In less than an hour tonight, flipping through cable-TV channels, I witnessed what ails American politics and public discourse.
Seeking results and analysis of the recall election for Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, soon after the polls closed at 8 p.m. Central Time, I turned on CNN, which usually has the best journalists and the most balanced treatment of politics.
But just before enough returns came in to make it all but certain that Walker had won, the network gave the last half of the hour to Piers Morgan (who usually has the whole hour) and replays of that day’s coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee. A couple minutes of the royal family were enough for me, so I switched to Fox News, on an adjoining channel.
Right after Fox host Sean Hannity told viewers that it looked like Walker would win, apparently with the help of a big rural vote (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel map), he got reaction – from a couple of Republicans. Democrats were unrepresented.
Disliking that one-sided presentation, I turned to MSNBC, where liberal Rachel Maddow has been known to give conservatives their due. But she got her initial reaction only from Ed Schultz, a liberal blogger and radio talk-show host who was clearly disappointed, perhaps even upset, that the recall had failed. A couple minutes of that was, again, enough for me. I went back to Piers Morgan.
Soon, though, it was after 9 Central, and CNN had returned to the election. As Dana Bash reported from Walker headquarters, the crowd realized that she was on the air and started booing. On a later report, Walter supporters crowded around her platform and jumped up and down with signs, one saying “Don’t believe the liberal media.”
Bash was playing it straight, as CNN usually does. But neither side seems to think so. When another CNN reporter tried to report on the reaction of recall supporters massed outside the Wisconsin Capitol, they nearly drowned him out with noisemakers and bumped him with small bags bearing dollar signs.
And which of these channels has lost the most audience lately? CNN, apparently because it tries to give viewers what they need – a fair, accurate and reasonably thorough report – rather than what they apparently want, facts that are selectively reported and opinion that confirms their political beliefs.
For more than a decade now, the proliferation of news outlets has made most of them hungrier for audience, so they increasingly give viewers what they want. And the increased competition has made them give an inordinate amount of time to opinion, which is much cheaper and easier to produce than real news, which involves paying journalists to go out and dig up facts.
The market for opinion in this country continues to grow, while the market for facts continues to decline. At some point that becomes bad for a representative democracy, which relies on voters who make informed judgments, not just knee-jerk reactions or echoes of what they have heard or read. I fear we have passed that point.