Port: Cable news is a cancer, and we need to stop feeding it
MINOT, N.D. — Ariana Pekary was, until recently, a producer at MSNBC.
Fed up with her job, she opted to resign and then wrote a scorching indictment of the cable-news industry on her website.
It's worth your time to read.
"We are a cancer and there is no cure," she wrote, quoting another television veteran.
"As it is, this cancer stokes national division, even in the middle of a civil rights crisis. 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," she continues.
Pekary describes an editorial process for cable news that amounts to seeing what's trending online or repackaging whatever content rated well the previous day. Subject matter that should receive nuanced and careful coverage is instead tossed down in front of a red pundit and a blue pundit so they can fight over it like two junkyard dogs trying to get at a steak.
This turns what is nominally a journalistic endeavor into a daily excuse in regurgitating the same old political hot takes over whatever topic the producers saw on Twitter. "I understand that the journalistic process is largely subjective and any group of individuals may justify a different set of priorities on any given day. Therefore, it's particularly notable to me, for one, that nearly every rundown at the network basically is the same, hour after hour," Pekary writes.
I haven't watched cable news in years, but I did have an experience at an airport not so long ago, which is right in line with what Pekary is describing. My flight was delayed, and I was stuck with a long wait in the terminal with the ubiquitous televisions all blaring CNN. I ended up watching most of that network's daytime lineup, and what was remarkable is that each new show, each new talking head, covered pretty much the same things the same way.
All day it was red pundits and blue pundits speaking earnestly, or pantomiming outrage, and mostly pretending as if their colleagues hadn't pretty much said all the same things the same ways just last hour.
It was terrible.
Everything Pekary is describing is terrible. And true. We all know it. For proof, we need only to turn on our televisions.
It would be easy to blame the newsrooms and the producers and the corporate executives who shovel this nonsense at us, but they deserve only half of the blame.
After all, we're the ones gobbling it up, tuning our televisions and devices into the network that delivers the flavor of staged political combat we prefer. Fox News is for people on the right while the folks at CNN, MSNBC, and even ESPN, where it can seem at times as though sports is just an excuse to talk about politics, cater to the left.
Pekary suggests that the journalists who work in cable news could choose to start serving audiences differently. "They could contemplate more creative methods for captivating an audience," she writes.
This is echoed by Jim Geraghty at National Review (I found Pekary's Lutheresque theses through his excellent column). "Just try covering the news with depth and nuance and take a shot at leaving viewers knowing more than before they tuned in," he suggests. "Who knows, some people might like it, particularly people who don't watch cable news right now, because they find it a predictable shout-fest."
It would be nice if that could be true, but cable news (much like social media and other platforms we could mention) isn't going to change until the public wants it to change. We tend to talk about problems in the news media as if they're exclusively a top-down problem. While there are some problems in the newsrooms and executive suites, much of the business of reporting the news is driven by what the people want.
And what the people want is someone to tell them that everything they believe about the world is right and just and wise while those who disagree are terrible people with untoward motivations.
"Supply always comes on the heels of demand," Robert Collier once wrote.
Want to fix cable news? Start turning it off. Seek out other sources of information. Like maybe your local news outlets who, while far from perfect themselves, are going to typically deliver you more nuance than whatever outrage of the day the cable news crowd is screaming about.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .