When I came to work today, the television in the break room was tuned to Fox News instead of another interminable rerun of “Law and Order” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Does this suggest a sudden interest in being “informed” rather than “entertained?” Not really; in the morning hours Fox is aware that people are more interested in traffic and weather reports, interspersed with “light” news. But in the afternoon and evenings, many people who are grumpy after work are more susceptible to ravings and rantings about who is to blame for making their pitiful lives so unbearable; it’s bad enough that there are minorities demanding their fair share at all—let alone a black man as president who in “the good old days” might have been taken to the woodshed for being “uppity” and “not knowing his place.”
There are some people who actually believe that Fox provides news that is what it claims it to be: “fair and balanced.” Take, for instance, my dad, who unsuccessfully tried to convince me of this. He rationalized his belief by observing that Fox actually on occasion allows guests from the non-extreme right of the political spectrum to “debate” the issues of the day--meaning, of course, that he had bought into the "liberal media" myth. I have seen a few of these “debates;” one can sense the frustration of the Democrat trying to reason with a child in adult clothes who has not gone beyond the “no way” stage of critical thinking. And frankly, with Glenn Beck repeatedly calling Barack Obama a “racist” and Sean Hannity calling him a “terrorist,” the juvenile wins every time. On the other hand, as laughable as the “debates” are in CNN’s “Situation Room,” where the odds are stacked in favor of the Republican talking points, at least right-wingers are forced to offer responses in complete sentences (so as not to embarrass “moderator” Wolf Blitzer); occasionally the clouds break when a Republican is asked too many questions and goes berserk, revealing his or her Mr. Hyde personalities (such as when Anderson Cooper repeatedly asked Rep. Louis Gohmert for evidence of “terror babies”). Over at MSNBC, Chris Mathews on “Hardball” has the temerity to demand illumination on what exactly people mean by “second amendment solutions” and the specifics of the Republican plan for preventing insurance companies from denying health coverage. In any case, the reality is that Fox News is not “fair and balanced.” If you want “fair and balanced,” watch PBS News Hour.
But do people really want “fair and balanced?” When it comes to cable news shows, the answer is probably not. People who choose between these news shows watch whichever one fulfills their predetermined beliefs; CNN lags behind both Fox News and MSNBC in the October 26, 2010 Nielsen overnights, probably because it is so vanilla and can’t make-up its mind if it wants to be “fair and balanced,” or a Fox News mini-me. Fox had an average 24-hour viewership of 1,453,000; MSNBC had 468,000 and CNN had 380,000. It is perhaps easy to over-estimate the impact of these news shows, given the rather puny numbers; after all, Rush Limbaugh claims to have 20 million listeners. Of more interest is not the fact the numbers for Fox shoot considerably higher when bigoted, paranoid morons like Beck and Hannity are on the air, but the fact that both Fox and MSNBC leave CNN far behind when it comes to attracting viewers in search of political commentary. Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell, although still considerably behind their Fox competitors, have double the viewership of their CNN alternatives.
What does this all mean? It means, of course, that people who receive their “news” from broadcast media (as opposed to newspapers), are likely to receive opinions, not news. The fact that Fox News dominates the cable “news” viewership is testimony to the fact that a majority of people prefer to moan and groan and look for scapegoats, as opposed to MSNBC viewers who prefer at least the pretense of analysis and exposure of hypocrisy. Does this mean that CNN is filling the news void? CNN used to fill that role admirably in its heyday, but now it is struggling to find a niche. Besides News Hour, the network evening news shows still seem to be the most reliable purveyors of “hard” news; but overall, the broadcast news media is failing in its obligation to sustain an informed electorate.