Election 2016 changed that. It wasn’t because, this time around, I was unable to enthusiastically support either candidate. It was a growing concern with the toxic atmosphere of the cable news channels and the worrisome trends they reveal about our society.
Problem #1: The Disappearing Aim of Journalism
The first problem is the blending of journalism and advocacy. Fewer reporters seek to be unbiased and objective; and fewer viewers expect or desire good journalism in its classic sense.
Problem #2: The Disappearing Desire for Truth
A second problem follows from the first. We go to news for affirmation of what we already think, instead of information we need to know. Viewers don’t want the truth; they want their truth, the convenient spin or “alternative facts” that lead their political heroes to triumph or lead their opponents to shame.
Problem #3: The Rise of News as Show
A third problem is that we have become conditioned in our viewing habits to expect infotainment—an unfortunate amalgamation of facts, fads, and fun that rewards theatrics over truth.
Here is an example. When Roger Ailes, founder of Fox News, died earlier this year, an editorial in National Review recounted the creation of The Five. Ailes knew what types he wanted on that show: the “bombshell blonde,” the middle-of-the-road guy, the renegade, the brunette, and the token liberal (white or black) to round out the panel. When casting the show, he made it clear to the panelists that they were replaceable precisely because they were typecast.
“Ailes was proud of the fact that he got his start in theater. He told me that he brought that sensibility to television,” Jonah Goldberg writes.
“TV is an entertainment medium, one that appeals to the rational parts of our brains but also to the emotional parts. This was not an insight unique to Ailes, but he understood better than most that if the emotional part wasn’t working (what people see), people wouldn’t pay attention to the rational parts (what people said). That’s why Ailes famously watched the news on mute when he was assessing talent. ‘If there was nothing happening on screen in the way the host looked or moved that made me interested enough to stand up and turn the sound up, then I knew that the host was not a great television performer,’ Ailes wrote in his book.”
CNN and MSNBC play the same game as Fox, even if they tailor the theatrics for a different audience. (Remember the admission from a CNN producer that the Russia scandal was great for ratings?)
Let’s be clear. We are watching shows in the old-fashioned sense of the word, as anyone who has ever seen Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews, or Rachel Maddow can attest. The personalities, the panels, the performances—it’s all meant to hold on to viewers until we get through the next commercial break.
Are We Throwing the Baby Out?
But then hurricanes hit, and I am grateful for the news coverage that warns people about the storm surge, or the flood. I’m inspired by the stories of individual families, of daring rescues, and the ongoing relief efforts.
I realize that even in the realm of politics, by creating more avenues for reporting, these networks broke the stranglehold on news and information that had once been the privilege of just a few national outlets. New theories and important stories can now circulate more widely.
The flow of information is one of the hallmarks of a free society. And just as traditional newscasters were rocked by cable news channels, now the internet has come along to rock all the TV news boats.
It is true that good journalism sneaks onto the cable networks. I could list several people whose voices I look forward to hearing whenever they show up on the major networks. Still, these reporters are the exceptions, not the rule. What’s more, I can usually discover their fine work in articles online or in print magazines. I don’t need TV to find them. What’s more, some of the best reporting on recent natural disasters have been done by local news channels.
What Is Cable News Doing to Us?
In a culture that has lost its appetite for truth and has developed an appetite for coarseness and sensationalism, cable news plays to our worst tendencies.
A steady diet of cable news reinforces the idea that everything is about politics, that everything is life or death, and that we should all devote our attention to the big news story every day. (Consider how news channels count down to big events, as if the entire country waits breathlessly for whatever the channel determines is most important!)
Recently, I finished Andy Crouch’s The Tech-wise Family, a book from a journalist and writer who I’ve long respected for his insight into faith and culture. Crouch is a brilliant commentator on society and culture. And he doesn’t have a television in the living room. The TV is in the basement. (The family turns it on so rarely that his daughter wasn’t even sure they had one!)
John Piper, a preacher and writer highly influential in American evangelicalism (especially among younger generations) doesn’t have a TV at all. He’s never had one.
Which makes me wonder: could it be that the reason Andy Crouch’s cultural analysis is so astute and Piper’s devotional and exegetical writing is so compelling is because they don’t spend time in front of the screen?
Asking Tough Questions
Critics could say that tuning out cable news is the mark of an escapist—a privileged form of turning a blind eye to the culture you’re called to reach, or a snooty way of ignoring your neighbor. But the people I know who have cut off cable news (and that number has grown in recent months) are usually more engaged in their neighborhoods and churches, not less. No one who has followed the work of Crouch or Piper would say that these men are disengaged from what is happening in the world around them.
Instead, we could make the opposite case: the steady diet of infotainment desensitizes us to true suffering and leads to paralysis in searching for real solutions.
Does a regular rhythm of cable news make us better neighbors? Better moms and dads? Better church members?
Are these shows good for our souls?
Do they build character and increase our wisdom?
“Technology is in its proper place when it helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love . . . when it starts great conversations . . . when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we are part of and responsible for stewarding, when we use it with intention and care” (20-21).
If cable news helps you do these things, then keep watching. If it doesn’t, cut the cord, and find other ways to keep up with the news. Whatever you do, make sure you’re intentional about your habits, because your viewing patterns shape your heart.
If we want renewed minds that discern the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God (Romans 12:2), some of us may to turn off the TV. The world needs fewer talking heads and more thinking heads . . . and bigger hearts.