Partisan News: The Return of a Nasty Weed

newspaper1c.jpgThe New York Times has an interesting story about the slow dwindling audience share of CNN:

Since the beginning of March, CNN has fallen behind both the longtime ratings leader, Fox News Channel, which, as the voice of disaffected conservatives, again has an imposing lead, and the upstart MSNBC, which has tried to mirror Fox’s success by steering to the left.

CNN has even dipped behind its sister network HLN (formerly Headline News) on many occasions. Since the beginning of 2009, CNN has finished fourth in prime time among the cable news networks on 35 out of 84 weeknights.

The development raises an obvious question: With its rivals stoking prime time with high-octane political opinion and rant, can CNN compete effectively with a formula of news delivered more or less straight?

Executives of competitors and even some of CNN’s own staff members say recent trends suggest the answer may be no.

According to the article, here are the latest cable TV news ratings:

In March, CNN averaged 328,000 viewers in prime time among the audience that most news advertisers seek: viewers aged 25 to 54. Fox doubled that with 628,000. MSNBC averaged 375,000.

In April, CNN has been fourth. Fox has 668,000 viewers; MSNBC has 300,000; and CNN has 271,000. HLN has 277,000.

We’re witnessing the death of print journalism, which is being replaced by blogs (many of which are highly partisan) and cable TV news, which the above trends indicate is becoming more partisan.

In Discovering The News: A Social History Of American Newspapers, Michael Schudson argues that journalism in the early days of the Republic used to be a highly partisan endeavor. In the 20th Century, the ideal of neutral unbiased reporting came into vogue. This ideal has long been challenged, especially by the Right, which has contended that there’s a “liberal bias” in the media. Of course, it is impossible for media to be perfectly neutral, as complete neutrality is impossible, but the very ideal of neutrality now seems to be fading. News media entities like Fox News pretend to be “fair and balanced,” but this is just spin. In practice, Fox News knows where its bread is buttered — appealing to a partisan audience and telling them what they want to hear.

We’re being overloaded with talk radio, cable TV shout fests, endless tirades in the blogosphere — what strikes me as endless blather, screeching, shouting, ranting, and raving.

And it’s in the newspapers too. I’d like to see the end of editorial pages in the newspapers. I like the Wall Street Journal, but I’d like it more if it didn’t include the editorial page — I really don’t care what Karl Rove thinks. And I wouldn’t mind seeing the end of the editorial pages at the New York Times or Washington Post.

I don’t care what various Democratic “strategists” and party officials think — they’re just spinning. I don’t want to hear what O’Reilly thinks or Hannity or Beck or most of the people on cable TV think (if they think at all).

I don’t want my news spun and re-spun, pre-processed, drenched in special sauce, overwrapped in excessive packaging, cooked until all nutrients are gone, gussied up with gimmicks and jingles, and then told to me by hosts with “personalities” manufactured to pander to my particular biases.

But I appear to be in the minority. The market seems to be indicating that people want partisan news, which is growing like a nasty weed, slowly choking out more neutral journalism. And so we’ll see fewer real conversations on TV news — we’ll get more shouting matches. We won’t hear from experts who have really studied an issue — we’ll just get more hot-headed sophists sounding off on what people want to hear.

The thought that partisan news is returning with a vengeance is quite frightening to me, and very sad. The ideal of the neutral and objective media was a lofty yet laudable one. It wasn’t ever perfectly executed, yet it was much much better than the descent into bitter partisanship that we’re experiencing today.

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13 Responses

  1. CNN isn’t tanking because people prefer partisan news broadcasts – it’s tanking because MSNBC does a better job of partisan news broadcasting. Years ago,references to CNN as the Clinton News Network weren’t being ironic.

  2. Howard Wasserman says:

    I share Schudson’s thesis that “objective” journalism is a 20th/late-19th century development and that we may just be coming back to a faster version of the Federalist v. Anti-Federalist press. Which may not be a good thing, although perhaps not for the reasons Dan suggests. I do not believe that partisan journalism necessarily has to mean “endless blather, screeching, shouting, ranting, and raving.” Is it possible to have good, thoughtful, rational, yet partisan journalism?

  3. pure neutrality in journalism is “x happened, five people died.” Whenever you start to get into why things are happening then you will automatically get an ideology mixed in as everyone has a filter through which they process and write. Check to see who the author of supposedly neutral print journalists cite as authority and your going to run into their bias.

    It is perfectly possible to get the actual facts of an event from a blog or online reporter. simply having things in print is no guarantee of quality or accuracy. print is just a medium and business model. journalism itself is medium neutral. judging by the questions and reporting coming out of print lately i have to say the online reporters have been doing a superior job of getting towards the truth and doing real work as opposed lamenting a failure of bipartisanship.

    its also a bit disingenuous to say cnn is a straight news channel. they have more than their share of conservatives straight from the Bush Whitehouse. i would rather have a channel that is straight up about where its ideology is rather than one that pretends its straight news. there is always the news hour with jim leherer…

  4. AYY says:

    After reading this post I’m scratching my head.

    CNN delivering news “more or less straight”?

    Like their coverage of the Chicago tea party? Or when they gave more coverage to whether you could see Russia from Alaska than to the relationship Obama had with Tony Rezko? And wasn’t CNN founded by Ted Turner?

    When the NY Times says s “more or less straight” they probably mean more or less straight by NY Times standards.

    And why the scare quotes around “liberal bias”?

    Then you say :”Fox News pretend to be “fair and balanced,” but this is just spin”

    Really? I don’t know because I don’t watch tv, but their website carries stories from AP. AP believes in “accountability journalism”. They’re somewhere to the left of the Daily Worker.

    You then mention tirades in the blogosphere. Now this is why I keep telling you folks, you spend too much time on the left side of the blogosphere. If that’s where you spend your time, it’s no wonder you have theimpression that there’s all these tirades and ranting and raving. The better blogs on the right side of the blogosphere are pretty civilized. The worst thing that goes on is that Glenn Reynolds says “Heh” a lot.

    “I really don’t care what Karl Rove thinks.”

    Ah, but you should, even if you don’t agree with him. He’s a smart man.

    “And I wouldn’t mind seeing the end of the editorial pages at the New York Times or Washington Post.”

    Well, yes, you do have a point. On the other hand, what else would you use to line the bird cage?

    “The market seems to be indicating that people want partisan news,”

    But you’re going back to the assumption that CNN isn’t partisan. They are. So if you consider all the other networks partisan and throw CNN in with them, cable viewers don’t have much choice.

    Personally I read the blogs because I find the stories to be more varied and covered in more depth. There’s analysis and some of that is a function of the orientation of the blogger, but on the better blogs I don’t find the same spin that’s in the standard media outlets.

  5. “The market seems to be indicating that people want partisan news, …”

    Well, yes – in part, some of that social history is that for a while, news was taken to be a non-market activity TO SOME EXTENT. And many people now are very eager to destroy that idea. It’s part and parcel with the general market-worship that’s been ascendant in recent decades.

    This is very hard point to argue in an environment – blogs – where attention is everything :-(.

    (as in, sure, you can put an argument on the web somewhere, but likely nobody will read it. Or worse, a demagogue will send a flaming mob after you for the attention-value).

  6. A.J. Sutter says:

    “Is it possible to have good, thoughtful, rational, yet partisan journalism?” Yes, e.g. in Europe. The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (daily) and the center-left Die Zeit (weekly) are two of the finest newspapers anywhere. France has Le Figaro/Le Monde (with Libération farther on the left), and Italy has Corriere della Sera/La Repubblica — these are maybe more polarized than in Germany, but they’re all readable and useful papers. A characteristic of several of these papers is long and thoughtful feature pieces. In some cases, especially Die Zeit, they’re particularly well-written, and often take long-view and critical looks at history. (Die Zeit is also beautifully designed.)

    I’m less optimistic about America, though, for a few reasons: First, we don’t have a recent tradition of this kind of journalism. Second, with the death of newspapers, our alternative media aren’t set up for journalism based on reflection. Our tradition of TV is based on entertainment, so it’s natural for TV news to gravitate toward that model. Also, TV news’s draw has been its you-are-there immedicacy, and Internet-based news is the same only more so. Third, there are other aspects of TV that are especially problematic for neutrality: the differences between a visual medium compared to a text medium, the high marginal cost of losing an ad compared to an ad in a newspaper (think of classifieds), etc. These factors also pull TV back to entertainment. But some of the lack of reflectiveness is also cultural: American news shows have a much shorter attention span than, say BBC World Service or Japan’s NHK. Maybe “general market-worship” is a good explanation for some of these trends, too.

  7. ohwilleke says:

    CNN is a much different network than it was when it led the cable TV news charge. I watched it a lot early on, didn’t watch much TV for a long time, and then have seen it in airports and other public places since then.

    CNN has a much heavier dose of partisan commentary than it once did, and a much lower dose of exclusive reporting. It also has a stronger knack than it once did for bringing people with extreme positions, rather than experts. Its discussions are more argumentative and the feel of the show is more chaotic.

    CNN has dumbed down its content several grade levels from the place where it started, from near NPR to just above network TV news. It has a knack for juxtaposing innane watercooler stories against very serious stories (particularly with its newswire ticker feature) which undermines the seriousness of the main story, as do the blurbs displayed.

    Finally, CNN seems to be seeking out, rather than avoiding, contentious language with which to describe stories, sometimes quoting their commentators and sometimes on their own accord.

    Straight news does exist. Indeed, it did exist at CNN at the beginning. But, apparently, noise sells better than news, or did for a while.

  8. I agree with a number of the commenters about CNN. It has become less substantive and much more partisan over the years. The opinion-to-fact ratio keeps shifting toward the opinion side. My sense is that CNN has made this shift in response to what it perceives to be market desires for more partisan opinion.

  9. letsgetreal says:

    Let’s face facts: the Republican party is simply a rump of extremists at this point. Any effort to show “both sides” of debates over tax, or cap and trade, or health care reform, with THOSE people is about as useful as having debate over the roundness of the world with the flat earth society.

    You’re way too optimistic about a nonpartisan media getting any of the 20% of people in the US who now identify as republican to think reasonably on any of those issues.

  10. AYY says:


    Thanks for the comment. What cable news outfit do you work for?

  11. A.J. Sutter says:

    If only partisanship were CNN’s biggest problem; how about being inane? The other day, on BBC World Service a correspondent was reporting from a town in Mexico: he showed extensive footage of pig farms, interviewed locals about the unlclean conditions of the farms, showed various people with terrible coughs in the street, and along the way mentioned that the first flu patient in the current outbreak, a young boy, was from this town. Switching immediately to CNN, a live shot of Dr. Sanjay Gupta with the family of the little boy: “… and you can see that he’s just adorable.” Anderson Cooper: “And Sanjay, are there pigs near where he lives?” Dr. G: “Yes, well, um, actually there are …”

  12. D.Straface says:

    Daniel, assertions of Fox’s bias does not make it biased, no matter how frequently it is said or how fervently it is believed.

    Who displays bias when every news organization (including Fox) provides coverage to anti-Iraq war, pro-immigration, anti-Bush, pro-Choice demonstrations but only Fox covers equally as large (and many times larger) pro-Life and Tea party demonstrations? Aren’t those demonstrations newsworthy?

    Why do you see news stories and hear opinions on Fox that you won’t hear or read in the rest of the MSM? Bias, btw, is not just in the news you do report, but more often in the news editors choose not to report. Who can remember the extensive coverage of Obama’s gaffe about visiting all 57 states of the US, his gift of unplayable DVD’s to the UK Prime Minister or his bowing to the King of Saudi Arabia? Never happened according to the MSM (contrast: imagine if Bush had done the same, what would have been the coverage).

    Fox’s Hannity & Colmes (alas no longer on the air) paired a conservative Republican (Hannity) and a liberal Democrat(Colmes) in prime time – which other news organization has done the same? Why did Colmes’ angle always sound remarkably similar to the “straight news” networks and major newspapers?

  13. Tom says:

    Because Colmes was a frackin’ idiot.

    Professor Solove, you want to know why partisan news is becoming more popular? It seems to me that there’s been a self-reinforcing loop going on for years between partisan media and politicians’ rhetoric, which has the effect of convincing each side’s partisans that the other side is completely out of touch with reality.

    Which, by the way, does not mean each side is equally right/wrong. But that’s way too big a debate for me to want to try to have it here and now.