Like Waylon Jennings, cable news has always been crazy. CNN, after all, was founded by Ted Turner. (Sample wisdom: “Castro’s not a communist. He’s like me—a dictator.”) MSNBC has gone through more permutations than the late artist formerly and latterly known as Prince. And then there’s Fox. While the first two have often (if not always) prized ratings over news judgment, Fox transformed the genre by its willingness to make stuff up—stuff that, without exception, favored far-right conservatives in their battle against centrists, liberals, and reality.
In the past, these stations have damaged our country not only by misinforming their viewers and giving voice to nefarious and deranged hosts and guests, but also by setting the agenda for much of the rest of the news media. Stupid issue after stupid issue has dominated political debate in America, owing to the willingness of news networks and others to follow the lead laid down by ratings-chasing cable executives. Judging by airtime alone, a missing blond girl, a shark sighting, and, of course, a poop-filled cruise ship were all deemed to be of greater importance than, say, global warming, the opioid epidemic, or the US war in Afghanistan.
When cable news did get serious, the results were even worse. To the degree that presidents and politicians found their hands forced by cable-news panics, the result was almost always catastrophic, regardless of party. Recall that in 2010, Obama agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack fired Shirley Sherrod, the director of rural development in Georgia, on the basis of a purposefully misleading video posted by the late right-wing charlatan, Andrew Breitbart, because Vilsack feared what would appear on Fox News. (He later apologized, and Sherrod was offered a new position at the USDA.) That same year, when Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, Democrat John Kerry, and conservative independent Joe Lieberman were working on a bipartisan energy bill, Graham warned both men that they needed to hurry up and finish “before Fox News got wind of the fact that this was a serious process,” according to a report in The New Yorker. “[I]t’s gonna be all cap-and-tax all the time, and it’s gonna become just a disaster for me,” he explained. Graham’s prediction turned out to be correct, and the bill never came to fruition. “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us,” the dissident GOP conservative David Frum commented around that time, “and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.” So, too, it turned out, were Democrats.
OK, that was bad, especially when you consider that Fox, whose ratings were the highest and drove this process more powerfully than its competitors, was run as a kind of private bordello by any number of its executives and hosts. (It is, undoubtedly, no coincidence that a “news” channel crawling with sexual predators played a pivotal role in getting another one elected president of the United States.) But that has since turned out to be a golden age of measured, sensible debate compared with the cable-news program that is Donald Trump’s America.