For 28 years, I covered stories for CBS News all over the United States, and from time to time the rest of the world. And during that time, I can’t recall even one conversation about deciding what we should cover based on what our audience wanted us to cover.
Not once did a producer or executive tell reporters to cover this story or that story because liberals who watch us would like it, or that conservatives in the audience would like it, or that giving the audience the kind of news it wanted would be good for our ratings. It never happened.
We were journalists. We were the professionals. People in the audience had other jobs and were good at other things. They weren’t journalists, and so we didn’t consider what they wanted. It wasn’t that we had contempt for the viewer — nothing like that. It might better be described as “benign neglect.” As I say, we were the pros; they weren’t.
But mostly, this was before cable news hit the big time. Cable news executives quickly figured out that it was opinion that brought viewers into their tent — and that opinion, more than hard news, translates into higher ratings and more money. Cronkite and the others never talked about “red realities” and “blue realities.” They never thought about the news in those terms.
Now, even though there are some solid journalists at cable channels, it has all changed. Today, a lot of what passes for “news” is carefully crafted to make sure it’s the kind of “news” the audience wants to see and hear.
Even President Biden has noticed what’s going on. At his recent, nearly two-hour news conference, he said that many cable news viewers have “put themselves in certain alleys” and that most people who get their news from cable TV seek out news sources that reaffirm their political views. He added, “Again, I’m no expert in any of this, but I think you have to acknowledge [that] what gets covered now is necessarily a little bit different than what gets covered in the past.”
If I were among the reporters at the White House when he said that, I’d have jumped out of my chair and shouted, “Bingo!” He nailed it.
I used to say there were no conspiracies to slant the news, that bias was the result of groupthink. Put a lot of liberals in a newsroom and you’ll wind up with liberal bias in the news. But now producers know the kind of bias their audiences want, and they enthusiastically give it to them. If they didn’t, they’d be looking for another job.
Conservatives who watch Fox News, for example, pretty much want stories about what a disaster Joe Biden’s presidency has been. They want stories about how vaccine mandates are un-American (or close to it). They want stories that tell them the Jan. 6 Capitol breach wasn’t as bad as the liberals say it was, and that maybe the FBI was behind the whole thing.
Over at CNN and MSNBC, it seems that every day is Jan. 6, 2021. Neither of those channels can get enough of that story. If they’re not telling their audience that Donald Trump was, and still is, a “threat to democracy,” it’s probably because they’re in a commercial break.
At CNN, for example, the mess at our southern border doesn’t get a lot of airtime — not as much as Fox gives it, anyway. Same with crime in big cities across America — big cities, let’s point out, that are run by Democrats. Those are not the kind of stories liberals who watch CNN or MSNBC want to hear, by and large.
It’s as if liberal channels such as CNN and MSNBC and a conservative channel such as Fox News are covering two different Americas.
I understand that news is a business; news operations have to make money. But journalism isn’t like any other business. If you build cars, it’s important to know what kind of cars your customers want. If they want big cars, you build big cars. If they want compact cars, that’s what you give them.
But the news is different. News people shouldn’t hold a finger up to the wind to determine what kind of news the audience wants. Because then, they won’t get the kind of news — heaven forbid — that makes the viewer question his or her own convictions.
But something is going on in the world of cable television news, something that Biden picked up on at his news conference. “A lot of the speculation and the polling data shows that the cables are heading south,” he said. “They’re losing viewership.”
Right again, Mr. President.
According to Variety, “With no bombastic election cycle, and with COVID-19 coverage not as prevalent as it was before vaccines were developed, the major news channels and opinion networks faced deep dips in 2021. That goes for Fox News (down 34 percent, although still tops in cable), MSNBC (-28 percent) and CNN (-38 percent).”
But I’m convinced there’s another reason for the ratings crash. A lot of viewers, I believe, simply have had enough — enough of the same song and dance about how liberals are bad, or conservatives are bad. What cable news is doing has gotten old. It’s predictable, even boring. And in the world of infotainment, there’s no greater sin than boring your audience.
Walter Cronkite once was named the “most trusted man in America.” Does anyone think that the biggest attraction in cable news, Tucker Carlson at Fox, would ever get that honor? How about Don Lemon at CNN, or Rachel Maddow at MSNBC? There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell — excuse the cliché — that any of them would be voted “most trusted” person in America.
But if there were an award for pandering to the audience, for feeding viewers the kind of information that reinforces their biases, then there’d be a whole bunch of talking heads up for that title.
Bernard Goldberg is an Emmy and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award-winning writer and journalist. He was a correspondent with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” for 22 years and previously worked as a reporter for CBS News and as an analyst for Fox News. He is the author of five books and publishes exclusive weekly columns, audio commentaries and Q&As on his Patreon page. Follow him on Twitter @BernardGoldberg.