Tuesday, May 8, 2012

CNN in a polarized culture

The New York Times carried an article on the struggles CNN is having sustaining its television ratings. “In April 2011,” the article notes, “CNN had an average of 451,000 viewers at any given time, more than the cable news channel MSNBC’s 428,000. The month included the much-watched royal wedding in Britain. But this April, an unusually quiet month in the news business, CNN had an average of 357,000 viewers, its lowest monthly average since August 2001. MSNBC held steady with 425,000.”  Employees who are proud of the CNN brand are disturbed by the channel’s inability to beat the competition. One employee is quoted as asking, “Who is the strong leader that’s going to get us out of this thing?”
In pre-internet days, CNN was the radical upstart showing how very busy people -- think of the business traveler returning to his or her hotel room after a hard day’s work --could get the news-of-the-day every hour. This was a revolution. Moreover, during the Gulf war CNN proved that it was the go-to station for national emergencies. It had depth and presence throughout the world to provide comprehensive and immediate coverage. But this was all pre-internet. Today, people who want to stay tuned can access a wide array of websites any time and any place. CNN still shines when emergencies break, but by definition these events are few and far between.  By contrast, “the news” today is largely a backdrop for the projection of personalities such as Bill Riley, or Rachel Madow. This is why news has converged with entertainment. This is also one reason why John Stewart has been able to secure a niche for, “The Daily Show,” his wonderful blend of comedy and news.
If we think of the strategic space within which CNN operates, it appears to have two choices; make “the news the star” or make the “star the news.” The internet rules out the first, news is a commodity, and the polarization of political opinion rules out the second—left and right are already occupied by competitors. This may be one reason why CNN cannot create stars out of Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer or Piers Morgan, while in contrast, Rachel Madow, of MSNBC, has become the star of the left.
But it was not always so. For those of us old enough to remember, Walter Cronkite, the famed newscaster for CBS from the 50’s through the 70’s, represented probity and cultural authority in presenting the news of the day. He ended every newscast with the phrase, “And that’s the way it is,” as if to emphasize that our collective experience, as he had just described it, had been accurately and faithfully rendered. But just as he represented the news, he was also a star. When in 1968 he turned against President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War strategy, Johnson is reported to have said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America.”  So in his case, the news was the star and the star was the news.

In hindsight we can see the conditions that sustained Cronkite as a cultural authority figure. There were only three major networks, they were quasi-monopolies, and along with major newspapers, there were no alternative sources of news. By contrast, market competition often drives out the company that occupies the “middle” space, so that for example, retailing is split increasingly between low-cost providers such as Wal-Mart, and high-end sellers such as Nordstrom. Should a competitor choose to situate itself between them, Wal-Mart will offer better prices and Nordstrom higher quality and better service. This is one reason Sears has had difficulty sustaining its brand.  Similarly, should CNN chose to be somewhat left, MSNBC will out perform it, and should it choose to be somewhat right, Fox will beat it.

But I also want to highlight another feature of Cronkite’s persona. As I suggested, he played the role of arbiter and representative of the truth. One of the features of a polarized political climate is that opinion displaces truth, or to put it another way, the very idea of truth is suspect. Instead, we believe that behind any purported statement of fact there is a hidden interest, and we can no longer be assured that “that’s the way it is. “

It is useful then to ask, what is the source of polarization?  It is easy to see how in an era of audience fragmentation- one consequence of the new technologies –symbols of cultural authority and national consensus, like Walter Cronkite, fade. But why the polarization?

There are of course many explanations for the latter, but I want to focus on a psychological one here.  In one way of thinking, we join up with the world around us by internalizing it. For example, we are not simply attached to our parents; we are attached to the internal representations of our parents. That is why it is said that siblings always grow up in different families. Each internalizes the same parents in a different way. So our experience of what lies outside of us is linked inextricably to the representations inside of us.

So one question is, how do we internalize a fragmented society?  One possibility is that it shows up as an internal experience of disorder or even chaos. We don’t know where we belong. That may be why Robert Putnam famously argued that today we “bowl alone,” --clubs and groups are disappearing --and Sherry Turkle suggests that our life online leads us to be “alone together.” This is speculative to be sure, but it may help explain why political discourse sounds increasingly apocalyptic. The apocalypse lies on the other side of chaos.

Seen in this perspective, joining a camp in a polarized battle helps us compensate for this experience of fragmentation. But since the experience of fragmentation is in some degree toxic, we bring to the battle the angry feelings that fragmentation induces. It is not unlike the ways in which fans of a soccer club can become a mob after a game, particularly if its team wins.  

This may shed some light on the CNN employee who wished for the “strong leader.” CNN “sits in the middle of one of the world’s most labyrinthine enterprises, ever buffeted by changing bureaucratic fortunes.” Fox, by contrast is the vision of a single man, Roger Ailes. As one reporter suggests, even Rupert Murdoch cannot interfere in Ailes’ decisions.  In a fragmented world we may hunger after strong leaders, call this the authoritarian seduction. As it positions itself as the source objective news, CNN would like to draw on the authority of a national consensus about what is true, But if this consensus is gone, do its employees instead need to subordinate to the vision of a single leader and his or her authority. And if it does this, will it then be forced to join the battle of camps in a polarized culture?

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