The future of cable news will be smaller, but still obsessed with ratings

Photo (cc) 2006 by Ayush

The golden age of cable news, in my curmudgeonly view, stretched from 1980, when CNN was founded, to 1996, when Fox News and MSNBC came along, ending CNN’s monopoly.

It’s not that I like monopolies. Competition is good. But after the one became three, the race to the bottom was on, with all of them going with opinionated talk shows in prime time rather than covering the news. It almost doesn’t matter that CNN and MSNBC are liberal and relatively grounded in the truth while Fox is firmly a part of the conspiratorial extreme right. The point is that if it’s news you want rather than hot takes, you need to turn elsewhere.

But if the golden age has long since passed, the green age only started to fade recently. From 2015 through Jan. 6, 2021, all things Trump drove cable news ratings and revenues into the stratosphere. So what’s next for cable news in the post-Trump era? As I wrote in March, the future looks uncertain, with cable news ratings — and, in fact, audiences for all news organizations — down considerably. When the news is more or less normal and inspires something other than horror and perverse fascination, well, maybe “Beat Bobby Flay” looks like a better alternative.

Earlier this week, Vanity Fair published a lengthy article on the state of cable news by media reporter Joe Pompeo. It’s filled with interesting details and insights. What’s depressing about it, though, is that there isn’t a single executive who’s quoted, either on the record or anonymously, who talks about how moving the focus away from Trump might give them an opportunity to serve journalism and democracy better than they do now. It was all about ratings before. It still is.

Pompeo quotes Rich Greenfield, a media analyst with LightShed Partners, on what the future is likely to hold:

It honestly feels like we’re back to the run-up to the 2016  election, like we’re going back in time five years to when cable news was really about old people. The volatility, the anger, the hatred that was spewed across cable news over the last few years, from both sides, clearly brought an audience. I would feel very comfortable  saying I don’t think we’ll ever see sustained full-year ratings like we’ve just seen.

OK, so maybe that’s how cable news will serve democracy: by reaching smaller audiences.

At the beginning of 2019, I wrote a column headlined “Five Ways to De-Trumpify Your Life.” No. 4: Stop watching cable news. There are many superior sources of news and information. If there’s major breaking news taking place, sure, I’ll tune in to CNN. If Anderson Cooper is at the anchor desk, I might even stick around.

But the class of the television news universe is the “PBS NewsHour,” which has improved and toughened up considerably over the past few years. We record it every night; we rarely watch the whole thing, but we appreciate the intelligence and context, which you just can’t get elsewhere.

And yes, I’ll watch Rachel Maddow occasionally, too. She’s smart and well-informed, and her politics are pretty much the same as mine. But it’s entertainment as much as it is news, and what’s important isn’t always entertaining.

As described by Pompeo, it sounds like cable news is going to be the same as it ever was, only with fewer viewers. It’s a lost opportunity. But what did we expect?

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Lauren Wolfe, The New York Times and the never-ending dilemma over social media

Photo (cc) 2019 by Andreas Komodromos

In what should be a surprise to no one, follow-ups show that The New York Times  fired freelance editor Lauren Wolfe after several previous incidents in which the paper’s editors believed she had violated social-media guidelines. It wasn’t just the “I have chills” tweet about President Biden. But the question remains: What was the big deal? As Joe Pompeo of Vanity Fair puts it:

As the situation snowballed, there was also a palpable yearning for more information about what was behind the Times’ decision. Was Wolfe a sacrificial lamb thrown overboard in the face of bad faith criticism? Had the Times overreacted to what could be interpreted as an expression of relief given the authoritarian bullet America just dodged? Or was there more to the story?

The answer, Pompeo says, citing “a number of senior Times sources”: “Wolfe had previously been cautioned about her social media behavior. A manager gave her a warning months ago after staffers expressed discomfort with certain tweets she was told bordered on being political.”

Tom Jones of Poynter argues that Wolfe’s termination raises questions that need further exploration:

This incident once again brings into question the social media presence of journalists. When a journalist tweets, do they represent just themselves or the organization they work for, as well? Can someone’s work be questioned over something they post on Facebook? Is a journalist always “on the clock,” even when they are tweeting personal thoughts?

Finally, Wolfe herself speaks to Erik Wemple of The Washington Post. And what she has to say casts doubt on the idea that her previous transgressions played any role in her firing. Wemple writes:

Months ago, recalls Wolfe, she received a warning from the same manager about her Twitter activity; as an example, he cited a tweet in which, Wolfe says, she’d connected the resistance of conservative men to wearing masks to “toxic masculinity.” She deleted the tweet. But, according to Wolfe, the manager said her posts in general were “borderline” and that other Times staffers had done “worse.” Last week’s tweet was “the only reason they fired me,” Wolfe says.

Wemple also describes as “dreadful” the Times statement (see previous item) in which management said it would respect her privacy while not respecting her privacy. It surely is that. By insinuating that Wolfe was fired for something much worse than the “chills” tweet, the Times harmed Wolfe’s reputation and made it more difficult for her to move on to her next job.

The Times is known for having strict guidelines about its straight-news journalists expressing opinions on social media. If, in fact, Wolfe proved incorrigible after previous warnings, then I suppose the Times acted appropriately, even though it still strikes me as an extreme reaction to a pretty harmless tweet.

It also appears that Times management reacted as much to the outrage stirred up by the gadfly journalist Glenn Greenwald and others as it did to Wolfe’s actual tweet. According to Pompeo, Wolfe was told that her tweet had sparked an outcry, and “we can’t have that.” For what it’s worth, Greenwald says Wolfe shouldn’t have been fired.

Earlier:

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Misdiagnosing what’s wrong with The New York Times

Joe Pompeo has a new piece in Vanity Fair about all the unhappy people inside The New York Times. It’s deeply reported and interesting, but it also strikes me as a diversion from the main problem with the Times these days.

Pompeo’s thesis is that the Times is riven by factionalism that can largely (though not exclusively) be defined as younger “woke” staff members who would like to see the paper pursue a more explicitly liberal and anti-Trump path versus older, more traditional journalists who value balance and neutrality. The money quote is from Times manager editor Joe Kahn:

We do not see ourselves, and we do not wish to be seen, as partisan media. That means that the news and opinion divide, and things like social-media guidelines and some of our traditional restrictions on political activity by employees, may feel cumbersome to some people at this point in our evolution.

Pompeo did the reporting and I didn’t. So he may well be right about what people talk about inside the Times. Outside, though, the Times’ loyal and largely liberal readership is talking about other issues — such as the paper’s equally negative coverage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign in the face of mountainous evidence that their transgressions were not remotely equal; the Times’ harsh but ultimately normalizing coverage of the Trump presidency (in contrast to The Washington Post, which has been relentless); and its weirdly gentle treatment of people on the far right, such as the notorious profile of the Nazi next door.

I wrote about these issues for WGBH News in January. I don’t think things have gotten better at the Times since then.

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