Cable news is changing for the better. With all of the melancholy current events happening in the world, one’s understanding of them depends upon one’s news outlet of choice. Fox News, CNN, and our beloved MSNBC are in a constant struggle to beat out the competition in ratings, especially during prime time. Condensing complex political problems and debates into sound bites, the machine of cable news slowly churns away at our collective political consciousness.
Cable news is not bad in and of itself. In fact, it’s quite entertaining. The problem with cable news is that it contributes to political polarization, giving different demographics completely different understandings of what is going on in the world.
Unfortunately, these outlets tend to sensationalize the news, sometimes for weeks at a time. Fox News had Benghazi. CNN had the Malaysian airline. MSNBC had Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate.” These stories were perpetually sensationalized for a good reason from the perspective of the cable news outlet: ratings. Each of these stations saw bumps in their critical prime time ratings when these stories broke and festered for weeks on end, increasing advertising revenue that fuels the machine.
Thankfully, some new pundits have come onto the scene, slowly but surely changing the landscape of cable news. Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry have added a new intellectual dimension to cable news. Both began their MSNBC careers on two hour-long weekend morning shows. Although these shows typically have minuscule ratings, their ethos marked a departure from typical cable news.
Consisting mainly of roundtable discussions with academics, political insiders, journalists, and politicians, Hayes and Harris-Perry broke from the time-honored cable news model of teleprompter-induced opining. Rather, these new pundits shaped their shows with an understanding that politics is something that we do, and they do it on their shows. Arguing in a Socratic fashion, these hosts are not afraid to play devil’s advocate toward the end of reaching some kind of consensus on their respective programs.
Perhaps this is due to their backgrounds in journalism and academia. Instead of studying communications in college, Hayes studied philosophy and Harris-Perry studied political science. After college, Hayes became editor-at-large at The Nation magazine and Harris-Perry became a political scientist at Tulane. Both pundits have a fast-talking staccato style in their broadcast delivery rather than the inflected teleprompter tone of many communications majors that are lucky and talented enough to make it to a major cable news outlet.
Although the demographics for Hayes and Harris-Perry are small, they are perhaps the most engaged demographics in all of cable news. Harris-Perry uses the hash tag #nerdland to communicate with her viewers during commercial breaks of broadcasts, while Hayes used #uppers for his first show, “Up with Chris Hayes,” and now uses #inners for his new weeknight show, “All In with Chris Hayes.” I experienced the vibrancy of this community when I was retweeted and replied to by Chris Hayes and Bill McKibben after I tweeted them a question about climate change. Engaging with the viewers rather than simply opining and pontificating to them is a big step in the evolution of cable news.
If one thing is for sure in this world, it’s that cable news pundits love to talk ad nauseam. Whether it’s Chris Matthews’ “Let Me Finish,” Bill O’Reilly’s “Talking Points,” or Lawrence O’Donnell’s “The Last Word,” a cable news broadcast is not complete without a rant. The new kids on the block, Hayes and Harris-Perry, have become the exception to that rule. Hayes even acknowledges the shallowness of cable news, saying on Wednesday night’s show, “Cable news is a thin substitute for senate debate” to a senator who appeared on his show to discuss ISIS. I would argue, however, that the political roundtables that Hayes and Harris-Perry put together are far more informative than our polarized political discourse.
The use of the roundtable appeals to highly educated adults more so than the loud pontification of political analysts shown in split screen shouting each other down. A prime example of what Hayes and Harris-Perry aren’t is CNN’s “Crossfire” with S. E. Cupp and former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. These two conservative commentators bring on guests and often shout them down when their viewpoints do not agree. An even bigger example of shouting down occurs on Fox News, especially with Sean Hannity. Hannity’s attack-dog demeanor attracts impressive ratings, but it further contributes to political polarization as it seeks only to stoke the fire of the far right.
Examples of this exist on the left as well. Chris Matthews occasionally lets his temper get the best of him, despite his decades of experience on the Hill, and he too shouts down opposing viewpoints. The same goes for Ed Schultz and Reverend Al Sharpton. Airing at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., respectively, these two pundits attract a much older audience, whereas Hayes and Harris-Perry attract a younger, hopefully less pessimistic audience.
There is a stark contrast between the Socratic argument seen on Hayes’ and Harris-Perry’s shows and the shouting matches seen on Fox News, CNN, and the rest of MSNBC, all of which further polarize our collective political consciousness. The most coveted demographic for advertisers consists of 18- to 49-year-olds. This is the demographic for which the major cable news networks compete night after night. Hopefully, with time, we will see more newscasters modeling the Hayes and Harris-Perry model.