Brendan Nyhan links to some Daily Howler critiques of Rachel Maddow and argues that the “inescapable conclusion of reading Somerby is that the problem with cable news is structural, not ideological . . . I’m sure liberals tell themselves that she’s still better than Hannity, O’Reilly, et al. but that’s a pretty low bar.”
I’d make a few points about this. One is that “better than Hannity, O’Reilly, et. al.” may be a low bar, but it’s also the relevant bar. You make progress but doing things better than the people who’ve previously been doing similar things do them. Cable news isn’t really my cup of tea, but Keith Olbermann’s show was a good deal better than anything that was on prime time cable previously, and Maddow’s show is even better. By contrast, Glenn Beck’s show is incredibly terrible, much worse than anything Hannity or O’Reilly ever used to do.
Second, I would caution against drawing “inescapable” conclusions based on the relatively limited cable news market. If there were a thousand cable news channels all competing ferociously, we could draw a lot of “inescapable” conclusions about their behavior. Instead, we have just a few. For a while, MSNBC thought that the way to compete with Fox was to put more conservatives on the air and one might have reached the “inescapable” conclusion that only conservatives can succeed on cable. Now that seems wrong.
Last, we should be clear about what the structural issue is here, and I think it’s the fact that the appeal of these shows to the suits is that they have basically no budget. TV news at its best is like a series of mini-documentaries that can add a level of depth that words alone don’t capture. And it can bring original research and reporting to bear. And it’s not that there’s no audience for that sort of thing. But the cable executives don’t believe, perhaps rightly, that the increase in audience you could obtain by doing more value-added work (and note that you almost certainly could gain audience, prime time cable news shows are all very low rated compared to more in-depth offerings like 60 Minutes and various PBS ventures) would be proportional to the additional expense you would incur.
Note that part of the nature of capitalism is that for a venture to get funded by a publicly traded firm in a competitive market, you need to be able to make the case that not only is it profitable but it’s actually profit-maximizing. Even an expensive show that attracted enough viewers and ad dollars to cover its costs couldn’t get on the air. The old tradition of a heavily regulated three-network oligopoly meant that ABC, CBS, and NBC really only need news divisions to generate enough revenue to more-or-less pay for themselves and offer some prestige. In the future, perhaps non-commercial video production and distribution of various kinds will be more viable and we’ll get more rich TV or TV-esque content. Arguably the BBC, which has never been a commercial enterprise and has tons of reporters, is extremely well-positioned to take advantage of the rapid deterioration of the market status of news-gathering in the United States.