Almost from the moment Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot through the brain by a political extremist on Saturday, the media has been wringing its hands over the toxic power of partisan news talk.
But despite the remorse, the economics of cable news and talk radio suggests that nothing is going to stop the hyper-partisan approach that has fuelled the rise of Fox, MSNBC and the career of Glenn Beck.
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“It is in the economic interest of cable news and talk radio to outrage their audience, to turn their segments into car wrecks that we can’t take our eyes away from,” Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center and professor at the USC Annenberg School, told TheWrap.
He added: “The economics favor the extreme point of view and the paranoid claims. You get better numbers and you can control the expense side by reducing a reporting staff.”
Giving Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity a platform to flex their right-wing muscles has made Fox the king of the cable news heap. Fox owned the top 12 cable news shows in average total viewers and swept the top 10 among 25 to 54-year-olds. In the front of the ratings pack, O’Reilly (3.2 million total viewers), Hannity (2.3 million) and Beck (2.2 million), firebrands all.
Likewise, MSNBC’s decision to ratchet up the left-leaning political posturing allowed the network to boast a prime-time win over CNN in the 25 to 54 year old demographic for the past two years.
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“It’s like the late night model. Even though the host makes money, the cost of everything else is low. It’s a lot cheaper to have a host espousing opinions with couple of guests, than to have correspondents across the globe,” Alex Weprin, co-editor of TVNewser, told TheWrap.
When it comes to radio, an ultra-conservative such as Limbaugh has maintained his ratings dominance for two decades by offering withering criticism of Democrats. His claims about Democrat-backed death panels may bear only a tenuous relationship with reality, but his 15 million listeners will prevent stations from messing with the overheated formula — even in the wake of an assassination attempt on a U.S. congresswoman.
“I don’t think you’ll see cable channels change their ways. Anchors and network bosses may pay lip service to the idea of changing the rhetoric, but the 2012 campaign is just around the corner and when it heats up we’ll be back to using violent imagery,” Weprin said.
In the wake of last weekend’s shocking violence, everyone from Pima County, Ariz. Sheriff Clarence Dupnik to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to Olbermann himself has placed the blame partly on the inflammatory rheotric currently clogging the airwaves.
But however well-intentioned the critique of Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Rush Limbaugh and others may be, it’s not clear that cable news is responsible for whatever turned suspect Jared Lee Loughner into a killer. In the past, acts of violence have been ascribed to everything from violent video games to rap music, but the connections have always seemed tenuous at best.
“To blame the shooting on cable news is simplistic. We don’t really know what motivated the shooter. We’re going to find a lot of different constituencies adopting this issue to promote their agendas,” Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News, told TheWrap.
Unsurprisingly, Limbaugh, Fox News chief Roger Ailes and others reject the notion that they incited violence.
“It’s just a bullshit way to use the death of a little girl to get Fox News in an argument,” Ailes told hip hop mogul Russell Simmons.
Limbaugh was even more provocative in rejecting criticism, implying the the left would use the event to stifle political debate.
"I wouldn't be surprised if somebody in the Obama administration or some FCC bureaucrat or some Democrat congressman has it already written up, such legislation, sitting in a desk drawer somewhere just waiting for the right event for a clap-down," Limbaugh said on his radio show. "They have been trying this ever since the Oklahoma City bombing."
When it comes to tempering the rhetoric, Limbaugh clearly didn’t get the memo. In the short-term, however, the general tone of political discourse should grow more civil.
“We will see a temporary shift in the zeitgeist. It won’t be as large and long, but it will be like the way it was after 9/11. That's a similar period in which people were shocked and chastened by an event, and inspired by the incidents of heroism around it, and Americans came together,” Heyward said.
But toning down the partisanship could be hazardous to cable news’ health. After all, take CNN. The network has publicly boasted that it will leave the ideology to MSNBC and Fox, while it focuses on objective coverage.
The reward for taking the journalistic high ground? CNN just had its lowest rated year in 14 years in primetime, both in terms of 25-54-year-old viewers and average total viewers.
It may not even matter. Heyward, for one, thinks that more guilt lies with the politicians than with media figures such as Beck and Olbermann.
“We have an extraordinarily polarized culture. It reminds me of the height of the Vietnam War. There is no common ground around which the extremes can have a conversation,” Heyward said.
The signs of the times are thus: Sarah Palin uses cross-hairs to indicate districts where she intends to target Democrats in the voting booth, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) exhorts her supporters to take up arms against a proposed energy task. Both thrive on the sort of political vitriol decried by Sheriff Dupnik, as much as, if not more than Beck, Olbermann and their ilk.
Of course, television news bears some responsibility for giving professional political provocateurs a platform to air even the most outrageous claims.
As the country sorts through the Giffords tragedy, we may be seeing fewer extremists on prime time, but Palin’s status as a Fox News commentator and Bachman’s postition as a favored cable news guest aren’t imperiled.
They may make waves — they may even bear some responsibility for fostering a climate of hatred. But they definitely make good television.