Once upon a time in a far more stable America, our national agenda was largely shaped by network news, The New York Times, weekly news magazines like Time and The Associated Press. Media productions like the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” not only determined what we would talk about, but also how we would talk about it.
Today, the Times and AP are still playing an important role in what we talk about in Congress, at the White House podium, in the media and at dinner tables around the country. But cable TV is the medium most responsible for shaping the national agenda. Yes, that cable TV with all its opinionated talk, conflict, vitriol and coverage often based in ideology more than journalism on a channel like Fox News.
This media shift makes for a big difference in our real lives, from the siloed way we see the world to how we discuss politics and possibly even vote. It’s important to understand this shift and its effects, but they are far more complicated than the one-dimensional analyses that say cable news is bad, the old-time evening news of the Cronkite era was great. Neither of those assertions are totally true ― or false.
I have been thinking about this a lot as the cable channels have been racking up record ratings month after month since COVID-19 started tearing up national life in March.
I try not to pay too much attention to TV ratings. Every network, channel and station has numbers crunchers who can spin ratings into looking like pure gold. But it has been hard the last few months to ignore ratings reports like the one that came out this week showing that CNN had its most watched July in 40 years, while Fox News had its best July ever. Meanwhile, over at MSNBC, Rachel Maddow had her best month ever in total viewers and the highest rated regularly scheduled program in the channel’s history with her interview of Mary Trump, the president’s niece and author of the book about her uncle, “Too Much and Never Enough.”
One reason that viewers are tuning in at such record rates is the revolutionary moment in which the nation finds itself. We are trying to cope with the worst public health crisis in 100 years, and we have almost no federal leadership to guide us. Instead we have a lying president touting quack cures and a vice president, who is in charge of the task force on the pandemic, meeting with a doctor this week who believes in alien DNA and demons having sex with us when we sleep. Finding trustworthy information has become literally a life and death matter, and it’s every citizen for herself or himself.
Add in news of the nation suffering the worst economic plunge in its history this week, a hurricane headed for Florida on Friday as the state hits record highs in coronavirus cases and deaths, a mighty racial reckoning at least 400 years in the making and a presidential election in less than 100 days, and it is not hard to understand why news and information matters more than at any time since World War II. If this isn’t a revolutionary moment in American life, I do not know what is.
No one can offer eyes-on coverage of that many watershed stories at the breakneck speed with which they are unfolding like cable news. No one has the resources around the world that CNN does.
As I wrote earlier this week, Sunday morning I woke up, turned on CNN and there was the caisson carrying the casket of Rep. John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Busy with other stories on my beat, I had not been thinking that much of Lewis, but I was so deeply moved by the images and on-scene reporting that I spent much of the rest of the day thinking about the Georgia congressman as I went about my business. And then, I wrote about him for the Sun the next day.
At the micro level, that’s one example of how an agenda gets set.
Wednesday morning, I was reading online about Trump having retweeted a video featuring false claims about the pandemic because he was so impressed with what one of the people in the video, Dr. Stella Immanuel, a Houston-based physician, was saying about hydroxychloroquine. In addition to her support of the drug, The Daily Beast and CNN were reporting that Dr. Immanuel also believed demons had sex with us when we were sleeping.
I couldn’t wait to see Trump explaining the retweet of that video, which was subsequently taken down by Twitter and Facebook because of the misinformation it contained about COVID-19.
As I passed the TV on my way to getting a cup of coffee, there was Trump himself live on all the cable news channels coming out of the White House on the way to his helicopter, telling reporters, “I was very impressed with her and other doctors who stood with her. I think she made sense, but I know nothing about it.”
Knowing nothing didn’t stop him from retweeting the video to his 84.3 million followers. That’s how disinformation pollutes our information ecosystem and threatens our lives. Cable news offered me the chance to see Trump’s “I-know-nothing” defense in real time.
No story this summer showcased cable’s strengths and news dominance like the protests that erupted in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
One of the journalistic images that stands out most vividly in my mind is that of CNN reporter Omar Jimenez being arrested live on air by police while he was reporting from Minneapolis. Again, I saw it in real time on CNN, and when police tried to lie about details of the arrest, the videotape from the channel’s coverage documented the facts and exposed the lies. The highly professional behavior of Jimenez, the skill of the CNN crew, and the instant backing of his team from CNN President Jeff Zucker convinced me no one was going to tell the story of what was happening in Minneapolis more diligently.
Neither CNN nor any cable channel can compete with the Times or the Washington Post on investigations and enterprise reporting, but even here, cable matters. If you watch CNN or MSNBC during the 9, 10 or 11 p.m. hours, you will see reporters from those papers on virtually every night ― often minutes or hours after their publications had posted important stories from them on their websites. That’s one of the main reasons those publications built their own studios, so that they could get their reporters on cable TV.
We didn’t go overnight from Cronkite to Anderson Cooper, from network news to cable TV driving the conversation of civic life. Network news gave away the territory starting in the 1990s when new corporate owners demanded that news divisions become profit centers after decades of being allowed to lose money in return for the credibility and prestige they brought the network. The news divisions were forged in part in the 1950s as a way to fulfill the “public service” required from broadcasters under the Communications Act of 1934. But that ended with new owners looking for more money.
Print-oriented operations like the Times and the AP have themselves to blame in part, too. They were slow to respond to the Internet and social media. Though the Times is now thriving in digital, CNN.com has more traffic than any other news site worldwide.
Cable news TV has committed its share of journalistic sins, none worse than Fox News, which was designed as a political tool for conservative ideology rather than a journalistic entity. Under Trump, it has only gotten more partisan.
But all three of the big channels bear responsibility for Trump getting elected in 2016 with the excessive amount of free airtime they gave him to lie and peddle disinformation without serious challenge because he drew viewers.
Here’s hoping cable news lives up to the responsibilities that come with its agenda-setting stature during the next three months and are relentless in putting public service and journalism above all else as they lead coverage during one of the most remarkable moments in American history.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.