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News Or Spectacle? As Ratings Rise, Concerns Grow Over Impact Of Cable News


In the Trump era, cable-news networks are experiencing a ratings boom. With the phenomenon comes a blurring distinction between news and spectacle, and politics being covered as sport.

Cathy Areu regularly spars with commentators and hosts alike as a self-described “liberal analyst” on cable news. Her perspectives can trigger spirited debates on a network long known for toeing a conservative line. 

On air, Areu often finds herself under siege for her views. But she says journalists should be prepared to debate issues as if they are black-and-white on TV.

“There doesn’t seem to [be] a gray area. It’s our job as journalists to present the facts and have people decide for themselves. That’s what the New York Times and Washington Post does beautifully," Areu says. "But for TV, you have an entertainment factor to it. If you’re a journalist who goes on TV, you have to understand that gray is sometimes confusing.”

It’s a hallmark of cable news: the on-air brawls over controversial issues like immigration and the economy which some research suggests may further polarize opinions.  For many years, the effects of cable news on the broader political discourse has stirred debate.

Kelly McBride, the vice-president of the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism school in St. Petersburg, says one thing is clear: Viewers who are watching clearly like it or they would be turning it off.

McBride says TV dumbs down the political conversation more often than not in search of higher ratings, leaving journalists at risk of oversimplifying complex events and policies on-air.

“That is absolutely what a lot of the television shows, not all of them, but what a lot of the television shows are looking for," McBride says. "Occasionally, I get asked to come on and debate issues around the media and politics. And I’m not… you have to be pretty well-prepared as a journalist to go on those shows and not get sucked into oversimplifying and overstating your position.”

Recent data shows viewership for the three network evening newscasts are down while cable networks are experiencing a surge in ratings. MSNBC has overtaken CNN to become the second highest-rated network in primetime, behind only Fox News.

According to Republican political strategist and media consultant Rick Wilson, the volatile political era ushered in by the Trump administration is accelerating changes in the media landscape.

“A lot of these networks are finding their way. Both MSN and CNN are trying to find a sort of different model, where you end up with panels that are roughly more balanced, ironically, than Fox," Wilson says.  "Fox has become a one-note cheerleading section for Donald Trump.”

Fox News has long been criticized for the right-wing slant of its programming. However it generates billions of dollars in revenue each year for its parent company, 21st Century Fox. Today, the network accounts for a growing share of its parent company’s profits, according to the New York Times.

Credit Rob Kim/Getty Images
Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Fox News pins its success on hosts like Bill O’ Reilly and Sean Hannity, both of whom reach millions of viewers each night with a blend of news and fiery conservative commentary. Critical of the increasingly murky boundary between fact-based reporting and opinion on Fox, veteran news anchor Ted Koppel recently told Hannity he is “bad for America.”          

At times, it can feel that America’s political divide is wider than its ever been. But Wilson says there is nothing new about this moment. He says technology is making the access of and profit from information easier than ever before.  

“We’re not in an era where the nastiness of politics is any greater or lesser than its ever been. But we are in an era where everyone sees everything and where you can commodify and monetize things that are now parts of the news,” Wilson says.

He may have a point. In 1968, ABC News was ranked last in network ratings. So to increase viewership during the presidential nominating conventions, ABC hired intellectuals Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. to debate politics. Buckley was a conservative and Vidal a liberal. The heated debates were a ratings sensation and they resulted in one of the most memorable exchanges TV had seen up to then. In front of the nation, Vidal called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi." Buckley then threatened to punch him in the face.

Trump’s rise to power has brought unique challenges to a television world where the border between news and spectacle is no longer clear. McBride says that while cable-news networks can be much better about covering current events, the profit motive will likely loom large.   

“I think they could choose a wider range of topics. I think that they could look to more diverse experts and I think they can create more nuanced conversations," McBride says.

But McBride is quick to point out that isn’t necessarily what ratings show audiences are after. She says cable-news is a business after all.