If you’re just tuning into a cable news channel, here’s what you missed so far: Keith Olbermann’s self-indulgent ranting on MSNBC (GE), a crying Glenn Beck playing with a Jenga set while muttering his new favorite f-word (fascism), and Sean Hannity promoting the idea that the government will send young people to brainwashing camps on Fox News (NWS). In between, we’re learning all about the latest celebrity exploits and being warned that some sort of catastrophe is about to befall us, whether it’s from the business sector or the world of medicine. And should there be something with just a hint of scandal or potential tragedy to it, expect at least 15 hours a day devoted to the case.
What’s missing from this picture? The news. In pursuit of ratings, 24-hour news channels stacked up on high-profile pundits and padded their coverage with scandals and celebrity gossip straight out of tabloid magazines. Rather than report current events in politics in-person, they’ve delegated the job to their commentators who immediately attach their spin on the story as they deliver it, backed by a cavalcade of guests who can’t stop agreeing with them.
Instead of covering the latest developments in the world of science and technology, they’re shutting down these editorial desks to substitute them with their own versions of E! News. And when it comes to tragedy or scandal, they’re unstoppable, especially when they hand the story off to overzealous pundits who stretch them to mythical dimensions.
Today’s news networks excel in entertainment, political sophistry, and making the inconsequential into the story on everyone’s lips. But in the process, they’ve managed to mortally wound their original purpose: to keep their viewers informed.
Before you call 24-hour news channels low-brow, consider dictionaries. If enough people say "irregardless" for long enough, Merriam-Webster will list it as an accepted word. (Actually, it already has.)
Cable news channels are democratic in the same way. They give the people what they want. And for Americans, that means serious news interspersed with Y-Lift cosmetic surgery and the latest homicide-committing celebrity. How many viewers could take a steady diet of world hunger, budget hearings, and global warming programs? Of course those subjects are more important than Lindsay Lohan’s switch back to men, but that doesn’t mean people can stomach hearing about them anytime or all the time.
“The Greeks and Romans had their pantheon of gods, and in the U.S. we have celebrities,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Everyone knows celebrities. It’s something we all have in common to talk about.”
And are cable news channels really that trashy? I turned on the Fox News Channel the other night and found news about swine flu, not Gossip Girl. And even though coverage of the Miss USA pageant’s Miss California has now expanded to include her silicone implants, Fox started out concentrating on her attitude toward same-sex unions—an important topic.
Yes, Jim Cramer’s style is over the top and self-indulgent on CNBC, but anything that makes the stock market more entertaining does viewers a favor. And if people want to cry about Caylee Anthony and Haleigh Cummings with HLN’s (TWX) Nancy Grace—whose ratings rose 74% from February 2008 to February 2009, according to Broadcasting and Cable—let them have their catharses. For those who find these networks frivolous, there’s always PBS, BBC, or C-SPAN.
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