Cable News Blues

“Imagine someone about to begin physical therapy following a stroke, suddenly contracting a debilitating secondary illness.”

This is how the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism describes the “State of the Media” in its 2009 report. It gets worse from there.

The one sunny area in the news business, according to the report, is the fact that cable “shined” in 2008. Its audience grew by 38 percent. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC gained viewers and expected to see record profits. Unlike their paper-based compadres, they actually had money to burn on things like newsgathering and international bureaus. Rick Edmonds, who co-authored a grim chapter on the “free fall” of the newspaper industry, concluded at Poynter Online: “Cable news is the exception to the overall negative or mixed picture.” (And in that sentence the word “mixed” should be read as “terrible, horrible, really bad…”)

But if cable news is more profitable than before, that’s because, increasingly, it features less and less news. It certainly contains nothing that will likely replace the reporting role of the newspapers that are currently surviving on life-support. “State of the Media” juxtaposes these robust figures with some pretty unsettling data about what people actually see on their sets:

“In a news year dominated by two major stories [the election and the economy], the television sector with the most time to fill, cable news, offered the narrowest news agenda of all. According to an analysis of the coverage examined by PEJ, the cable TV channels spent about three out of every five minutes on a single story: the 2008 presidential election.”

According to the report, obsessive, often irrelevant horserace coverage of the election eclipsed all other news. It accounted for 59 percent of the cable newshole in 2008, while coverage of the economy accounted for only 10 percent. (That number is opposed to 36 percent and 15 percent, respectively, in the media over all.) Meanwhile, coverage of Iraq War fell everywhere, but it positively crashed on cable. Cable coverage of Iraq fell nearly 90 percent, and, shamefully, it accounted for just 2 percent of overall coverage.

This dynamic was at work on Tuesday night during President Obama’s press conference. CNN’s Ed Henry tried to goad Obama into a cable-style contretemps, demanding to know:

“Why is it that it seems Andrew Cuomo seems to be, in New York, getting more actual action on it? And when you and Secretary Geithner first learned about this, 10 days, two weeks ago, you didn’t go public immediately with that outrage. You waited a few days, and then you went public after you realized Secretary Geithner really had no legal avenue to stop it.”

Henry was so excited by this prospect, he used his follow-up to repeat himself: “Why did you wait—why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage? It seems like the action is coming out of New York in the attorney general’s office. It took you days to come public with Secretary Geithner and say, look, we’re outraged. Why did it take so long?”

Obama offered up just about the most un-cable news sentence anyone could possibly utter: [B]ecause I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”

Consider that cable news networks dedicated more airtime to the Rod Blagojevich scandal than to America’s wars. (Check out MSNBC’s coverage of the “(“#@(*&%^) Blagojevich Burger,” which is filled with bologna, by the way.)

Other “top ten” cable stories included extensive coverage of Caylee Anthony, the missing Florida toddler, whose mother was charged with murder; the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal; and Scott McClellan’s tell-all book. Cable stories that didn’t make it into the top ten included the relatively scant coverage of foreign affairs—includingAfghanistan,Pakistan,Russia, andGeorgia—and climate change.

This may be a boon to corporate balance sheets, but a boon to democracy, it ain’t.

Fortune Managing Editor Andy Serwer told Howard Kurtz: “A plane crash in the Hudson where everyone survives is a television-friendly story. This [fixing the economy] is a slog.” The editorial choices at the cable news networks reflect an agenda that prioritizes this so-called “TV-friendliness” above “newsworthiness.” Sound before sense, as Alexander Pope might have put it; form over function, as we say today. (That is, unless the hardhitting coverage of Ashley Dupre’s pimp actually served some higher function, of which we’re not aware, in strengthening democracy.)

It’s also worth pointing out that, while CNN, MSNBC, and FOX’s audiences may be hungry for news, they may not be satisfied with the product they’re getting. According to PEJ’s report, a mere 44 percent of the public believed that news organizations (over all) “protected democracy” in 2007, down from 60 percent in 2001, directly following the September 11th attack. The report continues:

“Shortly after the November presidential election, for example, only a quarter of Americans rated the honesty and ethical standards of journalists as ‘high’ or ‘very high’ while nearly a third rated them ‘low’ or ‘very low.’ Those results were within a few points of an identical poll taken in 2005. But they were almost the reverse of what Gallup pollsters found in 1976, in the aftermath of Watergate when a third of Americans gave journalists high marks for ethics and just 17% gave them low.”

Perhaps some caution might be in order. After all, CNBC experienced a substantial audience bump right after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Yet just days before, CNBC journalist Larry Kudlow’s regular guest, Donald Luskin, joked about the “infantile” Lehman obsession. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

We wouldn’t be surprised if one day, these brave cable executives woke up and found, Jon Stewart-style, that the joke was on them.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, a Nation columnist, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking. He blogs, occasionally, at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation.

Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, DC.