Thursday, October 14, 2021

BTRTN: No News Is Not Good News... Liberals are Tuning Out

Are you watching less CNN and MSNBC? Join the crowd. The worrisome question is, why are we all doing it?

In the past couple of months, I have been in any number of conversations with a consistent theme: people who pride themselves on being informed and up-to-date are saying that they are watching less news.

It happens – no surprise – that the vast majority of my chats are with left-leaning progressive types, and I am picking up a distinct trend. Now my peeps are going on nice long walks during Nicolle Wallace. They have abandoned The Situation Room. They are realizing that there is no law requiring progressives to watch Rachel Maddow at 9:00. They are letting Lawrence O’Donnell have The Last Word… all by himself. 

Come on, Steve, you say… just because a few of your friends have beaten a hasty retreat from Ari Melber’s The Beat, that’s doesn’t prove there is an epic national decline in Cable News viewing, right?

No, that does not prove it… but the Nielsen ratings do.

On September 28, 2021, Forbes reported on third quarter Nielsen ratings for the three major Cable News Networks (Fox, CNN, and MSNBC) and found that “all three networks were down year-over-year, with Fox News dropping 32% in prime—the smallest decline overall, compared to MSNBC (down 40%) and CNN (down 46%).” That means CNN has essentially lost half its audience in a year… a year, need I remind you, that we all spent way too much time locked indoors. 

What is particularly intriguing is that viewership of the two “lefty” networks – MSNBC and CNN – is declining more acutely than viewership of Fox. Forbes reported that in the month of January, 2021, both MSNBC and CNN had actually pulled ahead of Fox News in prime time viewers, but that by the end of the quarter, Fox was back out in front. Yes, Fox viewership has declined in 2021… but MSNBC and CNN have suffered far greater erosion.

Monthly Prime Cable News Avg. Audience (000)

                          Q1, 2021             Q2, 2021            Q3, 2021             Vs. Yr. Ago

Fox News           2,580,000           2,200,000           2,372,000               -32%

MSNBC              2,290,000           1,500,000           1,267,000               -40%

CNN                    1,990,000              914,000             822,000               -46%

Sure, you say – one year ago, we were locked in an election that would determine the fate of democracy, the American economy was on shaky ground, and the President of the United States tested positive for COVID 19. Of course we were glued to the news!

Well, here’s cause for concern. There's a strong argument that we should be a helluva lot more worried about the safety of our democracy now than on January 6. Then, our system of government was threatened but the pillars held. Now, it is under an even broader, more insidious, and more orchestrated assault… from voter suppression legislation, to the Republican institutionalization of “The Big Lie,” to the ever increasing momentum for Trump to run again in 2024.

Now, we should be ever more focused on what is happening.

And those other stories that supposedly explained our news watching peak in 2020? Well, it’s not like a shaky economy and COVID have gone away. The economy is still sluggish and was just put at risk of being plunged into the ice age because Republicans wanted to playing chicken with the debt ceiling, and the number of COVID cases per week as of September 18, 2021 – the exact period that Neilsen was measuring -- was three times higher than the comparable week in 2020.  

Ahah, you inquire skeptically – doesn’t cable news viewership always decline between an election year and the following off-election year? Nope. Look at the ratings change between the 3rd quarter of non-election year 2017 and the election year 2016. MSNBC viewership actually increased dramatically, and Fox was flat.

No, the votes are in, and the fact is that we are leaving news in droves. Why?

At one level, it is all very explainable; indeed, some would say obvious. Donald Trump is no longer president, stirring the cable news cycle with his daily assault of bombast, insult, error, outrage, and deceit. Duh.

We here at BTRTN commented any number of times that Trump appeared to often intentionally create a new controversy simply to blow his last horrendous media explosion out of the headlines. There are many examples of such behavior, but just to pick a particularly egregious one: remember back in January, 2020, Trump ordered the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani? That triggered an outpouring of “Wag the Dog” theories: that Trump seemed intent on provoking a war with Iran to distract popular focus from a particularly thorny domestic problem... the impeachment trial. Pulverizing the news cycle was Donald Trump’s superpower.

So, the explanation is easy, right? He left, and he took all the television ratings with him. There’s certainly truth to this view, but it does not explain everything… and most pointedly, it does not explain why the erosion in the two left-leaning cable news channels is far more pronounced than Fox. Lefties were intensely involved in the news in the election cycle and then through the first quarter of 2021, and then the bottom fell out.

It’s not like there has been a massive change in the content and personalities in left-leaning Prime Time Cable News programming to explain the shift. Yes, Joy Reid replaced Chris Matthews on the 7:00 slot on MSNBC… but that is the only change in the Prime Time line-ups in the past year.

So I have tried to engage people on a more qualitative basis to try to understand this phenomenon.  Certain themes emerge.

The first is what I will call the “Groundhog Day Variant” – there is no longer that much news in the news. We feel like every day is just re-living the day before. Tune it at 11:00 to hear Brian Williams deliver the olds

Here is a run-down of your typical Prime Time hour on lefty Cable News...

The A-bloc lead each night is some variation on an absolute refusal of Republicans to cooperate with Democrats, a nightly update on Washington gridlock now cast in concrete and frozen at absolute zero. This story is followed by a field report from the latest ER to be overrun by sickened anti-vaxxers who will take their allegiance to Tucker Carlson to the grave. Then we have the update about the seeming weekly assault weapon gunfire in a Kroger store or some southern high school. Then we learn more horrific details about the activities of right-wings insurrectionists prior to January 6.

After seemingly five-minute long commercials for Rybelsus and Trulicity, your favorite liberal nightly news show then returns with the latest weather catastrophe caused by global warming, followed by an intrepid Spanish-speaking field reporter who translates as she coaxes a migrant family to speak about the latest atrocity committed by U.S. law enforcement personnel on southern border. Then we learn still one more example of just how amoral the management of Facebook really is.

Erin Burnett takes a break during that really annoying ad for Ozempic (“Oh, oh, OOOH, o-ZEM-pic!”) and returns with yet another story about a U.S. ally disappointed to learn that the supposedly seasoned Biden State Department has once again readied, fired, and aimed.  There’s a mercifully short bit on a MAGA rally in which Trump tries to claim that the Cyber-Ninjas actually concluded that he won Arizona.  The hour ends with an extended segment in which we are forced to endure a report about one more piece of either racist or misogynistic legislation enacted by the state of Texas. Finally, some billionaire flashes a big “thumbs up” smile as he rides into space on his phallic rocket, blowing enough money in four minutes to make a serious dent in world hunger.

Cue Bill Murray and set the alarm clock. Tomorrow morning, CNN’s John Berman will rinse and repeat. Call me crazy, but CNN appears to be spending an extraordinary amount of air time on the horrific murder of Gabby Petito, perhaps in some small measure because her tragic story is at least a different tragic story than the horror stories that recur on a nightly basis.

But the deadly, wearying sameness of every night’s news is certainly not the only reason for the drop in viewership.

For Democrats, it could be that part of the news fatigue is the frustration borne of watching our own party flail incompetently. The past two months have been a very tough slog for the Biden administration, which had positioned itself as the experienced, professional, uber-competent professionals who would right the ship of state.

We knew that it would be tough for Joe Biden to pass his game-changing "Build Back Better" programs. We just didn't expect that Biden's problem would be in securing the support of his own party. But here we are, forced to suffer through a potential devastating failure caused by internecine squabbling. We have met the enemy, Pogo.

First, there is the frustrating intransigence of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. Right now, Joe Biden’s Presidency is sliding downward, and the fate of 2022 and 2024 will turn on whether he is able to pass his “Build Back Better” initiatives. Whether you believe Manchin is acting on his own sense of fiscal principle or is posturing in order to the best chance of getting re-elected in a Red State, this much is clear: he is making Biden look weak and ineffective, and he is unquestionably putting his own agenda (whatever it truly is) above the need of the Democrats to pass Biden’s signature legislation.

To many, Manchin appears less concerned about whether his president or his party is crippled going into the mid-terms as long as he uses this opportunity for maximum political leverage. This means that Manchin believes that his own re-election is more important than Biden’s, or that his own view of economic policy should, uh, trump that of his party.

However difficult Joe Manchin is being, though, he is at least engaged in dialog and debate… in contrast to the infinitely more frustrating Arizona Senator Krystin Sinema. For years, progressives excoriated Republican 30-watt dimwits like Texas Congressman Louis Gohmert and Louisiana Senator John Kennedy. Now it is excruciating to watch Krystin Sinema prove that Democrats can be every bit as achingly vapid and unqualified for high office as Republicans.

Where Manchin is attempting to navigate supporting a Democratic agenda in a deeply Red State, Krysta Sinema represents a purple state that voted for Biden in 2021! Watching Clueless from Arizona run from the media in order to avoid being forced to actually articulate her objections to “Build Back Better” -- and cogently explain what she would actually support, and what number she could live with -- is one more reason to turn off CNN. Nobody wants to watch this form of Sinema vérité.

And don’t think that many Democrats aren’t getting a bit testy with the progressives who threaten Biden’s agenda from the left. Right now, we could use (as Eleanor Roosevelt is to have said of JFK) a little less profile and a little more courage from our friends Bernie and AOC. We listen as progressive Dems draw red lines defining exactly where they will refuse to cooperate or compromise, and we fear that the entire Biden agenda could die because of the intransigence of a person who goes to the Met Ball with a dress that says “tax the rich” and does not seem to see it as an ironic echo of Melania Trump flying to a disaster zone in a jacket that says “I don’t care.”

Note to AOC: rather than go to the Met Ball, intending to convey some moral high ground because you publicly diss your glamorous dinner companions, may I suggest this? Next time, stay home, and work on compromise legislation that – in getting passed – could actually result in an increased tax bill for the rich

Hey, Democrats in Washington! We voted you in to get stuff done. Lock yourselves in a room and figure it out! If you want a small hint about how your constituents feel about your behavior, maybe you should make an inference from the collapse in people tuning into MSNBC and CNN.  

At the end of the day, the truth is this: it would be absolutely amazing if Biden was able to push through all three of the American Rescue Plan ($1.9 trillion) and the two infrastructure bills -- even at significantly reduced and "compromised" levels -- in one year. But with all the toxic public pissing matches and internecine warfare, the Democrats are going to manage to make this extraordinary trifecta look like a disappointment... if they are lucky enough to pull it off at all.

And if they don’t? It could be the death knell to the mid-terms and possibly Biden’s re-election.

Cue Will Rogers: “I don’t belong to any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

Watch the news so that you can keep abreast of global conflict? So far, we know of only two things that Tony Blinkin’s State Department has accomplished: a humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, and angering France so much that they recalled their ambassador.  Hey, lefties, we pride ourselves on facing facts – so dig into this one: no ally resorted to recalling their ambassador when Trump was President.

Yes, one real explanation for the lower television ratings may be as simple as understanding why I refuse to watch the New York Jets. The Jets are the team I followed my entire life, but finally I got sick and tired of their constant failure. Do I root for the Patriots? No. I just turn off the television. I go out for long walks. It's better for my mental health. 

A lot of people worked their asses off and gave a lot of money to put Democrats in power. Who can blame them if they all just turn off the television in frustration, and go off for a long walk.

There are indeed many other plausible explanations for declines in cable news viewership, and some could actually be interpreted quite positively. For example: a report from The Reuters Institute notes the growth of The New York Times podcasts, adding a quote from a Times official at an industry event:

“(The Daily)now averages 4 million downloads per day – twice the figure they were touting just one year ago. ‘The Daily is now becoming a very major news platform in ways we had never expected. It has become as big, if you do the math, as primetime Fox News,’ said presenter Michael Barbaro at a podcast event in September 2020.

It would be good news indeed if the decline in Cable television news was simply attributable to the rise in competitive resources that often provide greater depth than the three-minutes and out of a CNN story.

I wish that is what I was hearing my progressive friends saying.

Mostly, though, it seems that their disenchantment with the news is just killing the messenger with low ratings.

It isn’t Anderson Cooper’s fault that the news is oppressively depressing as CNN merely seeks to document and convey the dire health of our democracy, our standing on the global stage, and of our planet itself.

And tuning Anderson out doesn’t make the bad news go away.

No news – that is, people tuning the news out from their lives – is, unfortunately, not good news.

This sort of “no news” means people are not keeping on top of the steadily advancing attacks on our democracy from the right.

Turning away from the news hints at desperation that the problems we have created -- such as a vast under-educated population that cannot discern truth from lie, and a global climate crisis that we are blissfully ignoring as long as we have "climate peace for our time" -- have simply advanced too far to solve. They are metastasized cancers that are now beyond our ability to contain.

"No news" could mean that people are giving up. They are concluding that our government has reached a point of critical failure, a point where it is fundamentally detached from serving the needs of the people. It is too big and too broken to fix, and people would rather tend to their gardens. 

Here is my hope.

Maybe, just maybe, after nearly two years lost in isolation to an endless pandemic, a year of watching biggest lie in American history metastasize into broadly held belief, and ever more grim news on climate change, people are simply taking a mental health break. 

Maybe we are all just taking a much-needed walk.

Maybe we just need to retreat and re-charge, because we all know we must re-engage in the madness and fight ever harder in 2022 and again 2024.

But whatever the reason, it is not a good sign if fewer Americans are making a practice of staying informed.

No news is not good news.


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