Being reliable is boring, and it’s also a bad business model. That’s so 1980, the year Ted Turner started CNN, which still tells America that it’s “the most reliable name in news” – which mattered in 1980, when the news was in your morning newspaper, or in those five minutes at the top of the hour on the radio, or in the half-hour evening news shows on each of the three major broadcast networks at the time, on weeknights only. On the weekend you were on your own. That was it, and that was pretty thin. Ted Turner saw an opening. Lots of people want to know what the hell is going on in the world, and he guessed they’d rather not wait until that evening or the next morning to find out what was really happening out there. He guessed right. His twenty-four hour news channel didn’t get much respect, at first, but then it became, over time, where everyone went to see what was up, when something was up, as it happened. Advertisers noticed. They paid good money for the available thirty-second spots. Things went swimmingly, until there was competition. Others could be reliable too, or even more reliable, depending on your point of view.
That was the premise of the Fox News Channel, launched in October 1996, which claimed and still claims that it is “fair and balanced” – shifting the premise of reliability. Rupert Murdoch hired Roger Ailes, once a media advisor to Nixon, to run Fox News, as he still does – a man obsessed with the idea all other news organizations are hopelessly biased. All news in America was dangerous liberal nonsense, and had been for years, so Fox News would now supply the necessary “balance” to that crap. Fox News would be reliable in a whole new way, even if they’re not particularly “fair” in their reporting. There were no FEMA reeducation camps on the way, and there were no Obamacare Death Panels, and now, with their constant coverage of the Benghazi scandal, and refusing to cover any Obama press events unless someone asks him about Benghazi, they may have gone over the edge. The new House Select Committee, the eighth body to look into things, seems to be a Republican fundraising stunt – there’s just no new information out there at all. But even so, they have done that “balanced” thing – on Fox News, no one EVER sneers at Republicans, even at Sarah Palin at her goofiest moments. Those folks sneer at Obama, and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and John Kerry, and now Hillary Clinton, restoring balance to the universe, and they are reliable at that.
MSNBC finally got it. For a time they had Keith Olbermann sneering at the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice case for war with Iraq, before they fired him for being an unmanageable jerk, and since then they have countered Fox News with their “more reliable than those fools” take on the news – with their young hip multicultural nerds with a mastery of an amazing array of facts to counter the old angry white guys and cute leggy blonds over on Fox News. MSNBC even has Rachel Maddow, a whip-smart openly gay but bubbly-cute and engaging young woman with a PhD from Oxford. Fox News, on the other hand, eventually became the propaganda wing of the Republican Party, with more than a few of their hosts running for office now and then, like Mike Huckabee, and some, like John Kasich in Ohio, actually becoming establishment Republicans holding office. They seem to be running what in baseball is called a farm system. MSNBC isn’t there yet. They just hammer out justice, like in the sixties folk song, by reporting the news from the progressive point of view – and CNN was left in the dust. Being reliable really is boring. That’s only a place to start. You need to be reliable ABOUT something.
That has been a problem for CNN:
When the missing Malaysia plane story was still hot, Jon Stewart thought CNN had realized they needed to fill 24 hours of airtime and seized the opportunity to say “Fuck it, let’s go nuts.” But now that the network is in its third week of wall-to-wall coverage, Stewart wonders if there’s anywhere CNN hasn’t looked for the vanished jetliner. On Tuesday alone, CNN anchors calculated that it would take almost 3,000 years to find the plane if search teams scoured every ocean on the planet before turning their attention to analyzing literal garbage.
“One place that they haven’t looked for the plane, as far as I can see, is up their own assholes,” Stewart said.
Even when there’s a new disaster that briefly distracts the network from its missing plane coverage, like last week’s earthquake in California, Stewart noticed CNN still works itself into a tizzy of speculation. “CNN actually seems to be bored with the idea of reporting real things that have happened,” he said. “They’ve decided they no longer want to be pigeonholed in the nonfiction section.”
And there’s this:
Earlier this month, CNN faced some criticism for pitting Bill Nye “the Science Guy” against a climate change skeptic on Crossfire for a debate that was equally balanced despite the fact that more than 97% of scientists are on Nye’s side. A few days later, HBO’s John Oliver remedied the situation by having 96 scientists join Nye in a debate against three anti-climate change folks.
Another member of the scientific community who’s not happy with the media’s tendency to give equal times to both sides is Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson. On the latest episode of his StarTalk Radio Show, Tyson spoke to former CNN science reporter Miles O’Brien, who shared his frustrations with the standard operating procedure of that network and others.
The former CNN science reporter got it:
Tyson agreed that it did not make much sense for networks to get “a person from that five percent, but now he gets 50 percent of your time.”
“Is that serving the truth?” O’Brien asked. “I submit to you not. As a matter of fact, that is feeding obfuscation and that is actually perpetuating a myth, and dare I say a lie.”
That’s probably why he’s a former CNN science reporter, but the latest guy hired to fix CNN is working on such things:
CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker on Monday said that the network probably won’t be covering the House select committee to investigate Benghazi.
“We’re not going to be shamed into it by others who have political beliefs that want to try to have temper tantrums to shame other news organizations into covering something,” he said when asked if CNN would cover the committee during an interview at a Deadline Club dinner, as recorded by Capital New York. “If it’s of real news value, we’ll cover it.”
Hold on. Fox News has said the latest Republican investigation of the Benghazi matter, sifting through all the same facts an eighth time, is of real news value – it will blow the lid off the biggest scandal since Watergate, or one that is even bigger – and CNN just did the MSNBC thing. Zucker sort of did call them those fools over there, or those political tools of the Republican Party over there, but then there’s this:
“Climate change is one of those stories that deserves more attention, that we all talk about,” he said, “but we haven’t figured out how to engage the audience in that story in a meaningful way. When we do do those stories, there does tend to be a tremendous amount of lack of interest on the audience’s part.”
What can you do? These climate change stories deserve more attention – of course they do – it’s only the end of the world as we know it – but covering them would kill CNN’s ratings, and the network’s ratings are bad enough already. CNN got hammered for pretending there was a fifty-fifty split on climate change in the scientific community, for lying about that actually, but CNN now has a new business model. Look! Squirrel! Dog owners know the reference.
Fine – but if that’s the way it’s going to be, choose a squirrel. That’s the essence of running a successful news operation, one that makes lots of money because advertisers know no one is going to change channels now – but choose the right squirrel. There are lots of them out there, and some of them aren’t worth chasing.
The choice is easier on an Election Day, and Tuesday, May 20, 2014, was one of those, so obviously this was the big story:
Republicans’ hopes of taking back the Senate received a big boost in primary elections Tuesday, with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) easily winning and other candidates favored by the party establishment beating back tea party challengers.
After years of intraparty turmoil that cost Republicans key races, voters this year are coalescing around the GOP’s strongest candidates ahead of November’s general election, when control of the Senate during President Obama’s final two years in office will be up for grabs.
On Tuesday, the most consequential day of voting so far this year, Democrats were left disappointed. GOP Senate candidates prone to making controversial statements lost to better-financed, more disciplined rivals with the potential to capitalize on Obama’s unpopularity and the troubles with his signature healthcare law.
Ah, the boring establishment Republicans will be with us forever now, and that means that the loopy folks won’t be saying bizarre things about legitimate rape or whatever. That’s actually disappointing, but that’s the way it is:
Nowhere was this more evident than in Kentucky and Georgia, the only two states where Democrats think they can win Senate seats held by Republicans. Democrats had hoped McConnell would emerge from the primary campaign badly bruised, if not defeated, but he prevailed Tuesday largely unscathed and conservative groups quickly called for party unity.
And in Georgia, Democrats were banking on Republicans nominating a candidate so far to the right that he or she would alienate suburban centrist voters. But the two contenders considered having the broadest general-election viability – businessman David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston – advanced to a July 22 runoff, complicating Democrat Michelle Nunn’s path to victory.
All of this was breathlessly reported on CNN, and Fox News and MSNBC too, as if the fall of the crazies and the return of relatively rational political discourse was a squirrel worth chasing. Perhaps it isn’t. This was oddly like watching the NFL draft on ESPN a few weeks earlier, to see who would be selected to play on which team in the fall, barring injuries, which happen, and if they even make the team at all. Even the best college star can turn out to be hopeless at the professional level. Tim Tebow comes to mind – and this is about elections that will be held in November. This was about assembling a tentative roster before the season and not about playing the game at all. Rabid football fans, an odd lot, followed every minute of the three days of the NFL draft. Their equivalent, intense political junkies, no doubt followed these early primaries – but they’re pretty odd too. Still, the tentative rosters are being set up, before training camp and the exhibition games, and long before the big game that decides everything, and that’s something – but it isn’t much of a squirrel.
Earlier in that day, however, there was a news story that pushes everyone’s button on the left and right. A judge just struck down Pennsylvania’s gay marriage ban – the third marriage equality ruling of the week, following Oregon and Utah – and damn, this is the eighteenth straight win for marriage equality in the courts in less than a year – or the eighteenth straight loss for Jesus and all that is good and right. Something is up. There’s somethin’ happenin’ here… What it is ain’t exactly clear… No, that’s Stephen Stills singing about what happened on Saturday, November 12, 1966, right down on the corner here, the Sunset Strip youth riots that started at the Pandora’s Box coffeehouse, now a concrete traffic island. Let’s try Josh Marshall:
I’m straining to think of any analogue in recent history where you have an issue of great national import, SCOTUS makes an ambiguous but suggestive ruling and basically all the lower courts in rapid succession say, “SCOTUS folks, you meant this.” In this case, your ruling means that state bans on same sex marriages are unconstitutional.
I wrote late last year that I expected that same sex marriage would be the law of the land (by judicial fiat) by the end of President Obama’s term in office, perhaps well before that. So I have some interest in having that long shot prediction proven right.
But the question presents itself: how long does the Court let this play out? The conventional answer is maybe for quite a while. After all, the Court usually feels compelled to act precisely when there is disagreement on a matter of great national or jurisprudential import. But here that’s totally lacking. There’s no disagreement at all.
To the best of my knowledge, every judge who has had a bite at this apple has ruled that the Windsor decision means that same sex marriage bans violate the federal constitution. Not just Obama and Clinton appointees but Bush and Reagan appointees too.
No one expected this, and at Slate, Emily Bazelon, the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School, explains things this way:
The unbroken string of victories dates from the Supreme Court’s ruling last June in United States v. Windsor, striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional. Does that make this series of rulings predictable? That’s what Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in dissent last year, warning that Windsor would actually nationalize gay marriage. But it’s not what the majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy said. Windsor wasn’t a full stride—it was a baby two-step, partly sidling up to the notion of marriage equality and partly relying on the power of states to determine marriage laws for themselves. What’s amazing is that so far, all the courts have followed the equality move, and the momentum raises a question no one would have dreamed of a year ago: Will gay marriage become the law of the land without the Supreme Court doing anything more?
That could be, if you consider this:
Three states have legalized gay marriage by popular vote (Washington, Maryland, Maine).
Seven states got it through the legislature (Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Delaware, Illinois, Rhode Island, Minnesota), plus the District of Columbia.
That’s 10 states, without help from judges. This reflects the smartest tactic of the gay-rights movement, which prioritized winning at the ballot box over winning big in the courts, since persuading voters means changing hearts and minds.
In seven more states, beginning with Massachusetts a decade ago, gay marriage arrived through the courts (Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Iowa, New Mexico, California, Oregon).
In seven more states, judges have struck down state bans, but the granting of marriage licenses is on hold, because an appeal is pending. And in four more, judges have issued limited pro-marriage decisions (requiring states to recognize a marriage for purposes of a death certificate, for instance).
Add it all up, including Pennsylvania, and we’ve arrived at 29 states where same-sex marriage is legal or on its way there unless an appeals court blocks it – past the halfway point and far past the tipping point. (Yes, 32 states still have laws or constitutional amendments on the books that deny marriage equality to same-sex couples. But those are the laws that are toppling like a line of dominoes.)
The news is that it’s all over but the shouting, even if there will be plenty of that. America just changed forever. Now THAT’S a squirrel!
Bazelon sees the writing on the wall:
No judge wants to write the opinion denying the benefit of marriage. Judge John Jones of federal district court in Pennsylvania, who issued today’s ruling, was endorsed by none other than Rick Santorum, beloved of the religious right. Judges aren’t supposed to rule by the polls, but that doesn’t mean they’re unaffected by the rising tide of public support, especially among young people. As Northwestern University law professor Andrew M. Koppelman said to Adam Liptak in the New York Times: “It is becoming increasingly clear to judges that if they rule against same-sex marriage their grandchildren will regard them as bigots.”
There’s still Texas – there always is – but Bazelon contends that this really is over now:
I’ve been looking to a different appeals court, the 5th Circuit, for an anti-gay marriage ruling. That court will hear the appeal of the ruling that struck down the gay-marriage ban in Texas. It tilts reliably right, with ten Republican appointees and four Democratic ones. If the 5th Circuit upholds the Texas law, then it will create a split among the federal courts. That would put us on the expected path back up to the Supreme Court. Surely Justice Kennedy will be waiting with open arms to finish what he started in Windsor. But maybe he just won’t get his chance. In the end, who really wants to be the judge who stood on the wrong side of history?
And how will each cable news network cover this, after they have said all there is to be said about the same day’s early primaries, where we found out who will be running for what in six months, unless they pull a hamstring or are forced to leave the team? We all know that MSNBC will be triumphant. Fox News will mention the Pennsylvania decision in passing – just a minor item, as Jesus and all that is good and right will win out eventually, as everyone of faith, and all Republicans, know quite well – and anyway, the judge in Pennsylvania was just trying to divert everyone’s attention from Benghazi. CNN will report on the latest theory on what happened to that Malaysian airliner, unless they sense “a tremendous amount of lack of interest on the audience’s part” in the whole missing airplane thing and go with this transformation of America story, or with the story of a cute panda born at some zoo somewhere. One never knows. Everyone points at different squirrels. And we’re the dogs.