At 6 a.m. on any Sunday, if you've made the sort of poor life choices that can land you a gig like personal attorney to the president of the United States or counselor to the same, you probably have the misfortune of spending the next hour spouting spin and half-truths in heavy makeup before a national audience. For these sad souls, participating in cable and network news shows is part of the job, particularly with a television addict for a boss.
We know why politicians and those who wish to influence them are incessantly willing to argue and pontificate on camera. But why would anyone be willing to watch? Why would we voluntarily subject ourselves to such an awful and unnecessary means of news consumption? And will enough of us ever stop watching to get rid of this scourge for good?
I grew up in a TV-less house, by which I mean we didn't have cable and I rarely had reception (or permission) to tune into network shows. Our VCR was plenty busy on the weekend, but a few Saturday morning cartoons and the occasional X-Files episode aside, we didn't watch live TV. Thus I encountered television news for the first time as an adult — and if you haven't spent years acquiring its foul taste, it's immediately obvious this stuff is awful.
To be sure, not all TV news is equally bad. Local news, done well, can be a vital part of city life and politics, holding officials accountable and providing viewers legitimately useful information about their immediate communities. Even straight TV reporting of national news may have value, though it always strikes me as a wildly inefficient way to learn about current events in the digital age.
But straight reporting is not all, or even most, of what passes for news on television. The commitment to 24-hour coverage incentivizes attention to frivolous non-stories as well as the addition of commentary and mixed format programs — think of those Sunday morning shows, plus weekday productions like Fox & Friends or Morning Joe and evening fare like Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow's respective offerings. Their topics, hosts, and style make them functionally part of the news lineup even if their broadcasters categorize them separately from more traditional journalism.
These shows are poison. Compared to print counterparts, they leave viewers more susceptible to misinformation and focus more on personality than policy. They are, as Jon Stewart complained in that infamous Crossfire appearance, "hurting America."
Yet contra Stewart, the problem cannot be narrowed to individual hosts' partisan hackery and theatrics. There is certainly plenty of that on offer, but so too are efforts at conscientious and credible journalism. Nor is commentary a bad thing (wrote the political commentator).
No, the larger problem with this branch of TV news is that it is inherently structured to stoke controversy and foster sensationalism. "The medium doesn't want thoughtfulness and bridge-building," as The Week's Joel Mathis has argued. A cutting exchange or outrageous soundbite — a "truth isn't truth" or "alternative facts" — is a win, inspiring headlines and driving viewership and the ad revenues that come with it. There is no time or patience for the editorial filter of written commentary and prepared statements or speeches. Conflict, speed, and quotability are the currency of this format (to say nothing of its close cousin, talk radio), even on comparatively serious and responsible shows. Dysfunction attracts attention.
This is exactly why President Trump can't seem to tear himself away. His tweeted fixation is an ugly thing to see, as he rages and preens his way through hours of programming week in and week out. If I weren't already averse to TV news, watching Trump watch would put me off it for good.
But are other people put off too? This is what I don't know.
Polling shows television news is less popular among younger viewers than with their parents' and grandparents' generations: Millennial and gen Z news consumers are more likely to turn to print sources while our elders favor network and cable shows. But is this a persistent generational difference — or is it about different life stages? That is, will millennials like me always eschew TV news, or will our news consumption habits at 60 or 70 look a lot like the news consumption habits of people who are 60 or 70 today?
Maybe as old age approaches, there's some inexorable pull toward these horrible programs which my peers and I simply have yet to feel. Or maybe as older generations die, this dysfunctional news format will die with them. Maybe television news as we know it will be a relatively fleeting failure.