Why tv news must die; a task for educators

Last month I explained why American cable television news was a shambling disaster, and urged readers to please stop watching it.  Naturally those “news” “services” have gone on to provide more fodder for my argument during the following weeks.  This is a vital problem for American culture in the 21st century, and very important for education.

Donald Trump on closing up the internet, or parts of itIt was very kind of CBS’ CEO to provide a perfect example of why cable news must be extirpated from American life. Les Moonves took to a conference call to celebrate not journalists, nor whistleblowers, nor the freedom of the press, but… the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.  Read on:

Speaking about the expected flood of campaign advertising dollars, which he described as “phenomenal,” Moonves said that he is glad to have so many Republicans competing for the nomination.

“The more they spend, the better it is for us and: Go Donald! Keep getting out there!” Moonves said. “And, you know, this is fun, watching this, let them spend money on us, and we love having them in there. We’re looking forward to a very exciting political year in ’16.”

This, this is why we can’t have nice things.

Bad tv news outlets cheer on horrendous candidates in sickly parodies of journalism, and those monstrous campaigns make money for the tv outlets.  Moonves has long been honest about this, according to the Intercept:

Moonves, who memorably said in 2012 that “Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS,” has been even more bullish. On a call with investors in February, he said, “Looking ahead, the 2016 presidential election is right around the corner and, thank God, the rancor has already begun.”

Moonves isn’t wrong about the dollars.  Even though tv ads demonstrate declining powers to influence voters, campaigns still spend the majority of their funding on them.

That’s right.  The majority of campaign dollars – those monies for which candidates devote an enormous amount of time, and the influence of which arguably corrupts American politics from the top down – go to paying for television ads.  Check out the Obama reelection campaign from 2012:

Obama campaign spending 2012, National Journal
So here’s the loop: candidates spend a lot of time raising a lot of money to pay for tv ads. TV companies get enriched thereby, and go on to produce awful news shows. Those news shows inform many voters, including donors. It’s a tight, lucrative, and godawful system.

“What can we do about this?” and “Why does this matter to educators, Bryan?” are closely related questions.  The obvious fix is to cut presidential campaign season drastically, maybe down to three months, and cap campaign spending on something less than the GDP of some nations.  But educators should play a role.

We teach information and media literacy.  We also teach politics, from current events and social studies to graduate programs in political theory.  How about spreading this kind of awareness more broadly, through core curricula? We can teach the literacy of going around tv news in favor of richer, more informative venues.

We can also teach the blatant corruption of the system.  Media literacy folks have long drawn attention to the market logic and spending  linking ads to media.  Lone critics like Larry Lessig have been hammering on the way enormous sums of money corrupt American politics. Let’s run with that in classes and our public outreach.  Let’s set aside our tv habits in favor of actually improving our understanding – you know, one of those fundamental purposes of education.

Kill your tv, Tom Woodward

There’s an interesting demographic angle here, worth noting.  TV viewership is aging faster than the American population.  The median age of tv news viewers is in the 60s: “Fox News’… median viewer age [is] now at 68 according to Nielsen data through mid-January (compared with 60 for MSNBC and CNN, and 62 to 64 for the broadcast networks”.  For specific programs, we’re in the 50s:

In 2010, the average age of a regular evening news consumer was 53, seven years older than the average American. Morning news audiences that year averaged 51 years of age. More than two-thirds of the morning news audience, 68%, in 2010 was female.

That was five years ago, which means those ages have mostly likely gone up since.

Recall that the older an American is, the more likely they are to vote.  Aiming lots of money at tv ads makes sense for campaigns targeting actual voter turnout.   Perhaps we’re seeing the rise of a new system, a hybrid media-oligarchy-gerontocracy anchored on television and the flow of money through it.  That helps prop up what I’ve called extractive democracy.

Which means educators working with children and young adults won’t have that much influence on the overall picture, unless those students regress back to tv watching when they pass 50 and 60.  It’s adult and public educators who have the biggest scope for this problem, and the largest responsibility.  Maybe they can help wean seniors away from the nightmare of tv news, and help bring down the system.

Because if we don’t, we’re stuck with The Donald, mindless campaign ads drenching screens in selected states, terrible tv news misinforming us, and political candidates hocking their service to the biggest donors.  Those are the stakes.  Les Moonves just showed us.

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
This entry was posted in research topics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Why tv news must die; a task for educators

  1. Rolin Moe says:


    There seem to be two separate problems evident thanks to the blinding light of Donald Trump. The first is the campaign finance you note and how ads push the system. However, the spectacle of the 2016 GOP race has happened independent of campaign finance, as the billionaire has leveraged his celebrity to get for free from TV what everyone else has to pay $$$ for (problem 2). As TV continues to slip in popularity and ratings shares are a mere echo of what they were even 15 years ago, Donald Trump has been the short-term salvation, the goose who lays the golden eggs. As broadcast media is largely owned by conglomerates, TV is winning at the expense of those who watch TV and those who do not. But cable news is not the only winner; the internet press shops are also seeing huge ratings as they provide endless takes on the Trump circus; “Trump has crossed into dangerous territory…so read my 1000 words on him today and likely my 1000 words on him tomorrow.”

    Cable news in America is a misnomer like reality television; rather than using lower SES participants from the American south to reinforce pithy narrative it uses a vast array of business-clad gasbags to reinforce pithy narratives about events. That said, the TV speaks to the older generation, and the younger generations are in algorithmic wastelands where Facebook trending celebrates Chan Zuckerberg or responds to Chan Zuckerberg criticism but never shows the criticism. The politicians will always sell their information as content — in the past it has been to moneyed donors, but does Trump open a door to selling content not for financial gain but for access to the lowest common denominator, using the ahistorical rules of libertarian coding to spike their wares in the search window? The free market has decided that Donald Trump is worth searching, and I am as guilty of this as anyone. My fear is that our system, cable news just one part, is built on celebrating the free market — whether we are engaged as forthright citizens or fascinated by the dumpster fire, the site hits or ratings needle does not differentiate.

    • You should turn those two paragraphs into a longer blog post, Rolin.
      A few responses:
      -yes, some internet businesses benefit from Trumpsimo. At a far, far smaller scale
      -by “rather than using lower SES participants from the American south” are you referring to some reality tv, like Duck Dynasty, Honey Booboo, etc?
      -free market: it’s worth noting that this is Piketty’s market of inherited wealth, not the Horatio Alger story.

      I hope you’re right about tv’s continued decline.

  2. Pseudo educator says:

    I have a thought. Let’s just limit free speech and the first amendment and while we’re at it limit academic freedom too, by bullying and name calling. Then we can walk around spout our liberal bull shit and only let people hear our opinion.

    Lighten up, get a shave, and pick your own God Damn news show of choice.

  3. Pingback: Trumbo: an effective political fable in the tradition of 1930-40s films | Ellen And Jim Have A Blog, Two

  4. Barbara says:

    1. I think your idea to “wean” or “get” or “teach” groups of people to bring down cable news is not a good educational aim. Yes, you can present alternatives or teach critical thinking, but like the proverbial horse, you can’t make people drink the water. And is it education’s job to have such specific outcomes? If it is, then I’m glad I’m out. I respected my students’ right to develop their own ideas; I just asked them to be critical about those ideas. I think your kind of persuasion belongs in a different venue. Maybe you should run for some office.
    2. I think you’re in too much of a panic about TV news, giving it too much credit for the current political circus. Since 1980, news has become part of the entertainment industry, and I do find much of it entertaining. It doesn’t mean I’ve lost my ability to make and keep my own ideas, to make my own analysis of facts. Cable news is about making money—there’s a shocker. Politics is corrupt—there’s a shocker.
    3. Per our Twitter discussion, I think much of your frustration is about the lack of attention to Bernie Sanders. I’m not really a fan, but let me tell you about 1968, when I was a senior in high school. Bobby Kennedy sucked the air out of Eugene McCarthy’s campaign (without cable news) and, even though I couldn’t vote that year (no 18 year old voting), I’ve been a jaded voter ever since. Sanders, like any other candidate, is caught up in the times in which he lives. That happens to the best of them.
    4. The remark about weaning seniors really offended me, as if you think we don’t bring the history of our lives to bear on our decisions, that watching TV news has mesmerized us into being zombies. I still know how to call bullshit when I hear it.
    5. I thought I heard you tweet once that you don’t even have a TV. If that’s true, why should we be persuaded to your view here. I have never played video games, so I don’t think I’m qualified to demand their destruction or wail about the effects on children.

    Mostly, I like to keep my opinions to myself, but you sure poked the bear with this one, Bryan.

    • My dear Barbara, I am very glad you took the time to reflect seriously, and at length, on this post. Even though we disagree, I’m delighted to read your comments, and appreciate the engagement.

      On another level, I do not shy away from poking the right bears.

      A few responses:

      After making this post and reading the comments from yourself, Rolin, and Pseudo, plus comments on other venues, I saw some further commentary appear elsewhere. Here’s Tom Engelhardt – a tv news viewer and a senior (71 years old, I think) – condemning this morning American tv news for its decline and failure, along very similar lines to mine:
      Note, for example, Bernie Sanders (another senior) and Killer Mike talking about the media doing a bad job educating Americans, yesterday, I think:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huuLU9ma1hU&index=3&list=PLkRT6sInhvHVb96gl-uxn2LxBqEL4Iv9A .
      So it’s not just me. It’s folks different than me, with varied backgrounds. We share some (not all) similar politics.

      To your #1: I agree with you that we can lead people to water, but not compel them to imbibe. As I said on Twitter, I’m not about compulsion, but education.
      Talk to media literacy experts, or read their work. They find the majority of people *un*critical of media, including tv; *un*aware of its biases; *not* skeptical. Hence their profession! They and I want people to see better, to understand better, and perhaps to change some habits so they’ll have richer, more thoughtful lives. Isn’t this what education has done for centuries?

      To your #2: here I must disagree at nearly every point.
      “Since 1980, news has become part of the entertainment industry, and I do find much of it entertaining.” Yes, and it’s a disaster. TV news shares less information than it used to. Think about that, and what a decline that is.
      “It doesn’t mean I’ve lost my ability to make and keep my own ideas, to make my own analysis of facts.” I never said it was. This wasn’t a personal post aimed at you, nor did it assume every single human behaves identically. The post was about trends and general forces. C’mon, whenever we talk about tens, even hundreds of millions of people there are exemptions and variations.
      “Cable news is about making money—there’s a shocker.” I didn’t make this charge. If you’d like me to address it, I’ll say tv news used to be a loss leader for media companies, and I think that led to a much better product than we have today
      “Politics is corrupt—there’s a shocker.” Nor did I make this ahistorical charge. My point is that things are different now than they used to be, not in absolute terms, but as a matter of degree. Corruption in politics has changed, for example, as we’ve seen income inequality rise enormously since circa 1980. That has led certain groups (energy companies, financial giants) to have huge amounts of influence over the federal government. This also saw a wealthy elite – the 1% of the 1%, if you will – ascend to ever higher pinnacles of wealth, leaving behind the rest of us, creating a wealth gap America hasn’t seen since 1910. *That* is a new thing, and changes much of our society: our K-12 education systems (check my posts on Robert Putnam), our higher education, our culture, our politics… and out media.
      This isn’t a brazenly new thing. Our situation today has some echoes of the classic Gilded Age (I’m struck by parallels between their railroad companies and our digital giants, among other things), for example. But it’s a change from the middle of the 20th century, and from the 1970s, when I (born 1967) grew up).

      That’s a long-winded answer to a short question. Let’s move to another comment box.

    • (continued)
      To your #3, Barbara:
      “I think much of your frustration is about the lack of attention to Bernie Sanders.”
      No, it’s more general than that. I’ve been observing these patterns since the first Bush administration. I think they really started with Reagan.

      I’m not sure what to make of your 1968 story. I can see how it impacted your own views, but don’t know how to respond. Are you saying I’m too idealistic?

      “Sanders, like any other candidate, is caught up in the times in which he lives. That happens to the best of them.”
      What does this mean? Are you seeing him marginalized because of the forces we’re discussing? Or do you find him unappealing as a candidate because of certain aspects of our times?

      To your #4:
      Let me be very careful here.
      I do not mean in my comments and analysis to be ageist. I’m not writing in a knee-jerk way, despite being a Generation X guy. Instead, I’m reflecting on research that others have done. In this post I linked to research by Pew and others, establishing viewing habits by age. In the previous comment I cited media literacy scholars. I could offer more references if you like.
      You wrote:
      “The remark about weaning seniors really offended me, as if you think we don’t bring the history of our lives to bear on our decisions, that watching TV news has mesmerized us into being zombies.”
      I do not think any viewer fails to bring their life experiences to news. As a literary critic that’s something I pay attention to. But I’m not sure how that makes your point.
      For example, if a conservative viewer watches Fox, they can easily see how its stories confirm what he or she has observed during their lives. Secular humanists wage war against Christians, liberals try to destroy businesses, criminals roam the streets: he or she remembers various events in his or her life which confirm these stories.
      Similarly, a liberal viewer before MSNBC can make parallel linkages. They hear an anchor describe fundamentalists forcing their views on people of different faiths, war profiteers egging the nation on to further conflicts, and criminals roaming the streets. Those stories chime in with this viewer’s memories and experience.
      Either way, there’s an echo chamber, a narrowing of perspective, a paucity of reflection, a lack of education.
      So if I’m misunderstanding your comment, please help me out.

      You add: “I still know how to call bullshit when I hear it.” Superb! You remind me of Howard Rheingold’s call for internet users to have a working bullshit detector.
      But I don’t see much of this in most consumers of tv news. (Note that I said “most”, not you in particular.) Or, to put it another way, younger generations seem to be gradually withdrawing from tv news, heading to other sources (which is a fine topic for another post), but American news shows still win a large enough (and older) audience to continue. Where is the bullshit calling going on? CNN et al continue to purvey horrendous stuff. They don’t seem to be in trouble from skeptical viewers.
      Or do you see tv news as something like professional wrestling, a fiction agreed upon between producer and consumer? CNN et al produce awful pseudo-news, and viewers know this, but somehow sift through to the real news?

      To your #5:
      “I thought I heard you tweet once that you don’t even have a TV. If that’s true, why should we be persuaded to your view here.”
      Because I do watch tv news, just not at home. I travel a great deal, 1-6 trips/month, and always check in with media at my destination. First I listen to and watch local media (radio, tv, print) to get to know the place a bit better. Then I scan CNN, Fox, MSNBC, as long as I can stand it. Sometimes I have no choice, as when I’m stuck in an airport for hours. I don’t know if you’re had the “pleasure” of waiting in American airports of late, but CNN-blaring televisions are widespread. Alas.
      Moreover, I follow the research, as noted above.

      You add: “I have never played video games, so I don’t think I’m qualified to demand their destruction or wail about the effects on children.” That does limit your ability, I agree, although it doesn’t stop you from doing research. That would enhance your arguments to a substantial degree.

      You concluded: “Mostly, I like to keep my opinions to myself” – and I’m so glad you made an exception here. Please continue to make such exceptions.
      And thank you for reading this far. Please excuse my long-windedness.

  5. Barbara says:

    Scanning cable news at travel destinations for as long as you can stand it sounds more like self-flagellation than research, and I do not think it is the same as having a television in the home, where you would be free to watch in chunks at different times of day and for reasons depending, perhaps, on current events, or not watch.

    Mostly, though, I’m concerned with the thesis in your title (why tv news must die) and how it could be a task for educators. That’s what I disagree with, that educators should have that specific a motive behind educating people, namely to take down cable news. The post suggests that as the task, followed by a why and how-to. You said you’re not about compulsion, but your thesis is “why TV news must die.” That sounds pretty specific to me.

    We won’t agree on the value of polling or “research” data. I am skeptical that calculating “viewing habits” is revealing of what people think. I was never data driven—another reason I’m glad to be out of education. To your question, I call bullshit in my living room, as I expect do a lot of viewers, and have no interest in making change. That will be disappointing to you that there may be a lot of people unhappy with cable news, yet unwilling to effect change.

    I can’t believe that I am the only 65 year old who can watch TV news and criticize it, or who finds political ads pathetic and lacking in specifics.

    You say you didn’t make the charge that cable news is about making money (instead of about journalistic integrity, I guess), but that’s what I heard in the first example about Les Moonves.

    I think you have a better post in you about this topic. Maybe one that fleshes out your idea of a better way to gather news. Maybe one in which you’re a little less frustrated.

    I still hate this line and its intent: “Maybe they can help wean seniors away from the nightmare of tv news, and help bring down the system.” There’s that thesis again.

  6. Pingback: Trends to watch in 2016: technologies | Bryan Alexander

  7. Pingback: Trends to watch in 2015: education and technology | Bryan Alexander

  8. Pingback: American tv news starts to glimpse the horror it has become | Bryan Alexander

  9. Pingback: More journalists now recognize with growing disgust what tv “news” has become | Bryan Alexander

  10. Pingback: American tv news stations confronting the terrifying possibility of committing journalism | Bryan Alexander

  11. Pingback: TV news as a hotline to memory | Bryan Alexander

  12. Pingback: The vileness of American tv news: a new datapoint | Bryan Alexander

  13. Pingback: American tv “news” networks look blearily at the mirror and swear to change, for real this time | Bryan Alexander

  14. Pingback: Strange, stupid, occasionally inspiring: reflections on Election Day 2016 | Bryan Alexander

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *