Andrew MacDougall: Imagine there's no cable news
You may say I'm a dreamer, but imagine how glorious that would be
By: Andrew MacDougall
Tucker Carlson, the now-former Fox News star, was defenestrated this week by Fox supremo Rupert Murdoch in a move that was as swift and brutal as the nonagenarian’s 2011 shuttering of the British tabloid News of the World following reports that its journalists were hacking phones to source stories. Carlson’s surprise firing came a week after Murdoch was forced to shell out U.S. $787 million to settle the defamation suit brought against Fox by the owners of Dominion Voting Systems.
If Murdoch were serious about preserving his legacy he would pull a News of the World and shutter Fox News before it brings the whole empire down.
Imagine a world without not just Fox, but without cable news. Imagine how glorious that would be. No seven-way panels of lobbyists and strategists (or lobbyist/strategists) screaming at other lobbyists, strategists and lobbyist/strategists. No carnival barkers like Tucker Carlson or Don Lemon preaching opinion to audiences who only want to have the “right” smoke blown up their backsides. No endless stream of half-developments being expounded upon as if they were a puff of white papal smoke. No reporters — proper reporters — being thrown to in order to “analyze” something that just happened. The silence left by the void of cable news would be the sweetest sound peoplekind had ever produced.
Murdoch will never do it, of course. Not because Fox News serves any societal purpose; it doesn’t. No, like all cable news, Fox News is infotainment and wouldn’t be missed by the organs of democracy. Murdoch will save it because it’s a massive money spinner (and access provider) for the Murdoch empire. And money talks, especially when the programming is so cheap to produce.
But sooner or later, someone has to end it. Cable news has to go because it is killing the news. Cable is living, streaming proof that news is not a gas; it does not simply expand to fill whatever container happens to be around. No, news is a finite product that is best consumed at discrete intervals. News belongs in papers, updated once or twice a day. It belongs in newscasts at noon, six, and ten, as islands in a sea of sitcoms and soap operas. It belongs in the tiny newshole between traffic and weather on your car radio. Where it does not belong is on cable. If something rates as breaking news it can bloody well break into regularly scheduled programming (think 9/11 or Covid). Otherwise it can wait.
Even the cable supremos will admit there isn’t enough news for 24/7 rolling coverage. There is, however, enough opinion. More than enough. Too much. And while opinion is a part of news — thank Christ, in my case — opinion depends on news, it’s rarely news on its own. It’s a garnish, not the main course.
The news does not do well when it competes against Kim Kardashian’s ass, Donald Trump’s mushroom tip, one-minute compilations of Kylian Mbappe wonder goals, or whatever TikTok sensation is currently thrilling every 14-year-old kid alive. That stuff is content, not news. At a stretch, it’s information.
Our wee brains can’t handle more than a few daily doses of news, even if our brain’s wiring clearly prefers the dopamine rewards of constant doom scrolling for endless information. That’s why it’s time, beginning with Uncle Rupert, to take away our candy. To trim the news hole back down before we turn even more feral.
And we were warned, you know? Every human alive should go back and read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Then they should follow it up with James Fallows’ Breaking the News. Both read like prophecy. Both foretell our current information dystopia, even if the authors couldn’t have predicted the turbocharging role the internet would go on to play. These high priests tried to steer us down a different path but, oh no, we didn’t listen.
But it’s not too late.
Even if journalists don’t agree with my opinion on cable news, they need to beg for less real estate. Because anyone can produce “content.” Anyone can be rabid in a race for clicks. People like Dan Bognino are all over YouTube. But not everyone has the courage or persistence to dig. Not everyone can verify and qualify. Not everyone can inform. Most importantly, not everyone can curate across a number of subject areas. Journalists need to stop entertaining us and get back to selectively informing us.
While we’re at it, hacks need to get back to letting their work do the talking. Show me a reporter who cares about their personal “brand” or perspective, and I’ll show you a reporter who’s in the game for the wrong reasons. You don’t need to be Insta-famous or a regular Twitter combatant to be a good journalist. Indeed, it’s usually the opposite. A good journalist should only care about a “like” from an editor, not a member of the gen pop. If they want to chase likes and be the algorithm’s bitch, they can go ahead and crank out that listicle on the Top Ten Photos of Donald Trump’s Combover.
Back to Tucker Carlson. If you want to see what “celebrity” does to opinion and newsgathering, compare the Tucker Carlson who wrote for The Weekly Standard and appeared as a guest on CNN’s Crossfire in the early 2000s with the version who lorded over Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News during the Trump Era. One was a serious, if sometimes provocative, commentator. The other, the latter, was a minstrel playing to the prejudices of an angry audience.
Kicking Carlson off the air won’t fix anything. Unless you kill the system that created him, his replacement will be the same or worse. End the endless news stream, or, at the very least, stop watching it. It’s easy if you try.
Andrew MacDougall is a director at Trafalgar Strategy and former head of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
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