John Podesta on Cable News

One thing that always bothers me about discussions of the transition to online media is that the conversations often seem to skip very quickly from how things were in 1975 and leap ahead to what started to emerge around 2005. The whole key phenomena of the 1980s and 1990s — the rise of talk radio and 24-hour cable news — just kind of vanish. But I’d unquestionably rather read any major conservative blog than listen to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck on the radio. Blogs have links and you can check these stories out. And honestly just about anything is a better way of informing yourself about politics than is following the rapid-fire talking heads on cable TV. Just going on vacation for two weeks and not paying attention to anything might be better. As the boss says:

“On the cable networks, the intensity of conflict is what drives their shows, so everything is turned into a referendum,” said John D. Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, who served as chief of staff for President Clinton and the co-chairman of the transition team for Mr. Obama. “It’s worse than it was four years ago, and its worse than it was four years before that. It’s on a new slope.”

You can remember this from the campaign. The statistical fluctuations in tracking polls were given as a reason to paint this very exciting narrative in which each and every round of attack and counter-attack had enormous implications for the outcome. It’s not clear what alternative the producers have. I don’t think “no need to watch today, the news isn’t actually that interesting” would attract many viewers. And doing real in-depth reporting is very expensive. You’d probably attract a few more viewers with meatier content, but it wouldn’t be worth the cost. So it is what it is.

But the truly strange thing is how much influence these things have. Almost nobody watches daytime cable news (the prime-time shows are a different matter). But a very high proportion of people who work professionally in the political arena, including reporters for print publications that often have a much larger audience, do watch daytime cable news. Consequently, whether or not something is playing well on cable or driving the cable conversation ends up having a big psychological impact on people “in the game.”