The Joke Is on Viewers

Isn't it nice that Fox News has decided to draw a line, even if it is shaky, around having nearly or clearly declared presidential candidates no longer on the payroll. But so far, that has not been a deterrent to Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee, who can continue to offer their views and get huge exposure (while making a ton of money) from compliant cable outlets.

Most cable news is a joke, and those presidential candidates, pollsters and consultants are laughing all the way to the bank.

I don't begrudge either of them, much less the legion of other putative candidates--not to mention major political consultants and other active participants in partisan politics (start with Karl Rove)--who are at the cable news trough. Who would not take the exposure and fat contracts offered by media outlets, even as you openly plan your partisan wars?

The larger problem here is the way cable news organizations, and other television news outlets, have defined their version of discourse, and how the new business models have shaped their coverage.

Cable news, with a few notable exceptions, is a joke.

On the latter front, we are back to the future in news--partisan outlets, which were commonplace in the 19th century, and which largely faded in the golden era of broadcasting, are back and bigger than ever. The fact that Fox News made more in net profits last year than the three network news divisions, MSNBC and CNN combined, and is on track to make much more this year, with an audience that is still barely more than a 10th of the three networks news divisions combined, tells us everything.

If Fox News suddenly changed its underlying message, to something like "Can't we all just get along? We may not agree with President Obama on everything, but he has some really good ideas we can work with" we would very soon see a new competitor, call it Wolf News, that would claim its old, partisan and combative theme and steal most of its audience. The same approach, albeit slightly less combative, has turned MSNBC from a money loser into a money maker.

At the same time, every other news outlet, starting with CNN, has decided that the best alternative is to pit one sharp partisan against another, mistakenly believing that the result will be the truth, when the result is actually either two people screaming at each other while talking simultaneously or two partisan hacks spinning wildly while winking at each other as part of a conspiratorial conversation that has nothing to do with reality.

Cable news, with a few notable exceptions, is a joke. And potential or real presidential candidates, active partisan fundraisers, pollsters and consultants, even if a couple are ostentatiously taken off the payroll, are the ones laughing the loudest all the way to the bank.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

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