Cable news' dominance explains much about election 2016

Zurawik: More media than ever, but we're still getting election info from cable, ideologically minded hosts.

Despite all the new media outlets that have burst onto the scene, we're still getting most of our presidential election information from cable TV and ideologically super-charged performers like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly of Fox News.

That's what I took away from a Pew survey released Wednesday that asked voters to name their "main source" for news about the 2016 election. Pew's findings help explain the confused, angry and polarized way we have come to talk about politics.

And the conversation is only going to get hotter, nastier and more TV-centric with President Donald Trump taking office. He has already shown an unrivaled ability to use cable TV as a political tool — especially when he can find compliant partners who play his game like MSNBC's Joe Scarborough or Hannity and O'Reilly.

Fox was the main source for election news for 19 percent of voters overall, while CNN was second with 13 percent, according to Pew. Facebook, which came under fire for exercising no editorial control over fake news posted there during the election, was third with 8 percent. NPR and The New York Times managed just 4 and 3 percent, respectively.

Among those who voted for Donald Trump, 40 percent named Fox as their main source of campaign news. The No. 1 source of news for Hillary Clinton voters was CNN, with 18 percent. MSNBC was runnerup among Clinton voters at 9 percent.

There are several media story lines within these numbers that beg a deeper look.

One is the surprising power of cable TV when it comes to politics.

Pew had not asked voters about their main sources of news in precisely the same way in previous elections, according to Rachel Weisel, a spokeswoman for the non-partisan research organization. So, comparisons to other presidential races are not exact.

But in 2012 in a survey about media use during the election, Pew found 36 percent of voters saying they regularly learned about the candidates or campaigns from cable. For the first time, that made cable the No. 1 news source in an election.

In this survey, 37 percent cited either Fox, CNN or MSNBC as their main source.

Given that TV audiences are seriously eroding thanks in part to competition from new digital outlets, holding its own and managing to grow by even 1 percentage point the past four years is testament to the remarkable grip cable news channels have on the nation's political conversation. (Ask ESPN about its audience loss for Monday Night Football.)

The question is: How have the cable channels handled the civic responsibility that goes with that kind of power?

To its credit, CNN has hired top reporters to cover the election and provided daily platforms for journalists like Jake Tapper to contextualize and analyze the campaigns.

But CNN also hired former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as an analyst while he was still being paid by Trump after stepping down. Lewandowski was only one of many political operatives CNN hired during the election, putting them on-air alongside journalists, making it even more difficult to separate spin from reliable information.

The channel's worst moment: CNN contributor and Democratic Party operative and contributor Donna Brazile providing information on questions to the Clinton campaign in advance of a debate and town hall on CNN, according to emails published by WikiLeaks. CNN publicly parted ways with Brazile in October.

MSNBC announced a commitment to journalism over ideology and made much better use of NBC News talent like Chuck Todd in 2016. "Morning Joe" talked presidential politics long and hard every weekday morning with some of the best political reporters going, like Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.

On the other hand, almost no one on cable TV was worse than Scarborough in giving uncontested on-the-phone airtime to Trump in the early going of the campaign when the candidate needed it most.

The "almost" in the previous sentence is included out of deference to the "Fox & Friends" morning show and Hannity, the channel's 10 p.m. show host. Trump received totally uncontested airtime morning and night on Fox.

In fairness, Fox also had Megyn Kelly, one of Trump's toughest critics, hosting a show weeknights at 9. She has since left the network to join NBC.

The cable-and-politics story to watch in coming months is how the channels position themselves ideologically in covering Trump's presidency. There are some indications of how that might play out, too, in the Pew survey.

Barack Obama was one of the best things that ever happened to Fox. Its ratings and profits grew the past eight years as it embraced the role of opposition party to the 44th president of the United States.

Its effectiveness in that role is best suggested by the fact that Obama was complaining about the network before he even assumed office and he was still blaming it for Democratic failures as he left.

"I am convinced that if there were no Fox News, I might be two or three points higher in the polls," Obama told the New York Times in October 2008.

In a November interview with Rolling Stone, he blamed the Democratic smackdown at the ballot box in part on the existence of "Fox News in every bar and restaurant in big chunks of the country."

Fox has already solidified itself as the place to go for the 63 million who voted for Trump. As popular as Kelly was with Fox viewers, the channel is probably more in sync with its audience with its new primetime lineup of O'Reilly at 8 p.m., Tucker Carlson at 9 and Hannity at 10.

Kelly's battles with Trump caused cognitive dissonance for those Fox viewers who did not want to see a Clinton presidency. There is none of that now with Carlson, who has made the verbal beatdown of a liberal talking head a staple of his nightly show.

The question here is: Which channel, MSNBC or CNN, will be the opposition party?

The number of Clinton voters who preferred CNN to MSNBC in the Pew survey suggests there's a built-in audience for the former. But CNN runs the danger of losing credibility if it gets too ideologically oriented as anti-Trump and alienates some viewers who voted for him by suggesting they are racists or misogynists.

Given its history of trying to be the liberal version of Fox, MSNBC is better suited for the role of opposition party. But in bringing on more NBC News talent and hiring Greta Van Susteren to host its 6 p.m. hour, it looks to me like MSNBC is serious about trying to regain journalistic respectability.

At its core, though, cable news is not really about news or journalism, is it? That's what makes it so problematic when it becomes the primary media platform for discussion and display of a nation's political life.

Cable news is a mix of show business, talking heads and breaking news packaged in entertainment formulas. If entertainment and show biz didn't rule, why would you have to put on makeup to talk about the news?

Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, is not likely to stop hiring dueling political operatives as much as their first loyalty might be to party or cause rather than viewers and voters. That's because, like characters in a play, movie or scripted TV show, they act out onscreen tensions and concerns in the larger society. That makes for drama, and more people will watch drama than they will an academic discussion, which means better ratings and more money for the channel.

So, on election night when emotions were already sky high thanks to Trump's upset, and Van Jones, a former Obama staffer, told Lewandowski on the CNN set that he was being a "horrible person," you had personal and political conflict and drama. And when Jones in a separate analysis that night, described the election results as being "whitelash against a black president in part," you had racial and cultural drama added to the mix.

That's good theater, the kind that triggers visceral reactions in viewers. But it's a bad way to try and elect a president.

Trump gave great cable TV for 18 months — he lit up the audience almost every time he opened his mouth on Fox, CNN or MSNBC.

In a nation where cable TV so dominates the political conversation, maybe it should not have been such a surprise that he won.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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