You know it’s bad in cable news when someone at MSNBC says cable news is no longer news. A woman named Ariana Pekary, who worked as a producer on “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell,” quit her job recently because she just couldn’t do it anymore. That she managed to stay any length of time working for a prima donna like Larry is a testament to her intestinal fortitude, but even a true believer has their limits. What has happened to cable news in the era of the Trump presidency was even too much for her.
I’ve been sounding this alarm for a few years now and even wrote a best-selling book about it. If you watch a “cable news debate” on any subject, there is a better-than-average chance that you’ll come away dumber. Which network doesn’t really matter. The level of knowledge of the guests is about the same: they’ve read a story about the topic and have an opinion.
You’d think I was joking, and I wish I was, but I’m not. Haven’t you noticed how the same people weigh in on everything? North Korea? Check. Health policy? Check. Taxes? Yep. Education? Same. The pandemic? There they are.
Did cable news just luck into finding the smartest people ever to exist? As someone who knows many of the faces you watch, whatever network you watch, I assure you the answer is no.
They’re not dumb, but they’re also not special. Their skill, as it were, is to be able to string together a semi-coherent sentence, always with hours to prepare and often with the help of producers, on any subject. When a segment is five minutes long and there are three or more people involved, how much does anyone have to know anyway? You could do it, I promise you.
No, knowledge of a subject is not a requirement at all. In many cases, to be honest, it’s an obstacle. It seems crazy (mostly because it is), but having worked with a lot of policy “wonks” I can tell you they’re not the easiest people to have a conversation with, even about the subject they know more than almost anyone on. Most wonks get so deep in the weeds of their issues, and their work lives are spent with people who do the same, that they don’t realize not everyone has a working knowledge of the intricacies of reinsurance, for example (don’t ask). Having them on TV to explain something complex in simple terms would be like asking a feral cat to explain thermodynamics.
They need a buffer to be understood. That used to be the host or reporter, but now it’s no one. So the people who study these issues for a living are out, and in come the contributors.
A lot of cable news contributors are like actors – they know they don’t have the knowledge, so they have to bring the bombast. They’ll tell you they don’t play a role, but most of them do play a role. Otherwise, their whole real lives would be spent yelling at everyone. The way Ariana put it is that the model “forces” producers “to make bad decisions on a daily basis.”
She continued, “The model blocks diversity of thought and content because the networks have incentive to amplify fringe voices and events, at the expense of others … all because it pumps up the ratings.”
I know this to be true. I’ve been personally told so by people in position to make those decisions. These networks aren’t concerned with conveying information--they check their ratings literally by the minute. What and who “rates well” dictate what is on the next day, not what’s actually newsworthy. That’s the opposite of what you’d expect from an organization with the word “news” right there in their name, but it’s true.
If you were given just a list of guests on almost any cable news show for any given day, you’d have to wonder if it’s a rerun – it’s the same people, no matter what the topics are. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. They’re private businesses and free to do whatever they want. The problem comes in with the use of the word “news.” It’s not.
I get that they’re paying these people obscene amounts of money to talk for a couple of minutes per day, so they might as well use them. Just don’t call it news, because it’s not.
“Occasionally, the producers will choose to do a topic or story without regard for how they think it will rate, but that is the exception, not the rule,” Ariana wrote, and she’s right. That’s not going to change anytime soon. The same void in the market that originally gave birth to MSNBC and eventually to Fox exists again today. I hope someone, even one of them, gets back in the news business and fills it. Because accurate, honest news is desperately needed.
Derek Hunter is the host of a free daily podcast (subscribe!), host of a daily radio show on WCBM in Maryland, and author of the book, Outrage, INC., which exposes how liberals use fear and hatred to manipulate the masses. Follow him on Twitter at @DerekAHunter and on Parler at @DerekHunter.