Schlock and Awe

At the height of election season, a TV critic considers what the heck has happened to the way cable news outlets cover presidential politics

Illustration by Andre Carrilho

After a couple of dozen volumes about statesmen from Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, historian Douglas Brinkley has written a new book about the life and career of Walter Cronkite, the preeminent television news anchor of the 1960s and ’70s. This may be startling for younger generations who can’t imagine Wolf Blitzer or Brian Williams or Katie Couric treated by future biographers as similarly historic figures. Reporting assassinations and moon landings, Cronkite became the voice of a national consensus at the dawn of a mass media that had yet to fracture into a hundred constituencies. The public might argue about the meaning of black Americans being beaten and beset by snarling dogs in the South, and it might argue the remedies, but few disputed the facts. Legendarily, Cronkite’s 1968 verdict delivered from Vietnam on the war there and its futility led President Lyndon Johnson to conclude that national support for the conflict had collapsed. A month later, following a victory in the New Hampshire primary so underwhelming as to resemble defeat, the president announced his decision to forgo another term in office.

With the current political campaign unfolding, this past summer I spent much of the time in southwest Michigan, the most conservative corner of a typically schizy “swing” state that tends to be dominated by one party at the executive and legislative levels but consistently votes for the other party’s presidential candidate. As surely as the Midwest prefers Pepsi to Coca-Cola, Fox News Channel is the information outlet of choice except when, on a debauched whim, someone switches the channel to CNN; if MSNBC is watched at all, it’s in the nocturnal manner of trolling the Internet for porn. Now so synonymous with TV news as to render the nightly half-hour summaries on CBS, NBC, and ABC afterthoughts, Fox, CNN, and MSNBC are the right, center, and left of the media consensus that cracked with Cronkite’s retirement three decades ago. Thus three presidential campaigns take place this year in three alternate universes, among voters who no longer can find accord on the most common reference points.

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Even to current-events junkies, the notion of a 24-hour news channel sounded like a gimmick when the Cable News Network launched more than 30 years ago. Two subsequent incidents of import established CNN: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, which CNN was the only network to cover as it happened, and the 1991 Gulf War, which CNN chronicled round the clock from a proximity as irresistible as it was alarming, bomb blasts and gunfire lighting up TV screens from coast to coast. By virtue of sheer ubiquity CNN came closer than anything in the post-Cronkite era to representing a consensus view of the news, but it also was a response to an anticonsensus that—due to how the media covered civil rights, Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal that drove President Richard Nixon from office—believed the media was monolithically and ideologically biased. CNN’s politics (to the extent it had any) were as idiosyncratic as the network’s founder, tycoon Ted Turner, while the network aspired to be as populist as its growing audience. Defying the maxim of Cronkite’s mentor, World War II correspondent and TV pioneer Edward R. Murrow, that truth isn’t served by always assuming two sides of an argument are equally valid—the same moral stance restated by Jeff Daniels in the HBO series The Newsroom, before the show was used to further creator Aaron Sorkin’s own political agenda—CNN epitomized a “neutral” philosophy of presidential campaign coverage. This attitude held that what campaigns say about one another would be relayed without the network feeling any obligation to verify its accuracy.

One of the subtexts of the Sorkin show (if any text in a Sorkin show is ever “sub”) is that charges of “liberal bias” over the decades have done their job, so spooking the likes of CNN that it seizes on any opportunity to prove otherwise. With breathless on-air encouragement from CNN anchor Blitzer, resident grouch Jack Cafferty was in high dudgeon this past August when the vice president made a comment on the campaign trail about the other party putting people “in chains”—clumsy phrasing to be sure in front of an audience that was substantially African American. In three years neither Blitzer nor Cafferty has expressed the same indignation over Republican insinuations and outright accusations, disavowed by none of the party’s presidential contenders other than Jon Huntsman, that the current president of the United States isn’t really an American. Over time CNN has become at once vaguely unreliable, despite Anderson Cooper’s attempts to raise the ghost of Murrow on his investigative show, 360, and dull, despite Blitzer’s frantic attempts to pump up the excitement level about, say, a new poll that concludes what the last poll concluded and the poll before it (“You won’t want to miss this next story!”). The advocacy networks of Fox and MSNBC have accelerated CNN’s descent, which began more than a decade ago and cleaved viewership still further. On a flight to New York three years ago, the woman in the seat next to mine, noting the MSNBC Web site on my laptop, challenged me about what she assumed were my political views, concluding with a rueful smile after some slightly heated words about health care, “Do you know what the difference is between us? I’m a responsible person and you’re not.” The political identities of the networks apparently have become so vivid that your laptop is now a Rorschach by which strangers can deduce the depths of your reprobation.

For the record, I find MSNBC largely populated by windbags, its most familiar figure being Hardball’s Chris Matthews, who never shuts the hell up despite my yelling at the TV screen when he interrupts guests who even I agree are morons. A smart, lively egomaniac more passionate than is good for him—he’s still living down a comment he made a few years ago about Barack Obama sending a “thrill up [his] leg”—Matthews remains nonetheless one of the rare commentators on TV or radio willing to host people with whom he disagrees, as is MSNBC’s rising star, Rachel Maddow. Though she takes an additional 15 minutes to rehash what she’s already said incisively in 10, Maddow is informed, gracious, rarely interrupts, and never, as far as I’ve seen, demonizes anyone, which in a regressively uncivil infosphere qualifies as a metaphysical occurrence. Maddow aside, however, lately MSNBC has lost its spark: Either by design or pressure from its viewers, the network’s political personality increasingly trumps the value of its talk, with Ed Schultz, Al Sharpton, and Martin Bashir safely nestled in their respective amen corners. Gradually vacating the network are the few conservatives in its ranks, including former presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, alone in his dismay among the bleeding hearts on Election Night ’08. When a national contest so verges on the mythic, with characters right out of a blockbuster novel—the grizzled war hero, the steely former first lady, the charismatic novice plucked from the obscurity of backwoods Alaska, and the previously unfathomable biracial Hawaiian who brought a new poetry to the language of national unity—the dimensions of the subsequent delusion can only be matched by the complicity of the deluded. This results in half the electorate convinced that the president wakes every morning humming “The Internationale” and the other half believing he’s sold out to a Wall Street that despises him. The ’08 election was about a metaphor bigger than policy, and in the aftermath a polarized public has locked the media into roles that then polarize the public further. Polls this year show that 95 percent of us have been certain who we’re going to vote for since before the party conventions took place.

Raised a conservative Republican whose first political hero was Barry Goldwater, I watched enough of the GOP’s 20-some debates this past primary season to know unhinged when I see it, what with Roman Colosseum-like audiences booing gay U.S. soldiers laying their lives on the line in the Middle East and giving the thumbs-down to anyone stupid enough to get sick when he can’t afford it. The president has become an object of such hysteria for both left and right that he has altered the nature of television news reporting, a phenomenon best exemplified by Fox News. Started by Australian tabloid publisher Rupert Murdoch and former Nixon adviser Roger Ailes on the eve of Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996, Fox quickly picked up steam with Clinton’s impeachment two years later, only to be put on the ideological defensive when George W. Bush became president; this changed that election night four years ago when Buchanan’s appalled visage at MSNBC was matched at Fox by the look on former Bush strategist Karl Rove’s face when anchor Brit Hume informed him that Obama had taken Ohio, the Republican firewall. Whatever bearings Fox had until then were lost. If few questioned the credentials of Hume and Chris Wallace as legitimate journalists when Fox began, now the network’s rising tenor is personified by afternoon host Megyn Kelly, who routinely complains about government doing anything for anyone except when it guaranteed her maternity leave a year and a half ago. (As The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart said at the time, “Entitlements [are] really only entitlements when they’re something other people want. When they’re something you want, they’re a hallmark of a civilized society.” Kelly, who lacerates people on a daily basis, protested that Stewart was “mean.”) Indicative of how much Fox has shifted rightward in the Obama era are the ever-expanding influence of the network’s morning show Fox & Friends, with Gretchen Carlson, Brian Kilmeade, and the stupefying Steve Doocy, and the fact that onetime mad dog Bill O’Reilly has become the network’s voice of suspicious and heretic reason, going so far off the reservation as to defend the president against claims that he’s not a citizen.

The difference between MSNBC and Fox is that whereas the former is relatively up-front about its leftward slant and its function as a purveyor of opinion, the latter still sustains the pretense of not only having a “fair and balanced” perspective but of being a news network at all, which is to say, an operation dispensing data that bears some relation to fact. I have no way of confirming that since the president came into office, socialist or some variant has been the most used word on Fox. But on one random occasion recently I timed its utterance to be an average of nine minutes apart, an interval narrowed by financial reporter Eric Bolling alone, who displayed a pizza and fumed that “Obamacare” would increase the cost of each slice from 11 to 14 cents. Argue if you will that the president is ineffectual or naive, or that his economic policies have failed, or that he reveals an excessive fondness for big government, but you have to know nothing about socialism or history to believe Obama is a socialist (Bolling has called billionaire Warren Buffet a socialist as well), unless the term has been redefined to mean any government involvement in the monetary life of the country, in which case America has been a socialist country since 1791, when Alexander Hamilton created a national bank. In fairness to Bolling, he may not be old enough to realize that Obama isn’t the most radical president of, well, my ancient lifetime anyway, let alone all time; his policies are nowhere as liberal as Johnson’s or Harry Truman’s, and his health care reform is less left-wing than Nixon’s in 1974, which was rejected at the time as not left-wing enough. Why Bolling and colleagues like Sean Hannity, Dick Morris, and Stuart Varney should persist in characterizing as “socialist” someone named Barack Hussein Obama, who, as we all know, was born in a cave in Kenya before being secretly smuggled into the United States so he could become president half a century later, is perhaps best left to individual rumination rather than to any cogent explanation that those at Fox might offer. Perhaps while we’re at it we might also consider, from the vantage point of history, what it was about the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate affair that the press corps of the ’60s and ’70s got so wrong as to earn its reputation for liberal bias.

What we call “the news” always has tried to tell a story, and it’s always told the story it wanted or, put most positively, whatever story it believed needed telling. Federalist and Democrat-Republican newspapers in the early 1800s found no more consensus than do Fox and MSNBC today, but as the electronic media exploded in the 1980s and ’90s, so did whatever pacts and treaties we thought we had struck in the context of a social contract. Walter Cronkite was the last newsman everyone trusted in the same way that the Beatles were the last music everyone loved and Marilyn was the last star everyone concurred was worthy of the word. It may be inevitable that the story the news tells becomes more contradictory as the story feels more grim and people feel more is at stake; the presidential contest four years ago was between Hope and Heroism, and whatever harsh things were said, those are defining ideals that cross philosophical combat zones. This year the contest is between Discontent and Distrust—discontent with the incumbent, which surely exists, and distrust of the challenger, which surely grows—at a time when the story is more in the image of whoever tells it rather than the other way around.