Along with the (now stalled) rush toward massive conglomeration and the (accelerating) rash of budget-cutting in news-gathering operations, perhaps the two most visible trends across nearly all mainstream US media in recent decades have been an increasing inclination toward tabloid-style coverage coupled with an intense effort to win over conservative critics of alleged liberal media bias. Both have been routinely justified by the media moguls by what they deem to be the demands of the marketplace. “We’d like to report on important stuff,” goes the argument, “but these bozos want Paris and Britney, preferably with Rush or O’Reilly reporting.”
In fact, if decades of public opinion data are to be believed, both aspects of these arguments are false. The vast majority of Americans profess little interest in tabloid trash and right-wing reaction. The Pew Research Center recently synthesized two decades of American news preferences and discovered, personal finance stories aside, that they haven’t much changed. When it comes to American attention spans, disaster stories rule, while insider-Washington and foreign stories languish. Barely a quarter of Americans say they pay “very close attention” to anything. Nothing new there…
What is most shocking, particularly when considering the steady diet of dirt we’re constantly force-fed, is how little people care about celebrity scandals. Just 8 percent of Americans said they were following “very closely” the events surrounding Michael Jackson’s child-molestation trial when it began in February 2005, a number that rose to only 12 percent the following month, after the television networks all but relocated their headquarters to Jacko’s backyard.
Lord knows, it’s not easy for a journalist to interest a mass audience in the issues they need to understand to be good democratic citizens. This has always been the challenge to those charged with not only the protections of the First Amendment but also the extremely profitable access to the public airwaves. But what can possibly be the argument for giving people junk they don’t even desire?
Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government did a study of US news media from 1980 to 1999 and found that news stories that had no clear connection to policy issues increased from less than 35 percent of all stories in 1980 to roughly 50 percent in 2000, and taking all news outlets into account, approximately 25 percent of news stories contained a moderate-to-high level of sensationalism in 1980 compared with nearly 40 percent in 2000. And yet the period Patterson studied was a Golden Age compared with the present.
According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Index for the first week in June of this year, for instance, the fifth biggest story of the week was the on-again, off-again incarceration of Paris Hilton. On cable, Paris ranked number three and on radio, four. Still, her story was a piker compared with the death of the no-less-famous-for-no-good-reason Anna Nicole Smith. According to PEJ, during February 8 and 9, coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s death made up roughly 60 percent of the morning news shows. To say nothing of the wall-to-wall cable coverage it received. And yet, according to Pew, viewer interest in Smith’s death ranked in the bottom third of stories covered that quarter, not only way below the number of people who claim to follow closely the news about Iraq but also below those who continue to maintain a deep interest in global warming. (Cable’s attention to the Iraq War ranged from a mere 8 percent of coverage on Fox News to 18 percent on CNN during the second quarter of 2007.)
No less misguided is the news business’s pursuit of a public it believes has shifted rightward. While it may be a staple of punditry to assume Americans have grown more conservative in recent decades, the data disagree. As political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson observe, “It is striking that across all of the major left-right issues, one is hard pressed to find any evidence that Americans are markedly more conservative today than they were in the recent (and even relatively distant) past.” No doubt the political system has moved rightward. Careful calculations by political economists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal demonstrate that the average Republican member of Congress was 73 percent more conservative in 2003 than his 1973 counterpart, and his Senate colleague was approximately twice as right-wing. While the Poole/Rosenthal calculations find the average 2003 Democratic member of Congress to be 28 percent more liberal than his early 1970s counterpart, this is almost entirely due to the sudden political extinction of the party’s conservative Southern wing. Non-Southern Democrats have actually traveled a bit to the right. Meanwhile, on most issues, the majority of Americans have actually moved slightly leftward–leaving the center of gravity of the political system well to the right of the public on issue after issue.
What appears to be going on here is not a rise in the size of the audience that prizes Fox News-style nonsense. Rather, it’s that the proportion of people who get their news from traditional sources has sunk significantly. Given their relative paucity of production values, talk-radio and cable news programs can be profitably sustained with audiences that are a fraction of those required by broadcast and entertainment programs. The fact that most Americans find themselves increasingly alienated from the system that Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh have pioneered has not led their competitors to rethink the content of their broadcasts, only to focus more intensely on what remains of their diminishing audiences. Given the tendency of so many reporters to follow the herd news of the day–Edwards’s haircut, Hillary’s cleavage–the net result is a perversion of our political process in pursuit of an understandably alienated American public.
Can you imagine a worse way to run a democracy?