Wednesday, 14 November 2018
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How MSNBC Created a Cable-News Addiction Epidemic

How MSNBC Created a Cable-News Addiction Epidemic
05 Nov
4:23

“If it bleeds it leads,” runs the old saying about local news. Family of five killed in crack-fueled home invasion on Long Island. Gang violence on the South Side. Of course, no one watches local news anymore—except, of course, the millions of people the right-wing, Trump-friendly Sinclair stations reach every day. Everyone—meaning everyone but the demographic undesirables watching local news—is watching cable news: Fox News, CNN, MSNBC. A cable-network group head recently moaned to me that his demographically desirable female viewers had, en masse, ditched daytime viewing for MSNBC. As reality TV supplanted soap opera, so now cable news has supplanted reality TV. Thanks to the mix of pre-meditated and accidental outrage emanating hourly from the White House (leavened, albeit less so every day, by entertaining incompetence), cable news is where you go to tap into that need to watch stuff happen—in this case, watch our democracy implode in real time. Had Hillary won, none of this would be here. Sure, Fox News would’ve stuck around for a while, but eventually its viewers would have died off, one by one, pitching forward into their bean casseroles as Tucker Carlson made “I’m a moron” faces at them through the tee vee.

But MSNBC is now challenging Fox News for ratings supremacy. Its main anchor, Rachel Maddow, sometimes out-rates Minister of Propaganda Sean Hannity. Maddow is nominally a straight-news anchor. She does not opine openly; she doesn’t need to. She has become so intertwined with her audience, so intimately in sync with her viewers, that we look for clues in the pitch of her voice, the ratio of her funny-ha-ha faces to her funny-weird faces. Critics like to point to her showman’s over-reliance on storytelling, her long, entertaining multi-block narrative detours—achieving a level of oral folk narrative akin to Russian skaz— as a failure to just give us the facts already. But as Michael Kinsley used to point out: there are plenty of facts; the trick is making them make sense. Maddow is uniquely skilled at pulling in historical antecedents, drawing obscure connections, and smartly distinguishing among known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns. And she is almost alone in understanding the urgency and danger of this moment.

Photos by Heidi Gutman/ABC/Getty Images (Maddow), by Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic (O’Donnell).

MSNBC intuited the nature of the resistance early, quickly promoting its cadre of young, competent, but also, it must be said, unusually winsome reporters to host slots throughout the day. Kasie Hunt, 33, whose excellent Sunday-night show, Kasie DC, is often promoted with a quick AC/DC flare-up, cocks her head slightly to the left and offers a shy smile before delivering the daily horrors. Capping a daytime run of women anchors is fact-based Republican Nicolle Wallace, whose palpable outrage is tempered by “Isn’t this all absurd?” laughter. Heading into the evening hours, the network promoted secret fourth Beastie Boy Ari Melber to the six-o’clock hour and installed guy-your-sister-should’ve-married, Maddow protégé Chris Hayes in the eight-o’clock slot. Melber and Hayes, both shy of 40 and both shockingly smart and well read, port a bit of daytime’s just-back-from-Coachella vibe to the evening hours, providing a counterpoint to Maddow and the slightly world-weary sangfroid of MSNBC’s well-cured inside-the-Beltway alpha males, Chris Matthews (the bumptious one), Lawrence O’Donnell (the mordant one), and Brian Williams (the just-starting-to-age-into-avuncular one). Oddly, perhaps, given that MSNBC is signaling “We got next” millennial optimism, there are only three regular nonwhite hosts: Ali Velshi, a Muslim of Indian extraction; the very un-millennial civil-rights warhorse Al Sharpton; and Joy Reid, who gets to host the weekend early-morning slots previously held by an earlier MSNBC African-American host, Melissa Harris-Perry.

Morning Joe, with its host fiancés, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, is a soap opera of its own. This is not just because of the danger, danger, high-voltage courtship of its co-hosts but also because of their multi-year ménage à trois with Donald Trump, whose self-love loomed over the proceedings each morning during the campaign, phoning in (from bed, it seemed) to goof off live on early-morning TV. When Joe and Mika finally, inevitably, turned on Trump last year, he responded like a spurned lover, describing Brzezinski as bleeding from plastic surgery. Morning Joe has been a masterpiece of triangulation: after competing with CNN to give Trump uncritical airtime in 2016, it has morphed into the smartest critique of Trump and Trumpism outside of Maddow.

Which brings us to the problem with MSNBC and this cable-news moment in general. It is not bias, though Fox News goes far beyond mere bias to provide an all-sheltering disinformation bubble. It is the way cable news traps us in the daily drama, forces us to watch the news ping-pong back and forth across our screens, locked in a variant version of the feelings Alex Heard first called hathos—hate + pathos—the cringe-y pleasure derived from watching bad things happen to other people. In this case, the pleasure is mostly gone, but the hathotic (if I may) compulsion grows ever stronger, because the bad things are happening, or are about to happen, to us.

MSNBC, like Fox News, uses remarkable message discipline to keep focus on each day’s A-story. That’s short-now thinking, which was O.K. at a time of less moment. Right now, it’s the long now that requires attention: Dark historical forces are moving the ground beneath our feet. Democracy is in danger here and around the world. Maddow’s boomeranging history lessons, which return elegantly to bong us in the head with their chilling resonances, and the estimable house historians Jon Meacham and Michael Beschloss, give us glimpses into where we’re headed. But, in general, cable news, by its form and shape, with its endless natter, its parade of talking heads competing for the most Twitter-worthy sound bite (I’m one), obscures what is actually going on. News failed us in the last election, and prevents us now from understanding how deeply rotten our culture and political systems have become.

The extant TV-news model, developed over years of budget cuts and continuously iterated tweaks, feedback looping with minute-by-minute ratings, has settled on a format of competing natterers, minimal enterprise reporting (Jacob Soboroff’s coverage of the maltreatment of migrant children sticking out all the more for its rareness), and relentless micro-topicality. The net result has been to effectively gamify politics: Chris Matthews’s Hardball is “where the action is.” Showtime’s smart politics series is called The Circus. CNN, blindly following a framing that’s been in place since The Making of the President in 1968, declares Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a huge “win” for Trump.

We’re all part of this game, of course. We believe that by keeping up with the news on a minute-by-minute basis, and maybe by banging out a few tweets and Facebook posts to enter our outrage into vast databases of outrage and counter-outrage, we have meaningfully participated in the ongoing political conversation. But what we’re really doing is enabling a kind of pseudo-discourse—a miasma of ephemera and misinformation—that sucks us into the Trumpian post-meaning vortex. Form, as Neil Postman wrote 33 years ago, excludes substance. We are left feeling some combination of overwhelmed, bloated, trapped, morally outraged, and, even still, mesmerized. It’s all too horrible; maybe I’ll stick around for Lawrence.

Source: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2018/11/how-msnbc-created-a-cable-news-addiction-epidemic

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