On Wednesday, President Obama had something of a Howard Beale moment. Speaking to a group of Democratic senators, the President exhorted his listeners -- and, by extension, all Americans -- to break the cable news habit."If everybody here turned off your CNN, your Fox, just turn off the TV, MSNBC, blogs, and just go talk to folks out there, instead of being in this echo chamber where the topic is constantly politics," Obama said, things would be an awful lot better in Washington.
His appeal threatened to alienate some of his loyal supporters in the media -- MSNBC actually cut away from his remarks shortly after, with a nervous joke -- but it was dead on target.
How Cable Stole Our Brains
I've been covering the media business for a decade. Setting aside the Internet -- a big thing to set aside, I know, but hang with me for a minute -- the two biggest developments over that time have been the decline of newspapers and the growth of cable news. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Americans have been steadily getting more of their news from cable and ever less of it from papers. It doesn't take a genius to see the connection.
It used to be that cable-news viewers faced a simple choice: CNN, if you wanted your news straightforward and boring; Fox News, if you wanted to watch middle-aged white men shouting. Then MSNBC discovered its niche as the left-wing equivalent of Fox, and Headline News became HLN and started rivaling sister network CNN in the ratings.
The proliferation of options has brought with it an explosion of arguments and value judgments. Is MSNBC as far to the left as Fox is to the right? Is Fox's straight-news reporting affected by its opinion programming? Does the fact that Fox is now the most trusted cable-news network mean what it seems to? Does the fact that CNN's audience is heavily Democratic belie its claim to be nonpartisan?
Why None of It Matters
The answer to all these questions is: It doesn't matter. It doesn't really matter whether Bill O'Reilly or Keith Olbermann is the bigger blowhard, or whether Shepard Smith is less biased than Wolf Blitzer. The fact is, if you're getting your news from cable, you're getting misinformed. You're being told things are important that aren't. You're getting a diet of stories selected primarily for their strong visuals and sensationalistic details, not for their news value. You're watching a lot of split-screen shots of people talking over each other so loudly that none can be understood.
In short: If you watch a great deal of cable news, you are making yourself stupider. Put down the remote control. Pick up a newspaper. You may not have that luxury much longer.
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