The presidential primary election season has mercifully ended, and the clear winners are … the cable news channels. Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN all saw substantial ratings growth during the primary campaign.
In May, Fox News was the most watched channel in all of cable television, even topping TNT and ESPN. Fox, which gained 18 percent in viewership compared to last year, dominated its competition, claiming the top 12 rated shows in cable news. “The O’Reilly Factor” led the parade as the top-rated show, posting a 25 percent audience growth over last year.
CNN and MSNBC also have benefited from election mania. CNN’s audience grew 33 percent this year. MSNBC has shown the most growth, adding 61 percent in viewers year-over-year. Of course, MSNBC has been a distant third in the cable race for some time, so modest audience gains show big percentage jumps.
This ratings surge is great for the bank accounts of these channels. And let’s face it, making money is what these news channels are designed to do. What is less clear is whether the news coverage has been a help or hindrance to an electorate trying to learn about the candidates who seek the presidency.
Many complex factors figure into election outcomes, and it is impossible to know the magnitude of media influence in politics. It is hard to dispute, however, that these television news channels went far beyond just reporting the facts and, indeed, helped shape the climate in which some candidates thrived and other campaigns died. The election coverage of 2016 has been filled largely with breathless reporting of the sensational, including repeated sound bites of cheap shots, wild speculation from talking heads and constant churn of social media posts from campaign spinners.
The many primary debates, overproduced and overhyped by television, ultimately had a negligible effect on the marches of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to their respective nominations. In spite of being an unimpressive debater, Trump’s campaign surged while more polished public speakers such as Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz failed to get debate traction.
Real reporting takes time and costs money, so countless hours of news time have been filled with talking head hacks who basically know little more than a guy at the end of the bar. Sure, some analysis is good in the public sphere, but having paid spinners parroting candidate talking points fails to move the national dialogue forward. Most such analysis segments feature a Democratic windbag arguing with a GOP blowhard. Missing from such discussions are insights from nonpartisan experts or from people who might have some facts to offer.
Day-to-day updates on countless polls have filled the news agenda, but with little enlightenment for voters. Each news organization conducts its own polling, not so much to conduct public service as to brand itself and create something to talk about. No fewer than 10 national polls compete for attention and fill airtime. The polls, ultimately, had little predictive power. Polls last summer had Jeb Bush and Scott Walker as GOP favorites. The polls failed to capture Trump’s momentum or anticipate the strength of Bernie Sanders’ appeal. Polling has always been an inexact science, but the record low response rates of less than 10 percent today makes it difficult to pull meaningful assumptions from most polls. And the citizens least likely to show up in polling are exactly the people who would support a Trump or Sanders.
The formal nominating conventions and general election season are looming. It is a given that Clinton and Trump don’t like each other. Thus, there is no need for television to obsess with every verbal brickbat hurled by one candidate at the other. It is not a man-bites-dog moment when political opponents slime each other on social media. Here’s hoping cable news can enterprise some real, differentiating news about the candidates and not simply provide stenography of canned stump outbursts.
In this contentious time for our nation, fact-based, civil and issues-focused reporting on matters of substance is desperately needed. The cable news industry could provide this sort of leadership in the public sphere, but such a commitment to the public trust will require less preoccupation with a sensational chase for ratings and dollars.
McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, and author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.” This post was originally published in the IndyStar on June 23, 2016. It is republished here with the permission of the author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Prof_McCall