The Outsized Impact of Cable News

Almost nobody watches, but everybody ends up listening

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With a title like "Dumb Like A Fox," you might expect Terry McDermott's Columbia Journalism Review cover story to be a typical anti-Fox News critique. But McDermott's article has a more surprising thesis. The problem with cable news is not that "Fox’s straight news is relatively bias-free and its opinion programming overwhelmingly conservative," but rather that "the news portion is very small and the opinion portion very large." This laser-focus on opinion has caused Fox--and cable news as a whole--to have a smaller audience, but one that is particularly influential and lucrative. McDermott explains:

Cable news is not literally a broadcast business, but a narrowcast. At any given moment, there are a relative handful of people (in peak hours less than five million and in non-prime hours half that, out of the U.S. population of 320 million) watching all of these networks combined.... Although cable news is a comparatively small market, it is a small market with a much larger mindshare, mainly because the media are self-reflective, creating a kind of virtual echo chamber. It is also lucrative. Advertisers want exactly the sort of educated, higher-disposable-income audience news programming tends to attract.

McDermott concludes that most of what you see on cable news is "not journalism," but simply airing sharp opinions. As a result, despite its meager market share, cable news has a dramatic influence on the political consciousness of Americans. McDermott's piece struck a chord with bloggers, who are venting their frustration with cable news, and are particularly struck by the size of its audience.
  • It's A Bubble Kevin Drum at Mother Jones bemoans the magnifying effect that the commercial strategy of cable news has on extreme opinons: "Hardly anyone watches cable news. Even in prime time, Fox has a couple million viewers — that's about 1% of American adults — and the other operations have a million or so. Cable news is a molehill that gets routinely turned into a mountain range because they happen to be talking about the most self-obsessed bunch of gossip hounds in the country: politicians. ... Take away the echo chamber and Glenn Beck would be about as important as a guy on a soapbox in Central Park."
  • Politicians Need To Turn Off The TV Matthew Yglesias decries the feedback loop between politicians and cable news: "If you live in Washington and work in politics, it’s always almost shocking to read the truth about how low the ratings are for cable news. ... The reason it’s hard for political pros in DC to grasp this is that people in Washington are constantly watching cable news." He concludes, "I think our politics would get a lot healthier if you could simply prevent anyone from watching it during working hours."
  • What Matters Is Influence writes James Joyner at Outside the Beltway: "The vast, vast majority of people simply don’t care about politics. ... The people who sit around watching Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN are a small fraction of the population. But they all show up to vote.  More importantly, they’re the folks who organize and influence those who can’t be bothered to care most of the time."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.