At 7:00 p.m. Wednesday night, Fox News reporter Jim Angle, citing conservative experts, reported that Obamacare would force young people to pay vastly higher premiums, face large deductibles and leave 30 million Americans uninsured.
On MSNBC, Chris Matthews called Republican opponents of the program “political lightweights” and “puppatoons.” Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said House Republicans were “sickening.”
A night of debate on the first federal government shutdown in 17 years and the country’s largest new government program in a generation had begun. On balance, Fox was worse than MSNBC. But both broadcasts were emblems of America’s failing news industry.
The triumph of opinion-driven cable TV and the collapse of newspapers has created an American news media that does an increasingly poor job of informing the public. And an excellent job of dividing it.
The media, of course, is not solely to blame for America’s political polarization. Complex dynamics—including a weak economy, gerrymandering and rapidly-shifting demographics—are fueling growing partisanship. But an economically battered news industry in desperate need of a new business model is a core part of the problem.
Creating cable television and social media bubbles where one’s political views are affirmed has proven popular and profitable. Angrily declaring one’s opponents imbeciles enriches pundits, corporate executives and stockholders. The result for many Americans, though, is confusion, cynicism and division.
I’m not suggesting a false equivalence between Fox and MSNBC, or the far right and left—which James Fallows has rightly criticized in The Atlantic. Hard-line Republicans egged on by Fox are responsible for the government shutdown. They have taken the government hostage in their obsession to end Obamacare. Yet if one watches only Fox, radical steps are needed to prevent the cataclysm that conservatives believe Obamacare represents.
There are some reasons for hope. The emergence of non-profit news outlets and the Web’s breadth of information and instant accountability are promising. But simplistic, reassuring narratives are more profitable than dispassionate descriptions of complex public policy problems. For a collapsing, digital-age news industry desperate for income, partisanship is an economic lifeline.
That was evident Wednesday night. Flipping between Fox and MSNBC for several hours — something I suggest you try — produced two completely different realities.
On MSNBC, Matthews and his guests called House Republicans “whacko-birds,” “birthers” and “crazy, angry.” They said opponents of Obamacare were driven by bigotry and selfishness.
“There is very little sense on the Hill that they’re there for something bigger than themselves,” said Susan Milligan, a columnist for U.S. News and World Report.
At 8:00 p.m. on Fox, Bill O’Reilly upped the rhetorical ante. Two days after its introduction, Obamacare was “not ready for prime time,” according to O’Reilly, riven with so many problems “it was pretty much impossible to list them all,” and likely to spawn delays in medical care and fraud.
Over on MSNBC, Chris Hayes opened his 8:00 p.m. show with a screen logo declaring far-right opponents of the law “frauds.”
Back on Fox, Sean Hannity called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) a “sick, twisted old man” who engaged in “casualty cruelty.” Hannity also mocked the 18 House Republicans who had said they no longer supported a shutdown as a way to stop Obamacare. According to Hannity, they were willing to “bend down at the altar of Reid and Obama.”
Finally, over on MSNBC, 9:00 p.m. host Steve Kornacki, substituting for Rachel Maddow, said that Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was following the example of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and using “stunts” to make himself a hero to the Republican base.
“Newt Gingrich, more than anybody else, may be responsible for where we are, what we are now seeing playing out inside the halls of Congress,” Kornacki said. “He wrote the script and Ted Cruz is following it to a t.”
Over the course of the night, Fox made more exaggerated claims and out-of-context statements. But theatrics, demonization and smugness reigned on both networks.
Polls, meanwhile, show vast public confusion about Obamacare. The law is the latest example of the polar opposite narratives Americans are hearing about the state of the country. There is more information than ever available to Americans, but few ways to reliably gauge it.
Cable pundits, meanwhile, enjoy unprecedented wealth and influence. Rush Limbaugh earned $66 million last year, according to Forbes. Last month, the conservative website Town Hall declared him the most influential leader on the American right.
Glenn Beck, who earned an astounding $90 million last year, was ranked number 10. Hannity, who took home $15 million, was number six. O’Reilly, who made $20 million, received an honorable mention. Five of the six most influential conservatives were media personalities or former politicians—not current Republican office holders.
What do Americans get in return? A hyperbolic political debate that rewards extremism and poorly informs the public. Hard-line conservatives are to blame for the current crisis. But, sadly, so is America’s failing news industry.