The cablization of America's political marketplace

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.

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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.”  

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E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 7 months ago
That was the time when Walter Cronkite and the media were more influential than the military that had overwhelmingly defeated the Tet offensive enemies during the Vietnam War but Walter and his cronies called it a defeat. The democrats took it from there and defunded the war effort. Putting the nations trust in what the British call news readers such as Cronkite and his follower Dan "fake but accurate" Rather kept the American people ignorant of reality.
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 7 months ago
Has the establishment of so many (mainly cable) television news outlets, each appealing to a more specific demographic been so detrimental to the country? Does it “greatly enfeeble(s) the public discourse, for this strategy is either a cause of, or deeply complicit in, the political polarization of the electorate… and benefit otherwise marginal candidates and the occasional demagogue.”? Using the same logic, we might look back to the era before commercial television (pre-1945) and before commercial radio became popular (1920s). The effort of news outlets and journals to reach very specific audiences is not new. Most cities had several newspapers, and every town had at least one. Did that multitude of newspapers, journals and magazines negatively affect our democracy? The appearance of McClure’s Magazine, home of investigative reporters Ida Minerva Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, polarized our nation, and many of its big cities. Was this detrimental to our democracy? Did America Magazine, first appearing in 1909, and targeting a particular demographic, provide a benefit to the nation? Today, would limiting the number of sources of news available to the public build a better democracy? No. Better to let the nation vibrate with multitudes of reports and opinions. Let friends and neighbors read and discuss every position. Let parties and factions and unions have their say. Let’s watch the debates, read the blogs, Tweet our friends. Let each person decide, in a quiet moment, which candidate to support, and vote. That is the affirmation of human dignity consistent with democracy and social justice. That is freedom.
David Ryan
2 years 7 months ago
This is why the other article, "Why Educate," is so important. With a deluge of information, it is hugely important for people to be able to ask the right question and separate the "signal from the noise" so that can make intelligent decisions.
Anne Chapman
2 years 7 months ago
These comments could also describe what has happened in the Catholic church in recent decades. The communications revolution - including the internet - has reduced the dependency of Catholics on the clergy. They can now access documents, the bible, bible commentary, nformation about the church, uncensored church history, the roots of controversial teachings, and news about how the church operates, with just a few keystrokes. They no longer have to rely solely on interpretations and information as filtered through the clerical caste. We all trusted these .... men (100% men - celibate) 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 ,.... [innocence or naivete was corrected by the advances in education for laity, and especially on the ability to read for oneself all the history, documents and other information that few Catholics had access to until recent decades] The proliferation of news sources on television beyond the three traditional networks provide access to many sources of information, along with competing analyses and interpretations, never before easily accessible. People trusted Walter, just as the once trusted popes and bishops and parish priests. Just as the general populace is no longer as "innocent" and "naive" as Gram, Catholics are no longer innocent and naive about many of the realities of their own church. As a result, many are leaving for the competition - other denominations, other religions, and to no religion. The "brands" that appeal to the young the most seem to be "none" and "SBNR" - their market share is growing dramatically.

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