How Politicians Deal With TV News, from Obama to Cheney to LBJ

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Memo from Vice President Cheney’s advance team, requiring that rooms where he stayed must have “All Televisions tuned to FOX News.” As reported in 2006 by The Smoking Gun, and to the best of my knowledge not withdrawn or disproven.

Without much set-up or padding, herewith some of the slew of holiday-week responses to last night’s Note, on why President Obama doesn’t watch TV news, and why no president should.

It could have been worse. A reader notes:

Imagine the reaction if the President watched Al Jazeera America as I do.

It could have been better. A representative sample of the anti-Obama response that has come in:

Why would you watch the news when every day another story is told about how your failed policies are destroying the country. Instead he spends his time gazing in mirrors.

How other leaders did it: Part I, Dick Cheney. Many readers wrote to point me toward a leaked memo The Smoking Gun reprinted back in 2006, saying that then-Vice President Cheney required “All Televisions tuned to FOX News” in any room where he would stay. That’s the memo you see above. One reader’s gloss:

Apropos of your post on Obama understanding the worthlessness of cable news, recall the leaked document describing then-Vice President Cheney’s insistence that all TVs in his hotel room be...  tuned to Fox News.

Sort of explains the distinctions between the two men in a nutshell.

Another reader says of the memo,

So not only embracing the chatter, but the echo chamber as well.

How Other Leaders Did It: Part II, LBJ. A reader in Texas sends in this note:

Interesting comparison is to tour the “TX Whitehouse” of LBJ to see the row of TV’s in one room with photos of all blaring at once.  Lot of good that did as he, LeMay, and McNamara sat around next to the Pedernales river deciding who to bomb…

The Only Thing We Have to Sell, Is Fear Itself. From a reader who, it’s relevant to point out, has a background in professional photography:

TV news in all its forms is “bad for America”, as Jon Stewart would say.  What wasn’t mentioned in your piece is that TV news is in the business of selling fear, and not providing information.  

Ebola, ISIS, the financial crisis, the weather, sharks, the Muslims, killer bees, a mass shooter, a plane crash, a fire, the bankers, the auto industry, they are coming to get you.

They use all the audio-visual-psychological tricks they have to grab our attention and they try to continually scare our pants off.  Keeping us watching means of course ratings, which mean ad dollars, which is really what they are about.  So what we get is the constant jangling of our fear receptors, and the constant stimulation of our eyes and ears.  The busier the screen, the louder and more mesmerizing the whole experience is, the more likely we’ll just sit there like zombies and see all the ads. The book The Culture of Fear is relevant here.

When I was in college (in the 70s) I would see bumper stickers that said “Kill Your Television”.  I could not make sense of them at the time.  Now I understand.

“It makes you stupider and more dangerous.” Another reader weighs in:

It's not a question of rationing or balancing TV news viewing. No one should watch cable news, or the Sunday morning shows. Ever. At least no one charged with making responsible decisions. It's a cliche that TV news feeds its viewers sensationalism, and buries the "serious stuff". But it is also true. We see in Donald Trump's poll numbers how voters who consume a steady diet of Fox News select a candidate. But let's not single out Fox because they sensationalize and distort with a rightward slant. CNN purveys garbage, as does MSNBC and the networks (and who can tell what their slant is?).

Not only will cable news not make you a more informed citizen. It will make you a stupider, more dangerous citizen. TV news should not just be rationed, it should be shunned.

I’m sticking with cable, for the sports. One more:

Like your retired Silicon Valley reader, I don’t watch cable news. I don’t watch TV news at all, not cable, not broadcast national news, and not local news. I haven’t for at least 15 years, or since it became possible to know what was going on in the world through the internet rather than through the television.

Additionally, I try to stay away from “breaking” news on the internet, because way too often, early reports are wrong reports. It’s much better for my mental health to wait and find out after things have stabilized and more accurate reporting has emerged. There’s nothing I can do to respond to what is happening in news the vast majority of the time, and having it on would keep me feeling like I should be responding.

I also don’t watch presidential debates, Sunday morning talk shows, or anything related. By most measures, I’m a high-engagement, high-information voter. I donate to candidates and political causes, I volunteer for local campaigns, I’m on the planning commission for my local town. But TV is giving me information I don’t find useful in a format I don’t find helpful.

And I’m no cord-cutting millennial; I’ll probably be one of the last cable subscribers left, because I do watch a lot of sports!

Because of stereotypes about sports-viewing fans, it’s relevant to point out that this reader is a woman. President Obama, too, has said from time to time that he likes watching live sports on TV. I also feel least guilty about watching something on TV when that something is a live game — or a Breaking Bad-style, Fargo-style serial drama. That is all for now.