Recently, in one of my classes, I went on a bit of a rant about this. So I thought I’d share it with my blog because that’s what I do. I should warn you however, before you read on, that this is one of those things that whenever I say it, people look at me strangely. Be prepared to look askance at the monitor as you read this. Television news is not your friend. The job of Fox News is not to inform you of the sorry state of liberal politics. The Job of MSNBC is not to inform you of the evilness of conservative politics. And the job of your local news is not to tell you about the neighborhood-altering decision your city council made in the meeting this evening. They all serve the same function. Their job is to make you watch commercials.
I am not so cynical as to suggest that Keith Olbermann or Sean Hannity don’t believe what they are saying. I am convinced that they believe it. Nor am I suggesting that any of the news organizations are intentionally misleading anyone or making up the news. (Most bias is in agenda setting, not reporting.) What I am saying is that if the news is accurate, it’s only because they know they would lose their audience if they were untrustworthy. I am saying that everything these news shows say is done with ratings in mind. That is why your local news program will show you a story about a murder 12 states away if it is sensational enough, even though it has nothing to do with their audience. It's also why all networks will lead with weather, even if it's only a remote threat. People are fascinated with the weather.
Let’s imagine a list of priorities for a news program, any news program whatsoever. The number one priority on that list is ratings. If for a second you think otherwise you are mistaken. And now, let’s imagine the world’s greatest journalist, who always knows what aspects of a story to bring out and always gets immediately at the truth. If that journalist looked bad on television, or was unspeakably boring so that no one wanted to watch. There would be no show for that journalist.
A while back I recommended a book, How to Watch TV News by Neil Postman I will again recommend it. Outrage, whether from the left or the right is a great motivator. And people will watch to get stirred up because that’s good entertainment.
I won’t say that all they want is for you to watch, but I will say that that’s all their bosses care about.