Off the Cuff: Cable News Viewers Don’t Want Honest Commentary
Cable news viewers want to be entertained, not enlightened.
That’s the topic of my Off the Cuff audio commentary this week. You can listen to it by clicking on the play (arrow) button below.
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Off the Cuff: Turning Off Cable News in the New Year
Note: Today’s “Off the Cuff” audio commentary is open to all. This weekly feature is normally only available to Premium Members.
This week, I explain why I plan to watch a lot less cable news in 2021.
You can listen to it by clicking on the play (arrow) button below.
One more note: If you enjoy these audio commentaries (along with the weekly columns and Q&A sessions), please use the Facebook and Twitter buttons to share this page with your friends and family.
One last note: If you’re a Premium Interactive member (the $4 tier), and have a question for this Friday’s Q&A, make sure to get it to me before Wednesday night at midnight. You can use this form on my website.
The Power of Billionaires is Wildly Overstated
If you listen to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, you might come away with the impression that the greatest threat to our country is not terrorism, nuclear-armed dictators, the size of our national debt, the coronavirus, or even climate change. You’d think it was rich Americans — really rich Americans who Sanders refers to as “da billionaires!”
According to Sanders, the mere reality of billionaires in this country is inherently immoral. He sees them as responsible for all kinds of terrible things, including (but not limited to) people living on the streets, people without health insurance, people struggling with student debt, the oppression of the working class, and — as we’ve heard many times during the debates — a “rigged” political system.
Yes, Sanders likes to accuse billionaires of “buying” elections. He has shamed primary opponents like Pete Buttigieg for accepting political donations from billionaires, and he has shamed primary opponents like Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg for being billionaires.
Heck, according to Sanders, billionaires shouldn’t even exist. Their political and societal power is just too much.
But is it?
Sanders made a big deal last month out of Buttigieg’s campaign having 46 contributors who are billionaires. To some people, that may sound like an incriminating number. But even if each of those billionaires had forked over the maximum federal campaign amount to Buttigieg, the total would have come to just over $125,000. That’s a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of a presidential campaign. And as we all know, Buttigieg is now gone from the race.
And if billionaires can simply buy presidencies, why did Steyer and Bloomberg (the two billionaires in the presidential race) fail so spectacularly? Bloomberg alone reportedly spent over half a billion dollars on his campaign, flooding the national airwaves and Internet with his ads. In the end, he amassed a mere 31 pledged delegates. That translates to about $18 million spent for each delegate.
Not exactly the level of political influence Sanders has been suggesting.
The Democratic socialist from Vermont isn’t alone in overestimating the power of billionaires in our political system. Lots of people, mostly in liberal circles, agree with him. This includes many in mainstream media.
Case in point, the other day on MSNBC, Brian Williams and Mara Gay (of the New York Times) found it astonishing that Bloomberg could have taken the enormous amount of money he spent on his campaign, and instead used it to give each and every American a life-changing one million dollars:
That is rather amazing, when you think about it. And by “rather amazing,” I mean complete and utter nonsense.
Williams and Gay had gotten that “math” from a viral tweet, and the author of that tweet hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. In reality, if Bloomberg were to have spread out what he spent on his campaign evenly among the U.S. population, each American would have received a check for a whopping one dollar and fifty-three cents.
The gaffe was rather telling, not just of the laziness of some journalists, but also of many people’s gross misunderstanding of the uber-wealthy’s capacity to pick up the tab for the rest of the country’s expenses. The truth, contrary to the insistence of politicians like Bernie Sanders (and many others, primarily on the left), is that there is no such capacity.
“It’s why Elizabeth Warren was enthusiastically boosted by the media despite her ridiculous pretense that she could pay for a series of gargantuan initiatives without raising taxes on anyone but the extremely rich. It’s why Democrat after Democrat promises not to raise ‘middle class taxes’ while promising programs that require the raising of middle class taxes. How did this bad tweet make it onto TV to be endorsed? Why did Mara Gay agree with it? Why didn’t Brian Williams notice? Because the people involved in this clip thought it was true. This is how they see the world.
But it’s not true. Not even close.”
This is the fatal flaw behind the “wealth redistribution” argument. Eliminating billionaires, whether it be through a wealth tax or some other form of taxation or regulation, wouldn’t pay for (or even put a dent in) any of these big-ticket government programs. Not single-payer healthcare. Not student loan forgiveness. Not “free” college tuition. Not our federal entitlement programs. None of it.
The same would be true if you added top millionaires to the mix (the top one percent of U.S. income earners already pay for close to 40% of our country’s total tax revenue).
As Cooke points out, even if you took the entire net worth of Michael Bloomberg, and divvied it up among every American, we’re talking about a one-time amount of just $183 per person. That’s less than most families spend on groceries in a single week. The move would also leave Bloomberg completely and immediately broke, unable to contribute another cent to the government, to business investment, to the consumer economy, to charity, or to anything else.
Now consider that there are only around 620 billionaires in the United States…and that Michael Bloomberg is wealthier than at least 610 of them.
Once you do that math — the real math, not the MSNBC math — the power of “da billionaires” to either oppress or rescue the rest of us doesn’t seem particularly impressive. That’s because it’s not. And those who routinely claim otherwise aren’t any more informed on the topic than Brian Williams and Mara Gay.
But who cares about reality when there’s a great political tagline at play. Right?
The Cable News War
For cable news, Donald Trump is no longer the gift that keeps on giving.
At first he was, but now big change is in the air – and it’s all because of the President.
When Mr. Trump initially announced his candidacy for President, the curiosity factor drove millions of Americans to watch him on cable news.
The shock of seeing a flamboyant political neophyte take on well known pols like Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee was immediate.
Then came the Republican debates – and the sight of Mr. Trump diminishing his opposition in very personal ways, blew up decorum.
This was reality TV at it’s best and viewers flocked to it.
There was Trump calling Governor Bush boring to his face. Senator Rubio became “Little Marco.” Carly Fiorina was labeled unattractive by Mr. Trump.
Anything could happen at any time.
The arrogant, mostly liberal national press dismissed Donald Trump as a vulgarian but gave him constant exposure. He was good for ratings and was destroying the Republican Party in the process. Both positive things for the media chieftains.
But then Trump won the nomination and faced Hillary Clinton.
Once again the establishment TV news media derided Trump but hung on his every word. He remained great for business and couldn’t possibly defeat Mrs. Clinton.
They were absolutely certain of that.
But then he won again.
Almost instantly, business plans were put into place. CNN and MSNBC, with a large helping hand from NBC News, set themselves up as the “resistance,” openly demonstrating to their viewers that fair coverage was not even being considered.
The mandate became “destroy Trump.”
Anti-Trump Americans now had two networks that would bash the President non-stop. Because MSNBC was more vicious than CNN, it garnered the biggest audience of the two.
On the other side, Fox News made a corporate decision to support Donald Trump and appeal to the 60 million Americans who voted for him. Because FNC stood almost alone in defending Trump, it remained the highest rated cable news operation – there was no where else for the President’s supporters to go.
But all three cable networks basically stopped covering the news, devoting most of their presentations to Trump. Unending Trump. Always Trump.
Many viewers became exhausted.
So, Fox News has begun losing viewers especially in the 25 to 54 years old category. MSNBC is actually beating FNC in prime time on some nights which rarely happened in the past.
Correction, it never happened.
Many philosophers believe that hate is a stronger emotion than love, and that might be what we are seeing here. The MSNBC people are better haters than the CNN crew although it’s close. MS trounces CNN in the ratings because their Trump loathing is kept at a white hot temperature. It’s almost amusing to watch.
How do they keep it up every hour on the hour?
Fox News allows some of its on air talent to hate Trump too, and that is not sitting well with its core audience who now have alternatives on radio and the net.
But the basic problem with FNC is a lack of entertainment value.
Hating is fun for some; defending the object of hate, not so much.
When Donald Trump leaves the national stage, all three cable news operations will likely decline in a major way. Covering the news fairly and accurately is difficult. Today, cable news doesn’t even try. If you are looking for accurate information and honest perspective, you better bring a strong microscope.
Americans know that. They clearly see what’s happening. And when the blood sport of Trump-era politics finally ends, viewers will not be back for an encore.
They have had it.
MSNBC Beats Fox News in Overall Viewers; Panic Time?
Last week, MSNBC took first place in the cable-news ratings war for the first time since the network debuted 21 years ago. They not only defeated Fox News in the key 25-54 demographic, but also in total viewers. In fact, FNC didn’t even come in second in prime-time. They finished third behind CNN — something that hadn’t happened since the year 2000.
The primary reason for the newfound success of NBC News’s decidedly progressive cable-news branch was described by Bernie Goldberg in a recent piece. Bashing President Trump over his often embarrassing and controversial antics is good for business.
Trump’s crassness and almost daily displays of dishonesty throughout the election convinced much of the American public that he simply can’t be trusted, and that it is especially important to hold him accountable, now that he is our president. Thus, troublesome allegations against him (even baseless ones) are immediately entertained and exploited. And there is no one more enthusiastic (and often less responsible) about doing it than far-left members of the mainstream media.
Fox News has obviously gone a different route, largely establishing itself as a pro-Trump outfit (at least on its editorial shows). The movement in that direction began about two years ago, when several of Trump’s personal friends (including Sean Hannity, Eric Bolling, and Laura Ingraham) used their FNC platforms to effectively promote his candidacy. When the novelty and outlandishness of the Trump campaign turned into television gold, and Fox’s obsessive (and increasingly positive) coverage of it acted as a ratings sugar-rush for the network, more on-air personalities fell in line.
Over time, a re-branding effort of sorts softened the network’s emphasis on conservatism. Instead, Trump-normalization became the central theme. Even Bill “No Spin” O’Reilly was firmly on board, carrying water for his buddy, Trump, to the point of absurdity.
For a while, Fox’s new direction proved to be quite profitable. In fact, 2016 was the network’s most-watched year to date. Even the first quarter of 2017 still had the Fox on top (though steadily losing ground). But with Trump (now as president) continuing to feed his critics ammunition to pummel him with, the network’s tone evolved again. The shift was noticeable even before Fox unexpectedly dropped O’Reilly, a longtime ratings juggernaut.
Rather than pro-Trump commentators devoting all of their time to defending the indefensible (an exhaustive practice with this president), political deflection became the new theme. Taking a page out of Trump’s campaign playbook, hosts began using the “counter-punch” strategy as the basis for their analysis. Tucker Carlson (who took over O’Reilly’s time-slot) has led the charge, focusing his nightly efforts almost exclusively on examples of liberals acting horribly or hypocritically. This includes a nightly segment where he mercilessly wails away on a liberal guest who doesn’t seem to understand why they were asked onto the show in the first place.
Sean Hannity has taken things a few steps further, expanding his show beyond Trump sycophantism, and into the realm of hair-on-fire conspiracy theories. In fact, for the past several weeks, Hannity has been trying to convince his audience that the unsolved murder of DNC staffer, Seth Rich, was carried out by Democrats trying to silence Rich from leaking information to Wikileaks. This theory was debunked soon after it began, but Hannity has continued on with it, much to the dismay of Rich’s family who has been pleading with him to stop politicizing their deep loss.
On The Five, any criticism of something Trump did is immediately answered by one or two of the hosts with an example of a liberal doing something similar in the past. The shtick has gotten quite stale.
With the notable exceptions of Special Report and Fox News Sunday (which remain two of the best news programs on television), Fox News shows have become more about going after Trump’s detractors than they have about analyzing the Trump presidency and world events. This may be perfectly fine with our president’s base, and also with a good chunk of conservatives, but it doesn’t draw in (or enlighten) a broader audience.
That’s not to say that the Left’s hypocrisy and clear media biases aren’t legitimate issues worth exploring and exposing. They are indeed. But they shouldn’t be the primary focus of a serious news network. If you’re negligent in actually covering the news, people are going to go looking for it in other places (even if they’re not entirely happy with the alternative product).
Can Fox News recover? Absolutely. In fact, the network’s ratings are still historically quite strong. And being that they lost three of their top stars over the past several months (Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, and Greta Van Susteren), one would think they’d be in much worse shape. But executives at the network can’t ignore the rising success of their competitors. Fox News is losing the appeal it once had with viewers who aren’t deeply partisan, and they’re losing that appeal quickly.
The tribal sugar-rush has about run out. It’s time to start thinking about a long-term plan for renewing interest and trust among viewers whose appetite for red meat isn’t their primary motivation for turning on the news.