For a True Picture, Turn Off the Viewer
This post was originally published at smerconish.com
Between tweets, Mueller, and partisan proclamations from both sides, it seems as if every day is another big news day with journalists and pundits running around as if their hair was on fire. In my own circles, everyone seems to have some overwrought observation about the current and future state of not just politics but the very essence and dare I say, survival of the country.
If you stand close enough to the burning cauldron of civil discontent, you wouldn’t be faulted if you thought all of society was on fire. However, much like campfire, if you step back from it, you realize that the flame is hot but it’s not engulfing the entire campsite. And so it is with politics today.
I’m not sure we can or should completely douse the fire, but we need to understand that our inability or unwillingness to accept reality is the real culprit behind our fears and anger. What we think we see and hear isn’t actually what is going on. The embers are real, but the danger is fabricated. Our reluctance to understand that we, who absorb political news in prodigious quantities, are actually the exception rather than the rule.
If you wanted to get a true sense of what is going on, you need to turn off the television and radio, put down the newspapers and social media, and observe the world without those influences.
I’m not pointing to left or right, Democrat or Republican, CNN or Fox News for at their core, they are all the same. It’s not “fake news” that the media is pushing but rather “purposely exaggerated news.”
The problem starts with those of us who spend an inordinate amount of our time devouring, discussing, and debating every bit of political information available. We are often more concerned with the actions of our elected officials than our own family members. The more we absorb, the more we believe in our own expertise and the more we pontificate to others. More importantly, we believed that everyone must be as emotionally involved in current events as we are. That’s all well and good if we’re talking fantasy baseball, where no one really cares what we believe unless you’re in the thick of it. When it comes to politics, especially with Trump, we just assume that it’s the number one focus of everyone, and that’s simply not the truth.
Adding up Nielsen Media Research viewer data, the majority cable news channels (Fox News, CNN, MSNBC) and network news (ABC, NBC, CBS) draw in 7.65 million, or to be generous, 8 million viewers. That might sound like a lot, but in a country of over 325 million people, that’s barely 2%.
Surely that number can’t be everyone who’s into news, right? After all, don’t a lot of people get their news through online, radio, or newspapers?
According to Pew Research Center in 2016, 30% of Americans who were interested in knowing the news, most often got their news by watching cable or network news. If we know that 30% constitutes 8 million that would suggest we’re now up to 27 million people who care about news.
Let’s be generous and round that number up to 30 million and round the US population down by eliminating those under the age of 18, and that brings us to 30 million citizens out of 250 million who are actually interested in what’s going on in our country. That’s 12% of the population, meaning that you probably have a better chance of finding someone who can name all of the Kardashians in order of total relationships than finding someone who can name at least a third of the Supreme Court. If that concerns about where our country is heading, think about this:
While people complain that only 47% of eligible Americans voted in our most recent election, which is a 50-year high for a midterm election, that also implies that 80 million American who don’t really follow the news, voted.
Kind of puts the Russian influence in perspective.
If not enough people are watching the news, why would I suggest that the solution to understanding current events is for people to stop watching?
We’ve finished our math course, so now a little history lesson.
Through the 1970s, there wasn’t really a network news “business,” rather the networks all had news divisions for both the prestige it would bring them to and satisfy the public-service requirements of Congress and the FCC. If it was a business, there would be a goal of eventually turning a profit, but there was no thought by the networks of making money with news. Instead, it was considered a loss leader. In the 1980s, however, there were two major changes. The FCC eliminated the Fairness Doctrine, and the networks got new bosses. General Electric bought NBC, Capital Cities purchased ABC, and Laurence Tisch took over control of CBS.
If you met the new bosses, you quickly realized that wasn’t the same as the old bosses. They decided that not only was losing $100 million a year to deliver news not a viable option but that they now expected the news divisions to turn a profit. A big profit.
There is an old expression in the news of, “if it bleeds, it leads.” It’s a fear-based marketing concept which the news has embraced in order to get and keep viewers. The idea is simple: grab the viewers’ attention with something that might concern them and persuade them that if they continued to watch, you’d eventually ease their fears. Needless to say, fear is one of the best marketing tactics there is, even when it’s subtle. When the teaser for the news say, “You’re all going to die… learn more at 11”, you’ll be there at 11.
That brings us to the ultimate goal of the media. The goal is to make money, and in order to make money, they need to grab eyeballs, and nothing grabs the balls better than fear.
So when you see purposefully exaggerated news, it’s not necessarily driven by the desire to obfuscate your understanding of what’s going on (excluding extreme misleading fringe “sources”) but rather it’s being driven purely by money determined by audience size.
The day Rupert Murdoch realizes there’s more money to be made if Fox News goes liberal is the day Fox News moves to the left of MSNBC.
I can hear some of you now, “Glenn, I read three major newspapers, watch MSNBC and Fox, listen to Limbaugh and NPR, and read every internet posting with Google and Snopes open. What makes you more of an expert on what’s the truth than me?”
The egotistical, narcissistic and erroneously boastful answer would be that I’ve studied political science, have a degree in economics, worked as a researcher on a US Senate campaign where I had in-depth conversations with the candidate who was a former Congressman, and I consider myself a student of history and politics.
The better answer is that I tend to dismiss almost everything I hear and read as being an obvious breach of Occam’s Razor and merely go with my gut, which over the years has unfortunately gotten much larger.
When it comes to politics, news, government, and a basic understanding of civics, Americans have three basic traits:
– The belief that they are neither gullible or ignorant.
The media feeds on this with a single-minded focus on getting their audience to come back again and again. A quick look at the three major cable news outlets shows how they employ gullibility and fear to determine the tact for their reporting. On one end, MSNBC has a predominately liberal audience, so they spend an excessive amount of time discussing how disorganized the Democratic party is, that they have no one capable of winning an election and that their prospects are bleak. On the other end, Fox has a conservative audience, so their stories feature the crusade to end Christmas and make it illegal to own pets. As for CNN, their evening hosts tend to be more centrist while attracting an audience that enjoys watching people yell at each other. If CNN was the Weather Channel, they would point out that it was 60 and partly cloudy and then stand back as meteorological partisans argued whether it was too hot or too cold.
The bottom line is that to understand what’s really going on, one needs to ignore almost everything that is being said, and look at what makes sense based on your own observations. Look at the current MSNBC and CNN talking points regarding Democrats chances in 2020. The first is that they don’t have a strong candidate to run against Trump. Sounds plausible and more importantly has been effective in making Democrats panic, and thereby continuing to tune in in hopes the story will get better. Of course, it won’t, because if it does, nervousness subsides and viewership drops.
The reality? Since the creation of the modern-day Democratic Party around 1828, they’ve fielded a candidate in every presidential election. Granted some were less popular than others (I’m looking at you, Alton Parker and John W. Davis), even relatively unknown long-shots like Jimmy Carter or Grover Cleveland occasionally win.
More importantly, whatever candidate does emerge will be one that the Republicans will have less than a year to fully attack, as opposed to Hillary Clinton, who with fallacious stories about her private life, her health, financial malfeasance, being personally responsible for killing of Vince Foster, Benghazi, and emails had been demonized for 25 years and still received over three million more votes than Trump.
In the second part of the fear factor, based on 2016, Trump is in a strong position and will be favored to win against almost any Democrat. Sounds right, but simply not true. In the Electoral College results, 47 of the 50 states were decided exactly as projected in Democratic win with the outcome ultimately decided by less than 78,000 votes across three states. His base is aging with thousands dying off, while the Democratic base is adding young voters, and as we’ve seen from 2018, more of the white college-aged women in the suburbs have turned away from him.
Demographic changes are making states such as Arizona, North Carolina, and Georgia closer, and while Trump’s base is holding strong, according to 2017 Politico/Morning Consult poll, 8% of Trump voters said they’d vote for an unnamed Democrat in 2020, while only 3% of Clinton voters said they’d vote for Trump, and buyer’s remorse seems to be increasing with each tweet. In an election that was won in a Perfect Storm and has little room for regression, if the result is to be the same, there are multiple signs that it’s going to be hard to thread that same needle.
Does all this mean that the Dems have it in the bag? Of course not, but it’s far from the dire outlook that the networks and talking heads are suggesting in order to keep their viewers coming back and hitting the refresh button.
The ultimate truth is that in today's overly partisan and dogmatic world of politics, the majority of voters are locked into their team with the eventual outcome being determined by very few issues and people, chance, and whether or not it was raining in the Greak Lakes region.