Cable TV's Election Coverage: The More They Talk, The Less We Learn
I have a simple theory about cable news, developed after months spent consuming its endless coverage of this endless presidential election: the more attention they pay to a subject, the less viewers actually learn.
I tested my notion recently by tackling a marathon assignment: spending a day watching the shows cobbled together by each cable news channel to capitalize on the nation's electoral interest -- Fox’s America’s Election HQ, MSNBC’s Race to the White House and CNN’s Election Center.
What I found: news programs chewing over morsels of information like grazing cows, taking a sliver of reported fact and massaging it with bursts of analysis and supposition until viewers had a tough time separating actual fact from assumption and opinion.
I call it the high “noise to signal ratio” of cable news; the way punditry and strategy often overwhelms the meat of reportage. Unsurprisingly, the show with the highest noise to signal ratio on this day was found at Fox News.
America’s Election HQ is a chummy, vibrating hour packed with flashy graphics, made-to-order partisan conflicts, Fox’s trademark general friendliness to conservatives and two gleaming, youthful hosts in anchors Bill Hemmer and Megyn Kelly.
The day I watched, Hemmer led the show with “breaking news”: former Clinton aide Dick Morris heard from an unnamed source that Bill Clinton had recommended to Columbia’s president in 2007 that he would only get a trade agreement with the U.S. by convincing Democrats to support it. According to Morris, 10 days later, Columbia hired the consulting firm led by Mark Penn, the recently-resigned chief strategist of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“Are you reporting that Bill Clinton got Mark Penn the gig?” Hemmer asked urgently.
“Yes,” said Morris, before thinking better of his allegation. “I don’t -- I can’t prove it. I wasn’t there.” So what exactly was he reporting? That Clinton told Columbia’s president last year that Democrats control Congress thanks to their success in 2006’s midterm elections? That’s breaking political news?
Another urgent panel discussion centered on acampaign worker assembling a crowd to stand behind Michelle Obama at a Pittsburgh rally, who yelled for “more white people.”
Fox’s high velocity election program was a clear contrast to MSNBC’s Race to the White House, a vehicle for rising NBC News star David Gregory that seems tailor made for Hardball-weaned political junkies.
What irked me most here was the continuing presence of pundit Pat Buchanan, who has written at least one book implying America’s success lies in its identity as a white Christian nation. Why MSNBC and NBC News continue to allow this guy to denounce people like Jeremiah Wright as bigots with no mention of his own tangled history remains a mystery to me.
Indeed, it wasn’t until I turned on CNN’s Election Center that I felt the media noise subside a bit. On a day when there wasn’t much real campaign news, Brown’s CNN show focused more on the news of the day, spending the first 15 minutes or so dissecting the protests in San Francisco and the likelihood that any president could implement a quick troop withdrawal from Iraq.
At a time when Americans are still struggling to make a historic electoral choice, don't we deserve election coverage which cuts through the noise instead of adding to it?