We were an NBC family, even during the heyday of Walter Cronkite. Every night at 7:00 we’d take our seats in the living room in order to learn what had happened that day in places far afield from Cape Cod. “Don’t you want to know what’s going on in the world?” my grandmother would ask on the rare occasion when I was watching a movie and didn’t want to change the channel. First it was John Chancellor, then Tom Brokaw. The CBS Evening News may have led the ratings and Mr. Cronkite might have been the “most trusted man in America” in poll after poll, but that didn’t mean people distrusted Mr. Chancellor. We all trusted these (mostly) men to tell us the truth.
Amazing, isn’t it, that so many would trust so few with so much? Some say it was a “more innocent time.” I suspect, though, that any innocence or naïveté Gram and her generation once possessed had been stolen long before by the most violent century in history. On the other hand, there was a shared sense of identity then, perhaps the result of that shared history, or of some popular mythology or civic religion. But the sense of community was also the result of basic market forces.
Back in the day, as Gram used to say, Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, who were mirror ideological opposites, both watched Walter Cronkite. Yes, they trusted him. But broadcast journalism in the United States, whatever its more noble aspirations may be, is also a business, and it exists in part to create mass markets for advertisers. When there were only three television networks, it was the sheer size of the market that mattered most. The networks built those markets by bringing together different demographic groups, people who rarely agreed on anything other than the trust they had for an anchor or program. To hold together such a diverse audience, the editorial approach had to be scrupulously balanced. Above all, it had to get the story right in some objective sense.
Broadcast journalism still exists to create mass markets for advertisers. But because of the proliferation of cable news channels, not to mention online news sites, those same networks now build those markets not by bringing together different demographic groups but by severing them from one another and serving up that slice of the pie to their customers. So Fox or MSNBC will say to the Widget Corporation that it “owns” a specific demographic. It is a narrow, demographically homogenous audience, to be sure, but it just so happens to be the demographic that buys widgets. This might be a successful business model, but it greatly enfeebles the public discourse, for this strategy is either a cause of, or deeply complicit in, the political polarization of the electorate.
A similar approach is at work in political campaigns. Candidates know that what matters most is who votes on election day and getting those people to the polls. Campaigns no longer do this by building as large a network of supporters as possible. The capabilities of today’s complex computer modeling allow candidates to focus instead on the minority of true supporters they need in order to be first past the post on election day.
It should come as no surprise that these two trends should benefit otherwise marginal candidates and the occasional demagogue. Like today’s cable news anchor, politicians are not talking to most of us, but to their Mister Widgets, the relatively few of us they need in order to win, whatever “winning” means in their markets. That is a deeply discouraging trend. But as someone used to say, “That’s the way it is.”