20 Jun 2011

Is 24-hour cable news killing American politics?

Sarah Smith considers whether 24 hour news channels are helping or destroying American politics.

It took 10 days of constant coverage on the American cable news networks before Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner finally resigned over the suggestive pictures he had been sending to women via Twitter. As more and more of the lewd pictures emerged cable TV replayed them endlessly and ended Weiner’s career as a result.

Fellow Democrats begged Weiner to resign because all the coverage of his scandal was drowning out important issues of substance, they claimed.  They complained that the fact that House Republicans had just voted to slash funding for nutritional programmes for women and infant children was not being covered because the media was obsessed by the contents of Weiner’s pants.

But is it really true that debate over significant budgetary issues would have filled the airwaves if it hadn’t been for Wiener? On MSNBC, on Fox and even on CNN scandal, outsize personalities and dramatic gotcha moments will always trump serious discussion of meaningful issues. And there will always be another scandal to get outraged about.

US cable news made Anthony Weiner famous because he had exactly the kind of combative and aggressive personality that helps to fill up 24 hours a day of political coverage. They replayed his rants against Republicans over health care plans in 2009 over and over again and made him a star. His kind of fire breathing approach is what you need these days to stand out in American political life because it’s what works on cable news. And his Twitter-gate scandal was irresistible to TV stations that live on a diet of salacious and gossipy stories that seem so important inside the DC city limits and ultimately pretty meaningless outside Washington.

Just look at those healthcare debates back in 2009. Constant coverage of aggressive town hall meetings where people yelled at their elected representatives encouraged other people to re-create those scenes and undermined intelligent coverage of the issues. Instead of introducing us to people whose lives were about to be significantly changed – for good or ill – by the healthcare legislation cable news shows endlessly repeated the most heated exchanges.

When Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in Tucson in January these same cable news shows spent many hours debating who was to blame for the aggressive and divisive culture in US politics, without ever pausing to take the log out of their own eyes.

Fox News is arguably the most overtly partisan of the cable news channels. Its “fair and balanced” coverage always seems to favour the Republicans and it even employs a lot of the Republican Party’s biggest stars. It was Fox News who made the Tea Party into a national political force. But the tendency of cable news channels to focus on and promote extreme personalities may well mean that Fox News is now hurting not helping the Republican Party.

As the Republicans grope around for a candidate to run against Barack Obama in 2012 the race is dominated by the outsize personalities that work on cable news – like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. But these are not people who can beat Obama. These are just people who are good for ratings. Candidates like Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty, whom voters could plausibly imagine moving into the White House, are drowned out by the heckling and name calling that has replaced reasoned political debate on cable news.