IF you’re one of those dutiful souls who felt that the responsible exercise of citizenship required you to watch Thursday’s debate among the Democratic candidates on CNN, you probably came away feeling as if you’d spent a couple of hours locked in the embrace of a time share salesman.
We’re not talking about the candidates here, but about the shamelessly high-pressure pitch machine that has replaced the Cable News Network’s once smart and reliable campaign coverage. Was there ever a better backdrop than Las Vegas for the traveling wreck of a journalistic carnival that CNN’s political journalism has become? And can there now be any doubt that, in his last life, Wolf Blitzer had a booth on the midway, barking for the bearded lady and the dog-faced boy?
It all would be darkly comedic if CNN’s descent into hyperbole and histrionics simply represented a miscalculation in reportorial style, but it signals something else -- the network’s attempt to position itself ideologically, the way Fox and MSNBC already have done. In fact, we now have a situation in which the three all-news cable networks each have aligned themselves with a point on the political compass: Fox went first and consciously became the Republican network; MSNBC, which would have sold its soul to the devil for six ratings points, instead found a less-demanding buyer in the Democrats. Now, CNN has decided to reinvent itself as the independent, populist network cursing both sides of the conventional political aisle -- along with immigrants and free trade, of course.
In other words, for the first time since the advent of television news as a major force in American life, the 2008 presidential campaign will be fought out with individual networks committed to particular political perspectives. Why does that matter? As far back as 2004, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that “cable now trails only local TV news as a regular source for (presidential) campaign information. In several key demographic categories -- young people, college graduates and wealthy Americans -- cable is the leading source for election news.” Thus, for key segments of the electorate -- groups rich in what the pollsters call “likely voters” -- the main source of political news is now a partisan, or at least, a politicized one.
It would be one thing if all this had occurred as the result of conviction, but the conglomerates that own the cable news networks -- Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., GE and Time Warner -- don’t have convictions. They have interests, particularly in ratings. They’re all mindful of what occurred in the run-up to the last election, when -- as Pew found -- the reliably Republican Fox increased its audience by nearly half, from 17% to 25%, while audiences for CNN and MSNBC, then still nonpartisan, remained flat.
A Pew survey earlier this year found that all this has had its consequences: “Republicans outnumber Democrats by two-to-one (43% to 21%) among the core Fox News Channel audience, while there are far more Democrats than Republicans among CNN’s viewers (43% Democrat, 22% Republican) and network news viewers (41% Democrat, 24% Republican).”
Because the ratings-driven world by which the cable networks now measure themselves feeds on the culture of celebrity, each now has a signature personality -- Bill O’Reilly on Fox, Keith Olbermann on MSNBC and the neopopulist Lou Dobbs on CNN. Among the three, Dobbs has been given the greatest license by the network’s increasingly desperate executives. His endless fulminations against immigrants and free trade now have been interwoven into the fabric of CNN’s political coverage, where Dobbs plays the role of both pundit and populist partisan. The network has relentlessly sold his new book, “Independents Day: Awakening the American Spirit,” since it came out last week, despite the fact that it’s quite clearly meant to give him a platform for his own political aspirations.
As the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund reported online this week, “Friends of Mr. Dobbs say he is seriously contemplating a race for the first time. . . .” Dobbs, he wrote, would paint the other contenders “as completely out of touch. His playbook would be similar to that of Ross Perot in 1992.”
Cable’s descent into partisanship probably has gone unremarked upon because it occurred simultaneously with two other trends: the harsh politicization of nearly every aspect of American life -- the great red/blue divide -- and media consumers’ growing insistence that television entertain them at every available minute.
Clearly, some significant number of our fellow Americans think it’s fun to watch angry people rant. Others among us would prefer to watch something more dignified, say, a cockfight. (Actually, it might be entertaining to watch O’Reilly and Olbermann locked in an empty room and going at each other with luffas. It’s impossible, though, to imagine being amused by anything involving Dobbs.)
To the extent our era seems to resemble the Gilded Age more with each passing day, some sort of populist backlash was inevitable. This week, for example, while millions watched the value of their homes decline by the week and worried over how they’ll cover their adjustable mortgages when they reset next year, the owner of a Beverly Hills jeans company paid more than $16 million for a diamond -- the most ever for a single stone -- and the fall sales of modern and contemporary art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York rang up a record $1.67 billion. Clearly times aren’t tough all over.
Just as popular revulsion against the robber barons’ excesses helped push the original Populists into a grand electoral alliance with the Democrat William Jennings Bryan in 1896, our own period’s increasingly unequal distribution of risk, opportunity and reward was bound to throw up something like Dobbs.
And, if nothing else, our Lou is a guy with an eye for the main chance. In his recently published manifesto, Dobbs writes, “I believe that independent Americans will demand a far better choice than any of the candidates now seeking their party’s nomination. I believe next November’s surprise will be the election of a man or woman of great character, vision and accomplishment, a candidate who has not yet entered the race.”
And who might that be?
Well, this week, in his regular Wednesday commentary for CNN.com, Dobbs predicted that a mystery candidate was waiting in this campaign’s electoral wings, an “independent populist . . . who understands the genius of this country lies in the hearts and minds of its people and not in the prerogatives and power of its elites.”
And who might this populist paladin be?
In the Journal, Fund recalled that “Dobbs himself once told me that ‘Q’ ratings that measure the popularity of media personalities found that no other media figure was more respected (than Dobbs) across the board by Democrats, Republicans and independents. He claimed he was striking a chord with the broad middle class that transcended ideology. I think his ratings may also have something to do with picking a couple of hot-button issues that are easily demagogued, but don’t be surprised if you hear more rumors about a Dobbs candidacy. Even if he doesn’t enter the race, any such discussion would serve to boost his ratings.”
Somehow, the election of a president ought to be about more than ratings. But you’d never know that by watching what now passes for political journalism on the cable news networks, where O’Reilly, Olbermann and Dobbs now stand at the three points of what amounts to an ethical Bermuda Triangle.