Were he alive, Abraham Lincoln would not likely be a regular viewer of the major cable news stations. The former president is reported to have remarked that, “it is the man who does not want to express an opinion whose opinion I want.” Given that a great many of the programming slots offered up each day by cable news stations are forums for nothing more than the incessant and repetitive offering of opinions, it is unlikely Lincoln would be tuning very much to the opinions so eagerly offered up by those networks.
Students of and experts on journalism and broadcasting certainly will argue over the causes for the explosive growth of opinion programming on cable news stations. Opinion shows, which rely less on in-depth reporting in favor of scanning the day’s stories already reported for those most likely to generate “buzz,” are – perhaps aside from the salaries of their stars – cheaper to produce than hard-news shows. Whether financial concerns are the primary cause of this phenomenon, or simply the changing viewing habits of viewers, the bottom line is that so-called 24/7 news increasingly translates into “less news, more opinion.”
It is not simply the plethora of opinion programs that is raising concerns, but the style and conduct of those offering their opinions. As noted in a recent article by former CBS evening news anchor, Dan Rather – one of the far-right’s favorite punching bags – television news has been reduced largely to “opinion, commentary and marketing masquerading as news.” This has, in turn, says Rather, led to “more in-studio shouting matches between partisans, moderated by openly partisan talking heads.”
While many Republicans and conservatives will discount these observations by one of television’s longest-serving former news anchors, few could legitimately argue that such antics breed understanding. The more likely result is hardening of opinions already settled, while advancing neither understanding nor tolerance. This “ceaseless blowing of hot air,” so described in a recent op-ed eulogizing news anchor Walter Cronkite, has created what that writer termed an “infotainment nightmare.”
Perhaps nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the programming schedule for CNN’s HLN (formerly, “Headline News”). For nearly half of each 24-hour news cycle, HLN bounces between “showbiz” stories, pulp crime reporting by Nancy Grace, and “Issues” with fast-talking newcomer Jane Velez-Mitchell. From 7 p.m. in the evening until 6 a.m. the next morning, HLN viewers have only those three options for their viewing pleasure; a line up interrupted only once, during the 4 to 5 a.m. hour, for “Prime News.”
The impact of these constant “opin-news” programs on traditional, non-cable network news has been profound – and negative. Since 1980, the year CNN launched as the country’s first all-news, all-the-time station, evening news viewership has fallen by well more than 50 percent and the ratings of the three network channels (ABC, CBS and NBC) have dropped even more precipitously – some 64 percent. Perhaps even more ominous for the networks is the fact that during that same period in which their ratings and viewership have dropped significantly the median age of its viewers has risen, to more than 61 years.
The fast-talking, high-volume pace of cable opinion shows may be having effect beyond the TV screen. Attendees at recent town halls, for example, and at other forums, mimic the sloganeering and rudeness so perfectly honed by cable commentators.
Solutions will be difficult to come by if we as a nation are to reclaim a focus on true news reporting that educates and enlightens; and which CNN promised 29 years ago. While many may not agree with Dan Rather’s call for a presidential commission “to assess the state of the news as an institution and an industry,” at least he is proposing a process of deliberation rather than entertainment.