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.
It 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.”
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:
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.
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.