media has super-sized everything about itself, ostensibly to accommodate increases in the flow of information, but this has had a crippling side effect.
What isn't often considered is that the increase in access to information should only put newscasters more on their guard. More information means more work, more work means better editors, better journalists, not simply more of them or more shifts in a day. We have a greater and more difficult responsibility than ever, because it's easier than ever to dip our fingers in the fast moving stream of information and flick out any random unverified assertion or assumption. For newscasters and journalists, the increase in information only means more hours, more repetition, more padding, more confusion, and worst of all, less journalism. What it should mean is more responsibility, more cutting the fat, more work, more distillation of ideas to their core essence. That's not something that cable news has any interest in doing. There are simply too many hours in the day and too much padded content.
None of this is necessarily indicative of a news media that doesn't care about the issues. It's only symptomatic of media's inability to manage the overflow of information. With so much to juggle, so many competing sound bites, broadcast feuds, social media rows, press releases, stories, angles, and formats to sift through, is it any wonder that cable news has been forced to become a free-for-all entertainment emporium?
There's nothing we can do to necessarily stop the slide, but fortunately for us, we don't have to. We - as viewers, citizens, interested political players all - can simply choose to do what I did a few months ago. We can tune out. Subsequently, we can be our own editors, not necessarily with facts, but with determining which topics are most vital to our lives. Being force fed several opinions and then choosing one is certainly an option, but I prefer to do the heavy lifting for myself from now on. If it keeps me a safe distance from the infuriating and anxiety-inducing cable news cycle, it'll be worth it.