The Collapse of the National News Media
By Michael Kleen
July 3, 2012
In the years following the September 11 terrorist attacks, national cable networks were king. Scrolling terror alerts and videos from faraway battlefields were sprayed across the screen, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the whole nation to see. In July 2009, FNC’s The O’Reilly Factor peaked at 3.1 million viewers. Something has happened in the intervening years, however. Viewers have turned on the national networks. This is most evident with CNN and MSNBC, but Fox is not immune. Generally, people have come to see cable news as hopelessly biased and even detrimental to the welfare of the country. How did this happen?
That cable news networks are in collapse is indisputable. In April, CNN suffered its lowest-rated month in terms of total viewers in over a decade. One month later, the network that pioneered 24-hour cable news had its worst month in primetime among total viewers in over 20 years. According to deadline.com, “From April 30 to May 27, the cable news network attracted an average of 389,000 viewers in primetime. It was also CNN’s second-lowest-rated month in primetime among the 25-54 demographic (114,000) since October 1991.”
MSNBC is suffering a similar decline. When compared to May 2011, MSNBC was down 19 percent in terms of total viewers per day, but declined 26 percent in the age 25-54 demographic. Ratings were similarly low in primetime, with the network seeing losses of 19 percent in total viewers and 21 percent in younger viewers. Fox News, while still attracting more viewers than the other two networks combined, saw its total viewership decline by 6 percent over last year. It is down by 23 percent in primetime among the 25-54 demographic.
Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic decline in public trust for the news media. In 2003, according to a Gallup poll, only 36 percent of those surveyed believed news organizations “get the facts straight.” That percentage fell to 29 percent in 2009 (Pew Research Center), while in the same year, only 19 percent felt that the press “dealt fairly with all sides.” In March 2010, the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of those surveyed had a negative view of the national news media, a percentage only surpassed by the number of people who had a negative view of the Federal government and banks (65 and 69 percent).
Other polls speak to the perception among the majority of Americans that the news media is locked in an ideological battle that is having a detrimental effect on the county. In February 2012, Pew asked, “Is the national news media having a positive or negative effect on the way things are going in this country today?” 61 percent responded that it is having a negative effect. 67 percent of Americans polled believed the media had a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of political bias in its news coverage. Only 10 percent thought there was no political bias at all.
It is generally recognized that MSNBC and CNN support liberalism and the Democratic Party, while Fox News leans neo-conservative and Republican. The pretense of objectivity was laid bare after the 2008 presidential election, when a shuffle in cable news personalities aligned the top three networks even more closely with their respective ideological affiliations. Yet the story does not end there. There is also an orthodoxy among the media, and any broadcaster or commentator who crosses that line, no matter what their political alignment, will find themselves on the chopping block.
The casualty list is long. Phil Donahue, 2003. Michael Savage, 2003. Lou Dobbs, 2009. Rick Sanchez, 2010. Keith Olbermann, 2011. Glenn Beck, 2011. Pat Buchanan, 2012. Andrew Napolitano, 2012. All had their shows cancelled or were fired as hosts or contributors because of controversial views or for reporting on stories that the networks would rather not be told. Some of these hosts were incredibly popular, and they took their audiences with them when they left. Keith Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC alone accounts for much of that network’s decline in viewership.
It has become abundantly clear to television audiences that cable news channels offer a very narrow range of views and represent the interests of a small minority. A growing segment of the population has, therefore, begun to look elsewhere for their news and commentary, most notably the Internet, where every niche can be satisfied and information is (for the most part) not subject to widespread censorship.
If the big three cable news networks want to get back in the game, they need to be more sensitive to the preferences of their viewers. They also cannot continue to be influenced by small pressure groups, who have been known to intimidate them into firing their hosts and commentators. If a news network is to be successful, it has to have something for the widest number of individuals to enjoy. Until that time, cable news networks will continue to lose viewers to other outlets. Perhaps that is a good thing, and we are witnessing a rebirth of independent media. Only time will tell.