Cable News Broadcasts: Bad Uses Of Your Time

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by Conor Friedersdorf

When I first moved to DC, I sublet a spot in a three bedroom Woodley Park apartment, where one of my roommates would come home every night after his Teach For America gig, fire up the television set, and watch intently as Keith Olbermann proceded through his nightly show. It was misery. I'd spend my days happily working under Reihan Salam and Graeme Wood, and interacting with Matt Yglesias, Ross Douthat, and Megan McArdle. In spare moments, I'd walk down the hall to the room where back issues are kept to read old James Fallows cover stories. Everywhere there were  brilliant people whose insights challenged me to be smarter.

Exhausted by day's end, I'd metro back to Woodley Park, eager for a wind down beer, always forgetting that Countdown would be blaring. I didn't care about its politics. But watching gave me that anxious, vaguely pissed off feeling one gets sitting for an hour without air-conditioning in gridlocked freeway traffic, behind a semi and next to a guy blasting Eminem. It was all about the mood. I needed a mindless break before retiring to my room for some freelancing. Instead I came as close as I'll ever be to understanding what the audience felt during the debut of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

My roommate, a sincere liberal and a nice enough guy, got more riled up by the program than I did. His muscles tightened. His blood pressure rose. Sometimes he even muttered to himself under his breath. Then the show ended. I'd switch the channel to a Lakers game or that John Adams miniseries. Fifteen minutes later, my roommate would forget what he was angry about. It seems to me that Olbermann's show often brought out the worst impulses in people: petulance, self-righteousness, and blind anger at "the other side." I appreciate that for others, the experience was different.

Steve Benen at Washington Monthly says this about Olbermann's retirement:

As the dust settles, it's worth emphasizing just how important Olbermann has been in American media in recent years. When he returned to prime time after a four-year absence, Olbermann offered news consumers something we couldn't find anywhere else: honest, sincere, unapologetic liberalism.

Olbermann helped shine a light on important stories that were ignored by other shows and other networks, helped give a voice to a perspective that was discounted throughout the mainstream media, picked fights with those who too often went unchallenged, and featured guests who were frequently and needlessly left out of the larger broadcast conversation.

There's an important caveat that Benen left out: Olbermann offered something that couldn't be found elsewhere on television. For liberals who like that medium, I'm sure the show proved cathartic. But wouldn't they be better informed, more meaningfully entertained, and psychicly happier if just read Washington Monthly instead? Yes, I know, television is a very popular medium (mostly because it demands so little from its audience). But it is the worst way to engage politics in America. Compared to reading it is a wildly inefficient time suck. The format itself often strips the issue at hand of all nuance. It rewards demagoguery, and the host's words disappear into the ether so fast that inaccuracies slip easily past and are seldom corrected for the people misled by them. Often as not, its producers and writers just take insights from the written medium and dumb them down.

Don't get me wrong. Television is extremely hard to do well. Unfortunately, excelling in the medium and improving political discourse are often at odds. Chris Hayes and James Poulos, among others, show it's possible for up-and-coming intellects to do good non-Bloggingheads TV that's smart and engaging. (Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley, Ted Koppel, Mike Kinsley, Christopher Hitchens, Rachel Maddow – certain especially talented minds have always managed.) Since there are so few like them, I suspect that if politics on television were to magically disappear tomorrow, we'd all be better off.

And if more Americans started getting their political fix from cable news we'd certainly be worse off. Let me put it to you this way. You're talking to a recent immigrant at jury duty. He is telling you how determined he is to be a good citizen and civic role model for his kid. a) "So I've been trying to read Tocqueville in the evenings after work." b) "So I try to attend an occasional City Council meeting." c) "So I've been volunteering as a precinct captain during elections." d) "So I keep up with the Supreme Court by reading the most significant opinions each session. e) "So I keep up with what Congress is doing by reading The New York Times." f) "So I read the blogs of a few political scientists each day." g) "So I watch Keith Olbermann every night."

Is there any doubt that "g" is the worst option?

With very few exceptions, the retirement of a popular political talking head is great news: it's likely to result in fewer people watching political television.

(Photo: Keith Olbermann from 'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' attends the 2006 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour for the The NBC Network at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel on July 22, 2006 in Pasadena, California. By Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

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