Will cable news punditry die with Roger Ailes?
Internet killed the cable news star
For enemies of moneyed conservatism, the end of the Roger Ailes era augurs a coming eclipse of big businesses Republicanism as the force that tips the scales in American politics. For establishment meritocrats staking out the respectable political center, the legendary Fox News founder's fall from grace goes to show that Ailes' brand of power, paranoia, and manipulation are becoming obsolete. For liberals, and particularly feminists, it's easy enough to picture Wall Street's Fearless Girl statue all but Care-Bear-staring Ailes, and eons of institutionalized harassment, right into the grave. Heck, even red-pilled news bros can dream of a domino effect that could finally give them a place in an industry where so much screen time goes to old men and young women.
But the real token of Ailes' passing is broader than any sea change in identity politics or corporate correctness: It coincides with the impending death of cable news punditry.
For decades, the cable pundit has wielded great influence over the way most Americans paying attention to news see the world. As the information cycle expanded to fill a full 24-hour day, updating by the hour and then by the minute, reporters could be trusted to supply the raw data, but only the daily pundits could slap on a filter and supply ever more sorely needed "context." And as the market for context exploded to keep pace with the fire hose of news and information, the most readily recognizable filters, delivering the harshest heuristics for awareness and judgment, became the hottest of properties. Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly — these household names were not just brands or champions but worldview access portals, giving amateur newshounds their best purchase on a metastasizing carnival of breaking alerts.
Then came the internet, flooded with takes of varying temperatures. Suddenly, we didn't need Uncle Bill to tell us What It All Means every night at 8.
Internet killed the cable news star.
Today, cable punditry is an exhausted format. Its former stars have fallen. O'Reilly, ousted over sexual harassment allegations, makes do with a podcast. Beck has a website. Olbermann has struggled to squeeze a third act out of literally wrapping himself in the flag of the would-be resistance. Supposedly fresh-faced premium punditocrats like Samantha Bee and John Oliver are really just comedians who preach to small private choirs. Not even ESPN could salvage its flagging fortunes by going political.
Not every defeat for cable punditry arose online, but in a police lineup, it is the internet that sticks out, and it is the age of internet punditry that is on us now, for better and for worse.
The cruel twist, of course, is that bloviating online isn't a business model in the way it was for Comcast. While cable punditry could reliably rake in ad revenue — even if tilted distinctly toward prescription drugs and reverse mortgages — internet opinion-mongering drives clicks by the millions but hardly any dollars. Whatever your partisan bent, there has been something irredeemably sad in the way outlet after outlet has gone woke in an effort to convert the only audience that can be counted on to spend all day grinding through content online — progressive millennials — into cash. But getting this audience to pay for subscriptions is too often like pulling teeth, and getting it to click through for advertised products, much less make an impulse buy, is enough to drive you back to the collapsing model of cable takes.
Doubtless, TV has had the last laugh when it comes to producing profitable programming, ads and all. But cable punditry is now so obsolescent that it loses even where television, relative to online, wins. A gulf is yawning between the rising but unreliable Teen Vogue generation and the trusty but sinking Fred Thompson generation, and cable punditry is tipping into the abyss. Clickbait has its own fatal flaws, to be sure. But without a new style of news analysis, incisive intellectuals will abdicate the public square, and increasingly digital institutions will offer them a fruitful, almost monastic peace — as broader swaths of countryside go more and more to seed.