By David Rohde
(Reuters) - At 7:00 p.m. Wednesday night, Fox News reporter Jim Angle, quoting conservative experts, reported that Obamacare would force young people to pay vastly higher premiums, face large deductibles and leave 30 million Americans uninsured.
On MSNBC, Chris Matthews on Hardball called House Republican opponents of the program "political lightweights" and "puppatoons." Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said that the Republicans were "sickening."
A night of debate on the first federal government shutdown in 17 years - and the country's largest new government program in a generation - had begun. On balance, Fox was far worse than MSNBC. But both networks are emblems of America's failing news industry.
The triumph of opinion-driven cable TV and the collapse of newspapers has created an American news media that does an increasingly poor job of informing the public - and a good job dividing it.
The media, of course, is not solely to blame for America's polarization. A vast array of dynamics - including a weak economy, gerrymandering and rapidly-shifting demographics - is fueling political division. But an economically battered news industry increasingly driven by a desperate search for profit, rather than public service, is a core part of the problem. Creating cable television and social media bubbles where one's political views are affirmed and political opponents are imbeciles has proven enormously profitable. Hyperbole enriches corporations, stockholders and pundits. The result for many Americans, though, is confusion, cynicism and division.
I'm not suggesting a false equivalence between Fox and MSNBC, or the far right and left - which James Fallows has rightly criticized. Hard-line Republicans egged on by Fox are responsible for the government shutdown. They have taken the government hostage in their obsession to end Obamacare. Yet if one watches only Fox, that approach seems necessary to prevent the cataclysm that the far-right insists Obamacare is creating.
There are some reasons for hope. The emergence of non-profit news outlets and the Web's unprecedented access to information and instant online accountability are promising.
But simplistic, reassuring narratives and angry arguments are more popular and profitable than dispassionate descriptions of complex public policy problems. For a collapsing, digital-age news industry desperate for income, partisanship keeps it afloat.
Fox and MSNBC's coverage on Wednesday night showed the result. Flipping between the two networks for several hours - something I suggest you try - produced two completely different realities.
On MSNBC, Matthews and his guests on Hardball described House Republicans as "whacko-birds," "crazy, angry" and "birthers," driven by bigotry and selfishness.
"There is very little sense on the Hill that they're there for something bigger than themselves," said Susan Milligan, a columnist for U.S. News and World Report, talking about House Republicans.
At 8:00 p.m. on Fox, Bill O'Reilly - the country's most-watched television pundit - upped the rhetorical ante. Two days after its introduction, Obamacare was "not ready for prime time," according to O'Reilly, riven with so many problems "it was pretty much impossible to list them all," and likely to spawn delays in medical care and fraud.
Over on MSNBC, Chris Hayes opened his 8:00 p.m. show with a screen logo declaring far-right opponents of the law "frauds."
Back on Fox, Sean Hannity called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) a "sick, twisted old man" who engaged in "casualty cruelty." Hannity also mocked the 18 House Republicans who had said they no longer support a shutdown as a way to delay Obamacare. According to Hannity, they were willing to "bend down at the altar of Reid and Obama."
Finally, over on MSNBC, 9:00 p.m. host Steve Kornacki, substituting for Rachel Maddow, said that Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was following the example of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and using "stunts" to make himself a hero to the Republican base.
"Newt Gingrich, more than anybody else, may be responsible for where we are, what we are now seeing playing out inside the halls of Congress," Kornacki said. "He wrote the script and Ted Cruz is following it to a t."
Over the course of the night, Fox made more exaggerated claims and out-of-context or flat-out wrong statements. But theatrics, demonization and smugness was common on both networks.
Polls, meanwhile, show vast public confusion about Obamacare. The law is the latest example of the polar opposite narratives Americans are hearing about the state of the country. There is more information than ever available to Americans, but few ways to gauge its reliability. At the same time, there is bewilderment, cynicism and fear about our future.
Pundits, meanwhile, enjoy unprecedented wealth and influence. Rush Limbaugh reportedly earns $66 million a year and was recently declared the country's most politically powerful conservative by Town Hall, a conservative website.
Glenn Beck, who earned $90 million last year, was ranked number 10. Hannity, who took home $15 million, was number six on the list. Five of the six top conservatives were media personalities or former politicians - not current Republican office holders.
On the left, Maddow makes an estimated $7 million a year and Matthews $5 million. Within liberal circles, MSNBC's influence is surging.
What do Americans get in return? A hyperbolic political debate that rewards extremism and poorly informs the public.
Hard-line conservatives are to blame for the current crisis. But, sadly, so is America's failing news industry.
(David Rohde is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)