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By Stump Connolly

David Brooks and E.J. Dionne were on NPR the other night talking about the chaos of the last two weeks in Washington. Inevitably, their thoughts turned to Watergate. “I’m old enough to remember,” Dionne opined, “and it seems to me this story is moving so fast it’s like we’re in the last days of Watergate – and Trump has only been in office 120 days.”

On the journalistic front, that’s a good thing. It’s heartening to watch The Washington Post and New York Times in a good old-fashioned newspaper war over who has the latest, and deepest, sources in the Russian investigation. It’s comforting to see Congressional committees investigating high crimes and misdemeanors (not cleaning out Trey Gowdy’s sock drawer of smelly inferences). And it’s fun to flick around the TV dial to monitor the national conversation on not one, but three cable channels that weren’t in existence back in the Watergate era.

A Cacophony of Voices

The national conversation is a term journalists use to burnish their role in society. Originally, it was conducted on editorial pages of the nation’s great newspapers, or in opinion journals like The Nation, The New Republic or National Review. The mass audiences that flocked to television in the 60s made The Nightly News a focal point during the Vietnam War – and Walter Cronkite “The Most Trusted Man in America”.

Over time, CNN and the other cable news channels joined the fray. Rush Limbaugh, with his audience of 14 million listeners, showed that talk radio deserved a place at the table. And then came the Internet, which unleashed a cacophony of voices.

The Disruptive Force of the Internet

One explanation for Donald Trump’s success in the last election is the disruption the Internet brought to that conversation. Newspapers reeling from declining readership and revenues had little effect on the outcome. Ninety-eight of 100 major papers endorsed Hillary Clinton, and Trump still won. The TV airwaves were so saturated with vitriolic speeches and specious claims in the debates, there was no time to get to the bottom of an issue.

The digital frontier that spawned Politico and Politifact – the fact checking website that won the first Pulitzer Prize in digital – also gave us Wikipedia, The Drudge Report, Breitbart and InfoWars, not to mention a host of fake news postings on Facebook and Twitter planted by Russian intelligence agencies.

The schizophrenia in the electorate was mirrored in the three cable channels. For this election, Fox, CNN and MSNBC ramped up their operations to historically high levels, offering wall-to-wall coverage of the campaign. Roger Ailes went all in for Trump on Fox; MSNBC deployed a bevy of hard-charging young correspondents to dog Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, and CNN reconfigured its studio set to let surrogates for the candidates have their say. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion, sometimes based on facts, sometimes based on alternative facts.

In the mind of the man who ultimately benefited from all this confusion, President-elect Trump, the jockeying for relevance was the last gasp of a failing media elite. He mocked the “dishonest” media and called them “the enemy of the people” at his rallies. What did he need them for anyway? He had his Twitter account, and 27 million followers.

The First 100 Days

Last week, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard issued a report on media coverage of Trump’s first 100 days in office. To no one’s surprise, they found it was overwhelmingly negative.

Eighty percent of the news stories had a negative tone, according to the report, compared to 60 percent negative for Bill Clinton in his first 100 days, 57 percent for George W. Bush, and 41 percent for Barack Obama (although Obama’s rating turned to 57 percent negative in his next 100 days).

Tucked inside the favorable/unfavorable numbers are some unique insights into how the press is covering Trump. In the first 100 days, he was the topic of 41 percent of all TV news stories – three times more than other presidents – and 65 percent of the TV talking time was by Trump himself.

The cable news channels are “All Trump, All the Time,” the report states, providing 24/7 coverage that amounts to 200 hours of Trumpmania a week, every week, streaming into American living rooms. And viewers are eating it up.

“You have to be in a coma not to want to watch cable news these days,” says David Zurawik, media critic for the Baltimore Sun, “because what’s happening is head-spinning.”

A Day in the Life of Cable News

A day in the life of cable news begins around 6 AM, more often than not with an off-the-wall tweet from the President. It’s not unusual for him to be watching his favorite morning show Fox & Friends at the time, although early risers in the press corps are probably tuned to Morning Joe on MSNBC (which Trump used to like before he didn’t).

Barring breaking news, a typical day in the White House is built around a few morning events and Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s early afternoon press briefing. All three cable channels usually cover it live. If the President is not watching, he is recording it on his DVR to play back later at dinner.

More Popular than General Hospital

The President has joked that Spicer’s press conferences are more popular than General Hospital – “that guy gets great ratings,” he told The Washington Post — and he’s not far off the mark. The soap opera draws an average of 2.6 million viewers a day. The combined audiences for Phil Cavuto, Jake Tapper and Nicole Wallace, who come on an hour later, are 4.5 million.

Once the briefing is over, the cable gabfest begins. On CNN, show hosts Brooke Baldwin, Jake Tapper, Wolf Blitzer, Erin Burnett, Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon lead viewers through 8 hours of non-stop news, recycling key sound bites as many as 15 or 20 times and calling on various consultants and reporters for explication and commentary.

CNN calls this cast of characters “personalities” and lists 250 of them. Besides the show hosts, they include Dana Bash (chief political correspondent), John King (chief national correspondent), Gloria Borger (chief political analyst), Jeff Zeleny (senior White House correspondent), Jim Sciutto (chief national security correspondent), Jeffrey Toobin (senior legal analyst), David Gergen (senior political analyst), and 12 other correspondents who pop in and out of the shows as the stories dictate.

A Moderated Discussion

There are 54 other political analysts in the CNN stable. Twenty-eight are identified as liberal contributors, 26 are conservatives, and more than a dozen others are respected print journalists from other publications.

As the day progresses, panels of experts cycle in and out of the studio set more frequently than a hockey team changes lines. Frequent contributors who live in far off cities have a green screen or skyline backdrop in their home so they can appear remotely, either alone or in a split screen with four or five others.

The show hosts are not traditional news anchors. They function more like agent provocateurs, calling up selected footage and bouncing questions off a panel of experts. One advantage the cable news shows have over print and web is a library of campaign clips, and an army of techies working behind the scenes to cull through it. When the President, for instance, announced that China was suddenly not manipulating its currency, CNN within minutes had 4 or 5 clips showing him denounce them for it at his rallies.

Without taking sides, or counting noses, CNN is bringing to the national conversation responsible voices from all parts of the spectrum. They are priming the pump with their vast news gathering resources, and letting conversations go longer than typical newscasts allow.

During the campaign, CNN’s decision to pit Trump surrogates against Clinton surrogates often resulted in awkward standoffs between the two sides. What is happening now, however, is light years ahead of that. Most of the whiny truth benders are gone (So long, Kellyanne) and even Jeffrey Lord, Trump’s apologist in chief, is wearing thin. “If Donald Trump took a dump on his desk, you would defend it,” Anderson Cooper chided him the other night. (He apologized after the commercial.)

MSNBC Keeps Pace

MSNBC is creating its own on-air conversation pit with a line-up of NBC pros and a formidable Rolodex of print reporters, consultants, and inside the beltway sources.

It wasn’t long ago MSNBC was considered the left wing of cable news balancing off Fox News on the right. Recent additions like Nicole Wallace, the former communications director for George Bush, and Fox exile Greta Van Susteren have given it a more middle of the road feel. But its hosts – has anyone noticed they aren’t called anchors anymore? – aren’t shy about expressing their opinions.

Chris Matthews and Chuck Todd are veteran political reporters who relish mixing it up in the public arena. Chris Hayes is the newcomer who sometimes can be too smart for his own good. Lawrence O’Donnell is, well, Lawrence O’Donnell, a veritable opinion machine. And Brian Williams adds some gravitas batting cleanup in The 11th Hour, where he is serving out his term in journalistic rehab.

Somehow, it all works together because, for the first time in 17 years, MSNBC last week led the cable ratings race. The big surprise in those ratings is Rachel Maddow, the arched brow liberal who is drawing Bill O’Reilly numbers (2.9 million viewers) in the primetime slot. Maddow delivers the news like she’s backing up a truck to a loading dock, but her style is an odd mix of outrage and irony that leaves you feeling at the end of her show that it’s okay to go to hell in a hand basket because whatever disaster comes next is going to be even more fun.

After suffering through a year of fake news, false innuendos, reality TV politics, and outrageous tweets, I take pleasure these days in lying on the sofa with a remote clicker in hand, switching between the channels to watch first-rate journalists cover the burning trash bin that is The White House.

Odd Man Out

The odd man out in this conversation is Fox News viewer. The network has been laboring all year under the shadow of sexual harassment charges. Its guiding light Roger Ailes was fired. Bill O’Reilly was forced out by an advertiser boycott, and its two most prominent female stars, Megyn Kelly and Van Susteren, left for greener pastures. That is a poor excuse, however, for Fox’s willful failure to pursue the hottest story in Washington.

Last Friday, while MSNBC carried the boxcar banner “COMEY: A Real Nut Job!” and CNN dug deeper into a breaking story on the Russian connection reaching into the highest echelons of the White House, Fox was reporting on tornados in the Midwest, a Paul Ryan tax planning session, new field tactics to combat ISIS, and President Trump’s ambitious foreign trip itinerary.

Sean Hannity pooh-poohed “sources from Mars” behind the Russian meddling stories and, days later, unveiled his own “scoop” that the Clinton campaign emails were actually leaked by a low level Democratic staffer, Seth Rich, whose unsolved murder has been the subject of a flurry of conspiracy theories in the alt-right blogs. (Fox has since disavowed the report. Hannity has not.)

Make America Think Again

As hard as the Fox reporters worked to get a piece of the Russian investigation story, the anchors dismissed it. “If every story is Watergate, is any story Watergate?” Tucker Carlson scoffed. His message was clear: Move along, folks, nothing to see here. But viewers were not so easily fooled. Last week, while MSNBC was on the rise, Fox fell to third place in the cable news ratings race.

Inside and outside the Beltway, concern over President Trump’s fitness to lead the nation is growing, and two of the three cable channels are conducting a national conversation that delivers real news about real questions that will have a real effect on the nation. By habit or blind loyalty, viewers of Fox are denying themselves a chance to participate. The next election is 18 months away, and it doesn’t really matter what they tell the pollsters. They are missing out on the opportunity to watch government at work, and sitting on the sidelines while America learns to think again.

 

 

 

 

 


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