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A Plague on ALL Their Houses: Cable News Networks as the Primary Political Polarizers

The OLD Philosopher – John M. Miller

It is stated over and over; “America has never had such political polarization as we have now.” However, it isn’t politicians or the political process that primarily have rendered our nation so divided. It is cable news networks which virtually guarantee our national divisiveness.

The three 24/7 networks that are the most responsible for the polarization are, in alphabetical order, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. Every hour of the day each of these news organizations has programming which elicits emotional and viscerally responses from viewers on a vast variety of political subjects.

Smaller-audience partial-news networks such as BBC World News, Bloomberg, CNBC, HLN, and NWSMX also contribute to the extremist political views of millions of Americans. But their participation in our polarization is miniscule compared to The Cable Big Three.

Marshall MacLuhan was correct half a century ago when he observed that television is a “hot medium.” It influences the thinking of people more instantaneously than anything else in the media. Intellectually and psychologically, we absorb news differently from television than from any other news medium.

 The process of our political separation may have begun years ago when Fox News adopted their “Fair and Balanced” slogan. They were not then nor are they now either fair or balanced. In order to distinguish themselves from perpetually conservative-leaning  Fox, liberal-leaning CNN and MSNBC make no serious pretense of being essentially fair or balanced either.

The problem is greatly exacerbated by all three major cable news networks claiming to be broadcasting “news.” They do not. Almost exclusively they broadcast news commentary. Political news is, or ought to be, presented as objectively as possible. By its very nature, news commentary is unavoidably subjective.

 The Three make veiled attempts to appear objective. Each day, numerous liberal talking heads from “the other side” are seen on Fox programs, and numerous conservative talking heads from their “other side” are seen on MSNBC and CNN. Nevertheless, it always evident what the news “slant” is.

Should news be slanted? Can’t news just be news? Must news be interpreted by someone in order to be news? Ought not the viewers be encouraged to interpret for themselves what is happening rather than to have a “news show personality” telling them what the news really means?

In order to maintain their viewer numbers, Fox has a programming agenda. It is to maintain their “base,” which is similar if not equal to President’s base. Fox rarely gives Mr. Trump any serious or thoughtful critiques. Their motto seems to be “Donald Trump Yesterday, Today, and Forever.”

In the same way, CNN and MSNBC each want to keep their coteries of viewers, so their commentators regularly attempt to illustrate how the President is engaged in impeachable and/or criminal activities. They seek to wound the President in every conceivable manner. Obviously they also present other news, but their main stock-in-trade has become the undermining of Donald Trump. Thus the national polarization only deepens.

In following their chosen policies, the three major cable news networks have openly declared themselves primarily to be partisans for or against the President. All other news, including whatever Republicans or Democrats in Congress are doing, almost always takes second place. But presumably their chosen course keeps their ratings as high as possible in their particular sector of the news business.  

However, is it ethically or epistemologically possible to turn “news” into “the news business?” Is it truly valid, at the deepest level, philosophically to yoke the profit motive to the video production of news?

Obviously if we are to have “news” at all we must have a successful means of delivering it to the populace. Unless news is funneled to the people solely by the government, and at tax-payers expense, no less, somebody has to pay for the funneling. No one in a democracy could opt for that. Thus it is inevitable that a profit, or at least no financial loss, must support the presentation of “the news.”     

It is the race for ratings which drives the televised news market, however. For years Fox has outdistanced CNN and MSNBC in the ratings department. Currently there apparently are more self-identified Democrats than Republicans among the American people, but the television ratings agencies do not support that supposition by their ratings. The conservative base remains more steadfastly conservative than does the liberal base.

Roger Ailes shrewdly turned Fox News into a money making monster until he, along with a few other highly placed Foxes, lost their jobs over a variety of similar corporate infractions. Still, Fox forges ahead, as do MSNBC and CNN. Although it is a cutthroat business, the news business thrives, and its news shows still garner vast audiences.

There is a revolving door for numerous politicians and other government employees who appear on the news shows, where they display their political wares. But politicians and government experts are not responsible for the greatest degree of political polarization in the country. That dubious distinction must be placed upon the news shows themselves. Unintentionally, they turn centrists into extremists of the left or right, depending on which networks the viewers choose to watch.

If “news” inevitably results in political polarization, then it is mainly news, as presently portrayed, and neither politicians nor politics, which is the primary problem. Politics and politicians purposefully divide the people as a whole into smaller groups. Nevertheless, when the majority of the people get the majority of their news from cable news networks, they are bound to become polarized, because the news networks themselves are so polarized.

In the past few years, an increasing number of busy, frazzled people have turned to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media for their news. They have convinced themselves they do not have time to watch televised news. However, that choice moves from the supine to the ridiculous. Mentally and psychologically, genuinely comprehensive news reports cannot be contained on very small screens. And objective news coverage has all but ceased to exist on cable news network screens.

Americans should eliminate some of the hours they spend each week watching cable news by spending more of their free hours reading newspapers, magazines, and books. When they do that, they can decide for themselves where their politics rests on the scale from far-right to far-left. They do not need very gifted, intelligent, and astute commentators to tell them where they should stand.

 The political center should be very wide, and the far-right and far-left should be very narrow. Inadvertently, “cable news” has shrunk the center and broadened the extremes.

The Montagues and the Capulets were two warring clans in Shakespeare’s powerful tragedy Romeo and Juliet. When speaking to a large crowd of both families gathered in a public space, one of the characters says to them, “A plague on both your houses!” To the Big Three with their deliberately slanted programming, we say, “A plague on all your houses!”

Too many people get too much of their news from the cable news networks. They would be much better off watching the early evening half hour news programs on the traditional Big Three networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS, plus that of the newcomer network, Fox. An even wiser choice might be to include the PBS News Hour, which also is broadcast in the early evening. It might be tempting altogether to forego a daily search for news, but probably that is a dereliction of duty for any citizen. Reading the news is the best option.

As long as the American people stay fixated on cable news, where ratings are paramount to success, the American people shall remain politically polarized. When there are so many good alternative news sources, what a pity that is.


John Miller is Pastor of The Chapel Without Walls on Hilton Head Island, SC. More of his writings may be viewed at www.chapelwithoutwalls.org.




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