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Monday, March 9, 2009

TV Rants as News, and Undermining the National Dialogue

Cable news has devolved to the lowest common denominator for the sake of profit and niche ratings. Instead of reporting what happened, instead of carefully researched investigative journalism, we have on Fox News, CNN, and now CNBC loud rants from anchors spouting ridiculous positions, which attract much coveted attention and keep them in business. But what has happened, and what will happen, to the important debate about how to resolve our current economic crisis? Will policymakers have the guts to ignore these rants, which stir up the public for a few moments, and instead opt for difficult, long-term solutions? I think the more we listen to the so-called debates on TV, the more trouble we will be in.

For some channels, perhaps they were always in it to serve a small cable constituency, and get their coveted ratings to promote to advertisers. Their motto was, ‘Be Extreme, be loud, be outrageous, like Limbaugh, and get attention. Make money.’ They only used the cover of ‘news’ to attract that uncritical viewer who might have been channel-flipping.

For others, the change has been nothing short of remarkable. Lou Dobbs, in another lifetime, was a respected business journalist, before he decided to pull what I call a Bill O’ Reilly. Dobbs metamorphosed into a dictator on the TV screen, who only invited guests in order to talk over them, berate them, and pontificate on his own views, while his ‘guests’ were left stammering. For years, Dobbs has shouted at the camera, red-faced, to vilify illegal immigrants, to attack Bush, the government, CEOs, now Obama, and so on. You know the story.

And his ratings have skyrocketed. Mind you, he doesn’t have a majority of the cable news audience, just an important sliver of it, but that’s all you need to thrive in this media. Limbaugh has known that for years. Balkanization works for success on TV and radio; the middle ground is not only boring, but unprofitable. These loudmouths do not offer any practical, real-world solutions. They shout, and we tune in, amazed, disgusted, in stitches or in tears, but many of us look and listen. It’s entertaining, and we can gleefully feel good about ourselves while the talking heads put someone else down. It’s a weak and petty self that enjoys such entertainment, but well, that is who we often are.

The latest flip to the dark side of ridiculous media is CNBC. I watch CNBC often, and last week was a turning point. Rick Santelli, Larry Kudlow, and Jim Cramer unleashed a series of anti-Obama rants about the war against capitalism, subsidizing losers, and unprecedented wealth destruction. Did Obama get us into this mess? Where were these TV demagogues when Bush exploded the deficit, when the SEC fell asleep at the wheel, when CNBC promoted many of the CEOs who later bankrupted their companies and then came begging for government handouts? Is there any kind of mea culpa forthcoming from CNBC about its role in not being systematically critical of Wall Street investment banks, Countrywide Financial, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac when it mattered years ago? What happened to their skills as journalists in investigating these problems before they became the crisis du jour for talk television? David Faber is the only one who still sounds thoughtful on CNBC, and he must feel lonely there.

The problem of course is that this insidious trend to gather a small, but loyal group of eyeballs to make your channel profitable is being taken for serious national debate by those who are not the sharpest tools in the shed: our politicians. If our political leaders make important decisions based on these rants, then expect our country to suffer, expect it to be irrationally divided and bitter, expect careful thinking to go the way of analog TV, expect other countries not so hooked on the boob tube to surpass us quietly and methodically. Where is Gretchen Morgenson when you need her? Turn off the TV, and pick up a newspaper, magazine or book, and think outside the box.

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