The Best News In Decades
In the last few days I’ve seen the first signs of what may be the most positive thing to happen for American democracy in decades, and it has little to do with the presidential race. Ever since the advent of cable news: (CNN launched June 1, 1980) (MSNBC launched July 15, 1996) (Fox News launched October 7, 1996) American centrists have seen their news sources, and subsequently their representatives that work across the aisle, lose their jobs. News became profit-based. They were always privately held, but remarkably, in the good-old-days, these private companies were not trying to make money off of this crucial 4th branch of government. NBC, ABC, and CBS hired centrist anchors that delivered hard news in a relatively dispassionate way.
Cable news changed that, discovering that there was serious money to be made telling people what they want, rather than what they need, to hear. This is capitalism’s Achilles heel, feeding our worst instincts so long as it increases a stock price. I’m not anti-capitalist by any means, but every system has its place, and capitalism should have no place in the newsroom. It’s probably too late to fight that battle, but there is real hope for positive change from a realignment of these big media conglomerates that, I believe, has just begun.
If there has to be a profit-based marketplace for news, what we’ve had since 1996 is the worst kind. We’ve had 2 large bubbles diverging in ideology so far that basic facts are ignored. Fox News has owned the center-right to the far-right bubble, and CNN and MSNBC have shared the center-left to far-left bubble. The ideal marketplace for news would have many bubbles with overlap, so the conservative bubble wouldn’t be pulling centrists right while the liberal bubble pulls centrists left, pitting them against each other.
Fox News has had such a huge viewership because they’ve somehow managed to hang on to a huge swath of the ideological spectrum in their bubble, leaving other networks to share the left. This has made their average ideology pretty far right from center. Over time that can’t last. That bubble was nearly popped in 2006 when Karl Rove told NPR’s Robert Siegel before the Democrat’s sweeping victory:
“Yeah, I'm looking at all these, Robert, and adding them up, and I add up to a Republican Senate and Republican House. You may end up with a different math, but you're entitled to your math, I'm entitled to THE math.”
But there was no center-right news network in existence, waiting to capitalize on the right’s outrage at being caught so off guard.
Polls suggest Trump is highly likely to lose the election. Much reasonable speculation has been made recently around Trump, after losing the election, starting his own media company with Breitbart’s far-right media outlet, since hiring its owner as his campaign’s CEO. While this sounded bad to me at first, it may in fact prove to be exactly what America needs. Imagine if the Trump network absorbs the far-right Cheney/Bachmann/Palin/Trump defenders and Fox News could move to the center, growing a large base of center-right people that want to hear the good and bad about Republicans. As it is now, CNN and MSNBC are largely fact-based, but biased left to serve as counterpoint to Fox News. If Fox News let the Trump network tell the far right the lies they want to hear, it could emerge as the fact-based right-biased news. Then American’s might get what they so desperately need right now. Opposing media networks that can disagree on policy, but agree on objective truths. Center-right and center-left networks would offer right-leaning centrists a place to get their news without the far-right lies, and give the pure centrists left-leaning and right-leaning sources to compare for overlap. This has been sorely missing while Fox News has held such a large swath of ideologies together in a middle-right bubble.
Not only is this possible, I believe it is starting to happen. Hillary Clinton gave a speech about the “alt-right” and Trump’s racist association with it. She did it by quoting Trump in context, and using verifiable facts to make her case. Afterwards, Fox News host Shep Smith made what I consider to be a profile in courage in this statement:
“That was an extraordinary moment live from Reno, Nevada. The Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, Democratic candidate for the presidency, has just tagged her Republican rival as a racist, fearmongering conspiracy theorist who is tempermentally unfit to be president of the United States. The problem with any attempt to rebut her is that in this case she used Donald Trump's own words, was historically accurate on his policies, on all reviewed points. James Grimaldi is a Pullitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, where do you begin with this?”
Shep has reported uncomfortable truths to his audience before, but this was the most difficult honest assessment I’ve seen from a Fox News host. He could have tried to pick at some of her comments to obscure the larger truth, but he chose to rise above pettiness and report what he saw, that she was basically making an unassailable case against the republican nominee. In addition, I’ve seen Fox News roundtables in the last week where the majority of commentators are accepting what the polls are telling them about the state of the race and rejecting those that try to hold up Trump’s rally crowd size as a more important measure of the state of the race.
This appears like a shift to me, and it can be no coincidence that Roger Ailes sudden departure last month has a lot to do with it, giving the reasonable people at Fox News more freedom to be reasonable. The vacuum left by the largely ideological Ailes has been filled by the more money-driven Murdoch family. They must see the writing on the wall, and I wouldn’t doubt the direction they’ll look for in replacing Roger Ailes will leave at least the far-far-right to find another outlet while consolidating a more manageable bubble closer to the center. Their best commentators and hosts seem determined to push the network in that direction anyway.
None of this addresses the big problem of sensationalism winning over hard news, but as long as news is profit-based we’re stuck with that. At least this shift would give centrists a home that’s less polluted by the fringe on either side.