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The Problem With Cable News

I’m attending a conference today – “First Draft of History,” sponsored by the Atlantic, the Aspen Institute and the Newseum – at which David Gregory interviewed John McCain. When asked about the decline of civility and bipartisanship in Washington, McCain was particularly tough on the “instantaneous cable news cycle.” “Extreme comments get people notoriety,” he said. And this atmosphere makes it “harder to come together on issues.”

That's an opinion he shares with the man who beat him in the last presidential election. Of cable television, President Obama recently said, “It feels like WWF wrestling. You know, everybody’s got their role to play.”

It is predictable for politicians to resent their daily thrashing by the 24-hour cable news cycle, which is always hungry for controversy and rooting for failure. But there is something about cable that makes it easy to dislike. It is the communications medium that turns obnoxiousness into celebrity -- think Olbermann, Beck, Matthews and O’Reilly. And Obama is correct -- instead of debating an issue, cable commentators tend to play a role.

But the problem goes deeper.

The cable networks contribute to a much broader trend -- not merely the incivility of discourse, but the fragmentation of discourse. Americans increasingly turn to media outlets designed and marketed to confirm their preconceptions. Conservatives can watch Fox, listen to Limbaugh and browse National Review Online. Liberals can watch MSNBC and read the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos. This makes it possible for Americans to get their news entirely from people who agree with them -- people who always reinforce their instincts and anger. Because of the diversity and partisanship of the modern media, Americans can live entirely within an ideological universe of their own construction. And those outside that universe become, not only opponents, but aliens.

This danger makes me a conservative defender of the traditional media -- a lonely and probably hopeless calling. It is good for democracy, and for the ideological sanity of individuals, to read both E.J. Dionne and Charles Krauthammer in the same publication, though readers will naturally side with one or the other. It is good for newspapers and networks to set professional standards of fairness and objectivity, even though they will often fail to meet those standards. A fragmented, partisan media will naturally make our nation more fragmented and partisan -- as both McCain and Obama seem to understand.

By Michael Gerson  | October 1, 2009; 11:47 AM ET
Categories:  Gerson  | Tags:  Michael Gerson  
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I wholeheartedly agree. Now, what can we do about it??

Posted by: klh84 | October 1, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Let's make a deal Reverend Mike, you pray for the commie, gay, bed-wetting, Muslim, illegal immigrant, socialist liberals at MSNBC and I'll pray for the Irish Catholic bigots at Fox News. Let' God sort 'em out.

Posted by: coloradodog | October 1, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Have you apologized to Ezra Klein yet?

Posted by: Patroklus | October 1, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Cable TV does not allow the participants to hit and run like Gerson . Bravo sierra is met with clear cold water within hours . That something about it you don't like is the same something you saw the last time you were caught in a lie . You are not getting away with it anymore and there is no going back .

Posted by: borntoraisehogs | October 1, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I agree with your point. Sadly, it is not just cable news. Some whacko who is News Max contributor suggested that the military was poised to mount a coup to overthrow Obama to preserve the consitution. All the time I though one of the bedrock principles of the constitution was that people elected, and unelected, our leaders. Sadly, the WAPO has been impacted by this trend as well. I see more negativity in the Post than ever before. Let Obama make a point and the paper will search far and wide to find an "expert" who will attack his position. The media is too anxious to find dissenters and almost never challenges them to explain the basis for their criticism.

Posted by: cdierd1944 | October 1, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Agree 100%. I used to watch Olbermann a lot, but grew tired of it and wanted to hear from both sides (even though I often agree with the more left positions). NPR seems to be one of the few outlets that makes an attempt to be impartial and just present basic facts. The need to fill 24 hours of airtime and "compete" against the other 24 hour news stations is very bad because you basically end up with entertainment shows, since fact reporting is far less exciting. Not sure what to do - I just hope to God the new generations who are not as addicted to TV and are used to getting their information from many different sources cause the decline of the networks - all of them.

Posted by: peter44 | October 1, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Gerson, have you ever listened to O’Reilly ? He is not obnoxious, and he usually presents both side.

Obermann is the truely obnoxious one.

Posted by: mbm011 | October 1, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Wow, another time I actually agree with Gerson. I think his grasp of reality is minimal and blind in both eyes where his politics is concerned but he is correct on this note. I read the Post and several news sites but never watch TV don't have cable, by choice. However I find it impossible to talk politics with the Fox news, Limbaugh, Beck lunacy union. they will not even agree on a set of facts to debate. Instead they send crazy chain Emails that are based on crafted lies and supposed facts that never happend. How can we debate without at least excepting some basic set of realities. I think it is a form of insanity that rejects reality as it exists and replaces it with a myth reality that has never existed.

Posted by: jpenergy | October 1, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Back in the seventies, many people went to Parent Effectiveness Training workshops where we learned how to handle the attention-getting statement. The problem with much of today's mass media is that an individual cannot respond to the ratings-driven attention-getting statements with the appropriate "Hmmm, tell me more, I'm hearing, is that correct, etc. feedback that brings the real issue to the forefront. All we hear are the attention-getting statements and not everyone recognizes them for what they are.

Posted by: abbyandmollycats | October 1, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

I think you neglected to include, on the liberal side along with the WAPO, and MSNBC....The main stream media, and PBS. It is very hard to find any fair and balanced reporting in the MSM. Seems to be very liberal. This is why I feel the need to watch Fox News along with the MSM to get any balance in the reporting.

Posted by: basfishin114 | October 1, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

You are correct in all aspects about discourse being so difficult at the present time. But you and others skip over the main reason for this lack of balance is the abrupt ending of the Fairness doctrine that required "other views" on radio and tv. Now groups fight to make sure this discourse you miss is not done to mess up their pure thoughts.

Posted by: hairman | October 1, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse

You are absolutely correct in saying that right-leaning folks watch Fox, and left-leaning folks watch MSNBC. The only problem with your argument is that the mass media, particularly television, has been perceived to be a tad bit more liberal - a case in point is the soon-to-be-forgotten Dan Rather of CBS. I do give credit to newspapers in that they at least give some voice to conservation thought.

Posted by: rtneiles | October 1, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

I too am fond of "the traditional media" and yes I like both Lefty Dionne and Righty Krauthammer in the Post but...

"the traditional media" is a very pro-liberal, pro-Obama and buries too many stories.

It sent investigative reporters to Wasilla, Alaska but not Chicago.

It forced open the sealed divorce papers of a Palin family friend and Obama's Senate Challenger Jack Ryan but never the divorce papers of Teddy Kennedy's first wife (she had a miscarriage after Mary Jo's tragic death).

It missed the John Edwards story and recently the "truther" Czar Van Jones story.

It missed years of ACORN corruption: voter-fraud, tax fraud, and recent sex-slavery advocacy in five or is it 10 cities ?

I read a few years back, that at a Media Conference every attendee was asked which newspaper they wanted dropped at their door... the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. It wasn't even close. 300 to 1.

Media bias ? you betcha !

And yes .. competition from the cables and Talk Radio is healthy.

Posted by: pvilso24 | October 1, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Gearson I think you neglect to recognize one crucial difference between Mr. Olbermann at MSNBC and the folks at Fox 'News'; while Mr. Olbermann is unabashedly liberal his programs are fact based and he does not hesitate to criticize President Obama or the Democrats in Congress when he thinks they are not serving the public's best interests.

The mission of Fox "news', on the other hand, is simply to support "their side," which is the conservatives in the republican party. In the entire eight years of the descent into disaster of the Bush presidency, I can't think of even one time they were less than glowing in their praise of him, let alone be even mildly critical in their assessment of his job performance.

And they have a blatant double standard when it comes to conservative vs liberal behavior.

Example: It is 'treasonous' to protest the 'War-time" President Bush, yet It's 'patriotic' to protest the 'War-time' President Obama.

If you want to watch someone who is really, really good..... check out The Rachael Maddow Show. She's a stickler for facts.

Fox 'news' wouldn't know a fact if it bit them on the .............

Posted by: cfeher | October 1, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Cable news it's ENTER TAIN MENT! Dah Dah Dah... Dah Dah Dah Dah Dah Dah.

Posted by: whocares666 | October 1, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse


Well said. I couldn't agree more.

Posted by: SilverSpring8 | October 1, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

But everyone knows that facts and figures have a liberal bias these days...

Posted by: devin3 | October 1, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Throw Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs in that group too. Take Olbermann out-he is so humorous with it-I cannot wait for him to come back with Rachel. Now ever I miss their time frame or somebody took them off the air. But, please bring them back-made my day!!

Posted by: Scar1 | October 1, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Geez what a surprise that Gerson hates Olbermann! Olbermann must be laughing because he exposes conservative morons like Gerson and his equally idiot boss Bush every day.

Posted by: August30 | October 1, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

I'm in shock. Gerson actually sort-of gets one right.

Everyone is starting to hang out in their own custom-designed political echo chambers that reinforce what they want to hear and believe. It is becoming madness.

BTW - Gerson - why didn't you also mention the pig Limbaugh - one of the worst?

What do we DO about it?

We can try to remove commercial profit motive and financial "survival" challenge from legitimate mainstream newspaper and network news

- give them tax-exempt status to restructure as "non-profits" - allowing PROFESSIONAL educated career journalists (as opposed to all these amateur "bloggers")

a forum to tell the objective truth based on researched facts - as opposed to the current cable/internet cult of personality and who can yell the loudest.

Obama's for it - eg the link below -

Let's do it before someone gets shot

Posted by: daveque | October 1, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

I am appalled that a foreigner like Rupert Murdock can have as much influence as he does in the elections in this country!! Only in America can an interloper come in and be responsible for the cheapening of our political discourse. He is not a citizen but he employs people who practically encourage some nutcase to assinate our durly elected President.He is from Australia where racism is the accepted norm and he wants to make it the norm in America. Ask the Aboriginies who have had their children taken away from them and placed in institutions ,where they are forced to give up their culture and language. Is this what we want in America? I say "All foreigners keep your noses and corruption out of our politics"!!
There should be a law banning foreigners from owning any kind of media in the USA.

Posted by: Donna3 | October 1, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Thank God that The News Hour and Jon Stewart are there to tell the truth.

Posted by: twstroud | October 1, 2009 5:52 PM | Report abuse

I've avoided cable for years now and can't say I miss it. Most know I tend to disagree with Mr. Gerson's point of view with regularity. But not this time.

I was a reporter for about 25 years and always tried to see the complexity in events and carried doubt for the establishment until the doubt was carried away by facts. I miss the time when three networks competed with one another to present the best journalism - not the flashiest point of view.

But one must also recall the Founding Fathers mostly felt disgust for journalists, suggesting most could not be trusted, but the nation could not do without a free press. What this means is the onus is on the citizen to view the reporters with skepticism, figure out which ones are generally more accurate and give those people a bit more respect when reading what they write.

Deciding about the reporter is part of one's personal responsibility as a citizen. It's what the free press and our democracy requires.

Posted by: kcbob | October 1, 2009 6:52 PM | Report abuse

Hey mbm011, Look up the word obnoxious in the dictionary. If you think that O'Reilly doesn't fit the definition you are either Irish or illiterate. Oops! Is that a tautology?

Posted by: CPO71 | October 1, 2009 8:47 PM | Report abuse

I love getting all viewpoints in the Post. Best newspaper in the country.

How many time have you read a Krauthammer article and the posters are like the Post is a conservative rag, then you read Robinson and they say the Post is a liberal rag. Its awesome.

Also I would pull Bill O'Reilly and Chris Matthews out, they are partisan but they are fair by and large.

Put Limbaugh and Maddow in with Olberman and Beck. Olberman and Limbaugh are useless hacks. Maddow and Beck are at least occasionally right.

Posted by: DCDave11 | October 1, 2009 8:56 PM | Report abuse

Gerson, the beltway insider, misses the critical point. News means the truth. Lies are not news. Opionion is not news.

Posted by: BBear1 | October 1, 2009 11:27 PM | Report abuse

This is spot on. I like to think that one reason I have maintained a moderate outlook on most things is not having cable TV for the last 15 years. All the blathering dolts are like trees falling in the woods to me.

Posted by: steveboyington | October 2, 2009 9:11 AM | Report abuse

If it weren't for Olberman, who would make fun of Limbaugh's daily rants and excess? I watch Fox occasionally for sport and humor--last night, watching Hannnity spit venom about Obama's 4 hours in Copenhagen as a "gross dereliction of duty", backed up by his 2 favorite glossy-lipped, cleavage-baring "reporters", was true cable theater--riveting,fast-paced, and well, STUPID.
The fact that people actually believe that drivel, or as is more likely, need 45 minutes of it nightly to sustain their ire,is revealing to the state of political discourse in America today....the nastier, the better--the louder, the better--and the more factless, the better.

Posted by: opinionatedinfairfax | October 2, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

I think it's a small bit of sour grapes. Yes, people tend to watch what agrees with their views. But this is less the cable media's fault and more the fault of people who watch. Cable news channels must having ratings to survive. It's not charity.

The thing that is troubling is when the people complain that a journalist or tv host is too critical of a government official. It is the job of the media to be critical of those in power; that's what freedom of the press is all about. It's the people who want a rosy view of their elected officials that are most dangerous. They'd rather live in ignorance than know their favorite politician might not be the savior they thought. They'd rather stop hearing news about Iraq or Afganistan because it is too disturbing. The facts of life are hard, and only when the people want to hear it will the media cover it.

Posted by: kroverstreet | October 2, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Beck is weird and creepy, history and fact challenged. He is very lucky there is such a thing as Cable TV to hire his odd self.

Posted by: creatia52 | October 2, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

I completely AGREE with everything that was said in this article. Aaron Brown predicted that this would happen back in 2006:

Aaron Brown said “serious news at risk” in 2006 & Bernard Shaw confirmed it now!

Submitted by Mitch Dworkin on October 12, 2008 - 8:04am.

What can be done to seriously help deal with this problem is to try to reinstate some backdoor version of The Fairness Doctrine to shut down extreme polarization and partisanship on the radio airwaves. As long as elected Republicans and Republican leaders continue to fear and apologize to Rush Limbaugh, then there will be no end in sight to this problem:

As long as Republican leaders continue to fear Rush Limbaugh,...

Submitted by Mitch Dworkin on September 27, 2009 - 9:49am.

The next thing that should be done is to push some kind of an effort where serious and objective journalism is the goal and people like John King and David Gregory are viewed as role models for all of the 24/7 cable news networks:

John King of CNN showed how a serious journalist fairly asks the tough questions

Submitted by Mitch Dworkin on March 16, 2009 - 6:52am.

I am sure that there are some other good ideas but the status quo cannot continue or else the harsh tone will never change and people will be living in parallel universes. The same set of players will exist but how they are viewed by people who listen to Rush Limbaugh and watch FOX News will be like living in one universe while those who watch MSNBC and to other far left "news" sources like them will be living in an entirely different universe!

If this problem is not fixed, then a lot of people could really get hurt by an angry person on the other side who disagrees with them and there will be no end in sight to this potential violence!

Mitch Dworkin
Dallas, Texas

Posted by: MitchDworkin | October 2, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Cable new is (just) entertainment? So that means what, that it shouldn't be taken seriously? Well, dog fighting is supposedly "entertainment" too, but we don't feel it shouldn't be taken seriously and stopped.

Of the two, the seditious slander and right wind rabble rousing of Limbaugh, Beck, O'Reilly and Hannity is the more harmful to the peace and health of the country. It's only a matter of time till the hatred they are stirring up leads to serious acts of violence. We have enough people going rogue already.

Posted by: Freond | October 2, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

I agree with this article..

I thought the 'new age' of technology would encourage citizens to research and discover news topics on their own; something that humans have NEVER been able to do without these technological advancements..but, it seems many (not all) of us are still irrevocably LAZY and selfish, only wanting to sate their preconceived notions.

Many people don't realize two things about life: 1) we only truly grow (physically, emotionally, mentally, etc) when we are finding people who agree with you is a weakening exercise


2) When anyone claims that they're always right, and the 'other' guy is always wrong...they're lying..doesn't really matter the subject.

I watch Fox News to get that 'other side' and I go through this laugh/cry thing...where I feel like crying because I know that there are people out there who aren't laughing at that sensationalist garbage they promote as news..

Granted, I've also seen some interesting and informative ideas on Fox News as well, but when you mix the good stuff with a lot of bad..the bad tends to look better...and I don't think that's 'good' for anyone..

Posted by: OneGovt_Worker | October 5, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

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