Cable news channels have diminished America’s understanding of politics

So Michelle Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll. That’s a big deal these days. It was on the front pages last Sunday morning of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post, or at least their websites. And of course The Daily Sentinel. I can’t help but wonder if it would have been 30 years ago, before the advent of the 24-hour cable news channel. I don’t think it would have been.

I’m not sure it was such a great win. After all, it’s a contest candidates buy, really. It costs $30 to vote and candidates typically buy tickets by the thousands and pass them out. Bachmann reportedly bought more than 6,000 and only got 4,800 votes. And she claims to have God calling the plays.

She won the Mesa County Republican Party straw poll and didn’t have to buy anything. That says more about Mesa County than it does about Bachmann.

The point, though, is why do we know as much as we do about the Iowa straw poll? Is it important, really? I contend it’s not. And were it not for the 24-hour cable networks it would be covered the way it should be covered. Maybe it would be big news for the Des Moines Register, but for the rest of us it would be the kind of story that gets buried way inside the paper where it belongs.

But the two 24-hour opinion networks — CNN and MSNBC — and the 24-hour propaganda machine for the Republican Party — Fox News — have to fill up all that air time with something. Somewhere way back when they decided it would be politics. That’s too bad. Wouldn’t it have been nice, and wouldn’t we have been better served, if it had been reruns of classic sports, old movies and sitcoms from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

Here’s why.

With all of that coverage, some of us, and I think there are legions of us, who wander around in the middle of the political spectrum, leaning a little to the left on some issues and a little to the right on others, feel like we don’t get any coverage at all. I understand why. I was in the news business for a lot of years.  I know the airplanes that landed safely yesterday aren’t news. Nor are the buildings that didn’t burn.

Thus it follows that when it comes to politics it’s viewpoints around the edges, the extremists, who tend to get all the coverage. That’s particularly true in television, where the formula is simple and seldom varies. Pick an issue. Get some guy to say it’s a good thing. Get some other guys to say it’s a terrible thing.  That there may be a third, or fourth or fifth alternative, or a nuanced approach to the issue is never considered. That gets complicated and television is not a medium made for complexity. It is made for short attention spans. It is made for people who see everything in black and white.

Television, particularly the 24-hour variety, is also the master at devoting hours and hours of precious air time to stories that don’t matter, all the time pretending it’s serious stuff. Remember Donald Trump’s presidential bid? Seriously, wouldn’t you rather have watched reruns of M.A.S.H.? Or the 1970 world ping-pong championships?

How many hours were spent covering John Edwards’ expensive coiffure? Oh there was a story to be told about John Edwards, but it had nothing to do with how much he paid for a haircut. And by the way, just to be fair and balanced, where was the coverage of Ms. Bachmann’s $4,700 makeup job?

I digress.

Cable news has been around for more than 30 years now. So we have a whole generation of Americans who don’t know what normal discourse looks and sounds like, unless they’re fortunate enough to participate in it around their own dinner tables or classrooms. If they’ve learned it from television, they think it’s two people shouting at each other.  They think people never settle anything.

That was never more apparent than during the debt-ceiling stalemate.

Now we elect people who take their cues from television and see every issue as black or white, with no room for discussion. We’ve elected a dysfunctional government just like us. A big part of the reason, in one guy’s view at least, is 24-hour cable networks that call themselves news channels.

They’re not.

Denny Herzog is the retired executive editor of The Daily Sentinel. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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