Sunday, November 18, 2007

CNN's Descent

Tim Rutten has a nice analysis of CNN's increasing descent from objective journalism, at the Los Angeles Times:

If you're one of those dutiful souls who felt that the responsible exercise of citizenship required you to watch Thursday's debate among the Democratic candidates on CNN, you probably came away feeling as if you'd spent a couple of hours locked in the embrace of a time share salesman.

We're not talking about the candidates here, but about the shamelessly high-pressure pitch machine that has replaced the Cable News Network's once smart and reliable campaign coverage. Was there ever a better backdrop than Las Vegas for the traveling wreck of a journalistic carnival that CNN's political journalism has become? And can there now be any doubt that, in his last life, Wolf Blitzer had a booth on the midway, barking for the bearded lady and the dog-faced boy?

It all would be darkly comedic if CNN's descent into hyperbole and histrionics simply represented a miscalculation in reportorial style, but it signals something else -- the network's attempt to position itself ideologically, the way Fox and MSNBC already have done. In fact, we now have a situation in which the three all-news cable networks each have aligned themselves with a point on the political compass: Fox went first and consciously became the Republican network; MSNBC, which would have sold its soul to the devil for six ratings points, instead found a less-demanding buyer in the Democrats. Now, CNN has decided to reinvent itself as the independent, populist network cursing both sides of the conventional political aisle -- along with immigrants and free trade, of course.

In other words, for the first time since the advent of television news as a major force in American life, the 2008 presidential campaign will be fought out with individual networks committed to particular political perspectives. Why does that matter? As far back as 2004, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that "cable now trails only local TV news as a regular source for (presidential) campaign information. In several key demographic categories -- young people, college graduates and wealthy Americans -- cable is the leading source for election news." Thus, for key segments of the electorate -- groups rich in what the pollsters call "likely voters" -- the main source of political news is now a partisan, or at least, a politicized one.

It would be one thing if all this had occurred as the result of conviction, but the conglomerates that own the cable news networks -- Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., GE and Time Warner -- don't have convictions. They have interests, particularly in ratings. They're all mindful of what occurred in the run-up to the last election, when -- as Pew found -- the reliably Republican Fox increased its audience by nearly half, from 17% to 25%, while audiences for CNN and MSNBC, then still nonpartisan, remained flat.

A Pew survey earlier this year found that all this has had its consequences: "Republicans outnumber Democrats by two-to-one (43% to 21%) among the core Fox News Channel audience, while there are far more Democrats than Republicans among CNN's viewers (43% Democrat, 22% Republican) and network news viewers (41% Democrat, 24% Republican)."

Because the ratings-driven world by which the cable networks now measure themselves feeds on the culture of celebrity, each now has a signature personality -- Bill O'Reilly on Fox, Keith Olbermann on MSNBC and the neopopulist Lou Dobbs on CNN. Among the three, Dobbs has been given the greatest license by the network's increasingly desperate executives. His endless fulminations against immigrants and free trade now have been interwoven into the fabric of CNN's political coverage, where Dobbs plays the role of both pundit and populist partisan. The network has relentlessly sold his new book, "Independents Day: Awakening the American Spirit," since it came out last week, despite the fact that it's quite clearly meant to give him a platform for his own political aspirations.
Read the whole thing.

I think Rutten should have continued his analysis with further discussion of the implications of a partisan press for American society. When the media becomes a partisan actor, it no longer works as a representative of the people; it no longer serves as a watchdog against corruption and malfeasance.

Rutten's right about hyperpartisanship and a market for mindless media mudslingling, but Lou Dobbs' presidential aspirations might have been handled in a stand-alone essay.