Nobody Watches Cable News

A media critic argues we pay outsized attention to the goings-on at Fox, MSNBC, and CNN.

POLITICO’s senior media writer, Jack Shafer, says it’s “Time to Pull the Plug on Cable News.” His setup isn’t particularly surprising:

How did the cable news networks become our main stage?

Nary a day goes by without somebody saying something stupid somewhere on cable that ignites a national uproar that seizes the news cycle for days. On Wednesday, Tucker Carlson praised the journalism of Infowars fantasist Alex Jones on his Fox News Channel show, and that sparked coverage in the Washington Post, the Daily BeastHuffPost and elsewhere. Earlier in the week, the someone saying something stupid was Fox Nation journalist Lara Logan, and her venue was Fox News Primetime, where she directly compared Anthony Fauci to Josef Mengele, the Nazi war criminal who conducted ghastly medical experiments on the prisoners at Auschwitz. Drenching coverage poured out of every media orifice and continues as Logan spiked the outrage with a pinned tweet further accusing Fauci of medical wrongdoing. (An Associated Press fact-check, as if we needed one, absolves him.)

And while he doesn’t occupy the same realm of stupid as Carlson or Logan, misbehaving CNN host Chris Cuomo continues to thrive in the media limelight thanks to his suspension. Cuomo isn’t as stupid as he is vacant. I defy you to cite anything memorable he’s ever said beyond his “Let’s get after it” catchphrase, yet the press has papered his scandal with endless op-eds and news accounts.

Aside from having infinite news holes to fill in the Internet age and the fact that controversy and celebrity sell, the obvious answer is that these people matter because they have such a massive influence on how Americans see the world. Fox, in particular, has set the agenda on the right for two decades now. But here’s where it gets interesting: Shafer argues it ain’t true.

Why all this attention when cable news barely matters to most Americans? The average audience commanded by Maddow and Cooper and Hannity and all the others slithering down your cable cord is so tiny you can almost get away with calling cable news a niche media. According to October numbers from TV Newser, the three major cable networks attract an average audience of only 4.2 million viewers during primetime, which is when viewing peaks. In a nation of 330 million, that’s just a little over 1 percent of the population. Meanwhile, the three nightly news broadcasts together can reliably pull in 21.5 million viewers a night. The cable numbers pale even more when you analyze individual networks ratings. Cuomo’s erstwhile channel, CNN, drew, according to TV Newser, an average of about 700,000 viewers during primetime in one October week, which is about equal in size to the population of El Paso. Or compare the cable news audience to that of country music (31 million listeners daily) or Netflix (74 million subscribers) to gain another perspective. If country music vanished in a rapture, you’d have to deal with some pretty ornery people. But if cable news disappeared tomorrow, who would notice?

Now, I don’t think these numbers make for a useful comparison. I have a Netflix subscription but sometimes go for days at a time without watching anything on the platform. (It’s not that expensive, it’s nice to have options, and there are six others in the family who may be watching even if I’m not.) Listening to a music station for a few minutes isn’t really the same thing as watching programming designed to influence the way you see the world around you.

Still, it’s true that even Fox News, which is far and away the most-watched and most influential of the cable news networks, gets a small audience. But does that mean we shouldn’t pay attention to them?

I don’t think so. The average daily circulation of the New York Times is 374,000 copies. Granted, it gets some 20 million weekly pageviews. But its influence is far greater than its direct readership: it’s an agenda-setter for competing newspapers and the network and cable news programs. Similarly, Fox, CNN, and MSNBC shape the content for talk radio, social media, and the broader political discourse.

This is not to say Fox or the other networks have no influence. Fox has been especially effective in the margins by giving people seemingly coherent talking points, like the anti-vaccine propaganda it presents. (See this roll of Fox’s anti-vax messaging aired on CNN and this piece by Media Matters.) But the idea that Fox deserves our wall-to-wall attention because it has become the tail that wags the American political dog is laughable. Fox has been trying for decades to elect a president of its choosing and has repeatedly failed to move its first choice to the top of the ticket. (And that goes for Trump in 2016, too.) The best Fox has been able to do is support whomever the Republicans nominate.

This is a rather specious argument, based on a rather silly column Shafer wrote almost seven years ago. The notion that Fox isn’t influential because none of its paid pundits won the Republican nomination is absurd. Hell, the dumbest show on the network, Fox and Friends, practically set the daily agenda for President Trump.

Ultimately, the column devolves into Grandpa Simpson yelling at clouds.

Cable news exists and persists because as small as its audience is, it’s a highly profitable business. Pew Research estimates the three cable networks earn a combined $4 billion a year. But the median age of the cable news audience is in the 60s, as Jeremy Barr of the Washington Post noted, with the median age of MSNBC viewers clocking in at 68. For reasons that are personal, nobody has more reverence for the aged than I, but can we agree that cable news has devolved over time from a useful headline service (Ted Turner’s original vision at CNN) to a day-to-night eldercare operation? It’s one thing to tolerate cable news. It does, after all, keep people employed. But do we really want to continue to indulge an aged minority’s irrelevant obsession with who said what on cable news? Can’t somebody turn the damn thing off?

It’s a highly profitable business but, because a media critic who is writing a column about how tiresome the medium is is tired of it, we should dismantle it? Sure, grandpa. (Shafer is only 64, by the way.)

“Dear Mr. President, there are too many states nowadays. Please eliminate three. I am not a crackpot!”

Would we be better off if these networks didn’t exist and the retired set were watching re-runs of “Matlock” and “Murder She Wrote”? Probably. But I suspect they would just spend more time sharing conspiracy theories on Facebook.

Beyond that, even at its inception more than four decades ago, cable news was infotainment in prime time. CNN had Moneyline, Evans & Novak, Crossfire, and Larry King Live on Day 1. Given that political debate and commentary on television had previously been a weekend-only thing, it was revolutionary. But it wasn’t Frontline, either.

There’s more quality news content now than there has been in the history of mankind. For those of us who are politics junkies, there’s more out there than we can possibly read, most of it “free.” Even when I was closer to them politically, I realized long ago that most of what was on Fox News was junk and turned my attention elsewhere. (Indeed, even in my Rush Limbaugh listening days, the only thing I consistently watched on the network was the nightly news show with Brit Hume and Fox News Sunday.) People who are tuning in to Tucker Carlson every night are there to be entertained and outraged; they wouldn’t be spending the time reading POLITICO or the New York Times if someone pulled the plug.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. While I understand the argument based on nightly viewing figures, it is clear that FNC’s influence goes well beyond those numbers–whether it is talk radio or FB or, as you note, the White House during the last administration (or something else)–amplifying it.

    Heck, I somehow manage to see stuff from OANN and Newsmax and I am not 100% sure how to subscribe to those channels (I think OANN is on Puto TV, which I have but never use).

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  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    James, you’re right, Shafer’s wrong.

    I’m amused to find I’m right in the sweet spot for MSNBC, but I’ve cut my watch time there by at least 90%. They’ve drifted more Fox-ward, in that their purpose is more clearly to stoke outrage. CNN is up a bit in our household, but not much. The whole cable news thing is on its way out but will fade slowly as the audience dies off. Literally.

    Unfortunately social media is taking over the job of encouraging profitable rage.

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  3. Scott says:

    I have been rearranging my streaming capabilities into the house. I was carrying You Tube TV which was my basic all purpose viewing/streaming platform. It included MSNBC, Fox, CNN. Now I just have a Fire Stick and subscribe to Netflix, Amazon, Discovery +, Disney+, Apple+, Hulu. (Not that I pay for everyone of those, various adult children share the codes and cost.) There is the local news apps for free. PBS Newshour and BBC is available, CBS and NBC stream segments, etc. Don’t miss CNN, Fox, or MSNBC. I just got tired on talking heads and very little news.

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  4. EddieInCA says:

    Most of my news intake has migrated over to Satellite radio. I listen to CNN, MSNBC, POTUS, FOX, NBA RADIO, NPR, PATRIOT (OMG, only for 10 mins at a time. Then I want to kill every liberal on the planet, before I realize I’m being radicalized. Damn, they’re good at that.) BBC, Al-Jazeera. I don’t have time to watch, but I can listen in the car.

    But even that has waned. I find I’m listening much more to sports, comedy and music channels more than the news channels. It’s all so depressing in that bad behavior us encouraged and has been monetized. Fox spouts factually false bullshit all day long with no repercussions. MSNBC focuses on bullshit from the other side, but at least they do it factually.

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  5. Modulo Myself says:

    Cable news is influential in that’s flattened everything and that is now the only way to talk about things: as if they are flat and of no interest except as events to process. It’s really just a meeting and work disguised as news. The old print version of the Sunday NY Times was not flat. You could read that in a small town in Indiana and come across a listing for a screening of 8 1/2 at the Film Forum on a Wednesday night. It was still a local paper, and part of its mystique was that in the small town of Indiana it showed you an incredibly different world that could not be explained away.

    Fox wins cable news because they portray everything everywhere as part of the global culture war. It’s all about the consumption of news and never about the fact that there are other people in the world. It’s the death of curiosity.

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  6. Andy says:

    I don’t think the NYT comparison is a very good one considering most people read the NYT online and NYT content is syndicated all over the country. Its readership is a LOT more than 376k. And the NYT has a much more diverse readership. The prime-time cable news audience is primarily old white people. The 25-54 demographic is usually only a couple hundred thousand.

    Anyway, I think it’s true that Fox, CNN, and MSNBC punch above their weight, but not directly. So I do agree with this from your post:

    Similarly, Fox, CNN, and MSNBC shape the content for talk radio, social media, and the broader political discourse.

    It’s worth considering why that is and in my view, the reason is the same for why Twitter is so important in politics. People on political Twitter think Twitter is important because political people are on Twitter. The 90% of the country that isn’t, couldn’t care less. And the same is true for cable news. It’s primarily important to the small subset of people who obsess about politics or consume a lot of political content.

    Here’s an illustration: In my experience, the people who hate Fox or MSNBC the most don’t actually watch the network they hate. So how do they know with such certainty that Fox or MSNBC is as terrible as they say? It’s because they consume a lot of opposition media that curates, “analyzes,” and spins the latest cherry-picked outrage for them. IOW they aren’t getting their info on Fox/MSNBC directly, they’re getting it from secondly sources inside their ideological bubble.

    The whole thing, therefore, is a self-licking ice cream cone. The shows have a small audience of mostly olds, and they don’t spend much time talking about the kinds of things that concern the vast majority of Americans. Hence why their audiences are so small. But they do feed a huge opposition media space, generating clicks and money. And that generates its own reaction – it’s basically a symbiotic feedback loop in which all the players profit – literally.

    The point is that there is nothing that’s objectively important about these shows or networks. The various outrages come and go with each news cycle – there is nothing enduring except the daily churn in which both sides benefit from. That is the illusion of importance.

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  7. Modulo Myself says:

    @Andy:

    So how do they know with such certainty that Fox or MSNBC is as terrible as they say? It’s because they consume a lot of opposition media that curates, “analyzes,” and spins the latest cherry-picked outrage for them. IOW they aren’t getting their info on Fox/MSNBC directly, they’re getting it from secondly sources inside their ideological bubble.

    What are you talking about? Tucker Carlson said a Sandy Hook truther like Alex Jones is a great journalist. He should have been fired on the spot. The defense that he might be trolling the left is not a defense of either him or Fox at all. It’s just the admission that he’s a liar and that they’re a terrible network.

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  8. gVOR08 says:

    Kevin Drum has been arguing for some time that FOX is the primary driver of our polarization. He makes a good argument on his blog and here in a longer piece at Mother Jones. He makes a better case than Shafer. Shafer says “ Fox has been especially effective in the margins”. OK, but like economics, politics happens at the margins. And as Dr. T points out, it’s the extremes, ~= old people, that vote in GOP primaries.

    I generally glance at FOX online in the morning. It’s not so much that they lie about news as that they barely cover news. Right now the top of the page is all Crumbley shooting. (It bleeds.) Immediately below are: a plumber found 600K$ in a wall in Osteen’s church, a blue state spent millions with Dem political firm, pharmacy chains are seeing shortages, and live coverage of something called the Raegan National Defense Forum. Trivia and slams at Ds.

    The extreme polarization and the abandonment of reality are in our faces every day. Something must be feeding it. If it’s not FOX, what is it? (Seemingly contradictory, but not really, answer to follow when I can get to my laptop.)

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    @gVOR08:

    The extreme polarization and the abandonment of reality are in our faces every day. Something must be feeding it. If it’s not FOX, what is it?

    No question Fox drives the polarization. No question that Fox would happily start a civil war if it meant giving Rupert Murdoch a sweet little power rush. But Fox isn’t making soup out of thin air, we provide the meat and potatoes. The iPhone is 14 years old. In that time the amount of social media has grown exponentially, and, along with Fox, this has had the effect of amplifying, intensifying and accelerating social change and its .

    In the blink of an eye in historical terms, the following:

    – Men have lost their unique roles in society.
    – Male and female as categories, as frames for understanding the world, are being eroded dramatically.
    – Christianity is fading.
    – Gay marriage.
    – History is being re-written and icons are being oclasmed daily.
    – Anyone lacking a college degree is being written out of the national narrative. The future belongs to the smart.
    – Whites are being demonized.
    – Wars are being lost.
    – People are having fewer or no kids.
    – Cops are under attack even as crime rises.
    – People living in trailers in Arkansas are being force-fed politics they were never equipped to understand.
    – And no one is presenting a hopeful vision of the future.

    Basically we, the Left, have advanced our social agenda quickly and effectively, with nary a thought to backlash. As it happens I agree with most of the left’s agenda, but, as I’ve argued for a long time, we behaved like triumphalist assholes in the process and rather than trying to convince and soothe, we proclaimed and once the proclamation was made we moved instantly to condemnation of anyone who dared to even raise a question.

    This did not have to play out this way. The changes are mostly good, shoving them down people’s throats while sneering and hectoring and lecturing, was not good.

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  10. ImProPer says:

    As someone who likes to keep up with politics, and feels that it is an unenforceable duty in a democratic society, I avoid cable news like the plague. They have long devolved into sources of unbridled emotional manipulation, whose clear goal is to outrage the masses, rather than enlighten them. By their very make up, logic based, rational audiences aren’t much valued by advertisers, the true target of said entities.
    Like what EddieInCa said up above, I also have noticed that I can find myself feeling an urge to attack what ever boogie man that happens to be the topic. This despite being somewhat well read on propaganda techniques, and both personal as well as social psychology.
    As far as actual news goes I am far to busy at work , and the world has just too much going on to be a “junkie” I also don’t have much need for cherries to bolster bad political philosophy, what appears to be the major motivations of said audiences. I tend to read my news, and find my bs filter is much better, as written publications also have similar motivations.

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  11. Modulo Myself says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Men have never been unique in modern life. Factory work is the least unique existence imaginable. You are literally Taylorized numbers entered into an equation and processed out for profit. Most men who worked in factories in the 50s were happy to have well-paying jobs, and to have distance from their memories of war. They didn’t need to be validated as men with a place in society because there was a society. Reagan and capitalism tore down society to make a profit and in the ruins are people who need validation that they will never, ever receive.

    So blaming this on the left is just not feasible. The left has not made masculinity into a joke of guns, dads, and trucks the size of tanks. The left didn’t do that, and it didn’t make right-wing Christians vote for Trump and it didn’t make the police murder George Floyd. As for kids, people love children. The left didn’t make it more expensive to have kids and it didn’t make people wary of getting married at 25 and with no experience in life.

    The hopeful vision of the future is one in which people live thoughtful and pleasurable lives. We’re taught to ingest Brave New World as the ultimate statement of the perils of pleasure, but Huxley also wrote the way more optimistic (and super-horny) The Island, which is about living in harmony with one’s self and body and others. Also, drugs and sex. But Americans have chosen to believe in Brave New World’s vision of utopia and that is not the fault of the left either. The hippies and the counterculture came the closest to overturning this, and they’re still hated.

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  12. gVOR08 says:

    Paul Campos at LGM has a post at LGM talking about why a bloody disaster like Trump has a good shot at being elected again in 2024.

    Another big reason why Trump has such a great shot is that there are millions upon millions of Americans who vote, and aren’t part of the GOP cult in any core or committed way, but who voted for and will vote for Trump anyway. These people have lots of names — “independents,” “swing voters,” “low information voters,” “the common clay of the West,” and so forth — and they are especially prone to be affected by background media atmospherics. We’re not talking about people who watch Fox eight hours a day or listen to Hate Radio in the car. We’re talking about voters who just have the vaguest sense of what’s going on, politically speaking.

    These are people who probably can’t tell you how many houses of Congress there are and who believe things like “politicians are all the same,” which means it makes a big difference at the margin whether or not the Mainstream Media ™ described and describes Donald Trump accurately: that is, as the head of fascist cult of personality that’s committed to destroying liberal democracy. That description is no more partisan than describing Ottawa as the capital of Canada — in other words, it is or should be at this point a simple non-controversial fact.

    But there’s a big problem here, which is that it’s an apparently unalterable axiom that there are two legitimate major parties in the USA, which means that describing the current situation accurately would violate that axiom, which in turn means that the Mainstream Media ™ simply can’t do that, or at least not in any sustained or coherent way.

    Campos extensively quotes a column by Dana Milbank in WAPO comparing, with data, coverage of Trump and Biden.

    Think about that. In 2020, Trump presided over a worst-in-world pandemic response that caused hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths; held a superspreader event at the White House and got covid-19 himself; praised QAnon adherents; embraced violent white supremacists; waged a racist campaign against Black Lives Matter demonstrators; attempted to discredit mail-in voting; and refused to accept his defeat in a free and fair election, leading eventually to the violence of Jan. 6 and causing tens of millions to accept the “big lie,” the worst of more than 30,000 he told in office.

    And yet Trump got press coverage as favorable as, or better than, Biden is getting today. (And he notes, twice as much of it.)

    Milbank concludes,

    Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It’s time to take a stand.

    FOX drives the olds who write letters to the paper about socialism, and vote in droves. The supposedly liberal MSM drive the vast unengaged middle, who vote less reliably than the olds, but still vote. I’ve complained in these threads for years that FTFNYT did more to elect Trump than even FOX. They followed Breitbart and whoever right down the rabbit holes of HER EMAILS!!! and her squeaky clean foundation. They seem a little better now, but they still love their Dems-in-disarray stories and their Cletus safaris. They don’t have to support Democrats. Hell, they don’t even need to support democracy. They need to support objective reality. If that happens to fall out to the benefit of Democrats, so be it.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    Men have never been unique in modern life.

    False.

    Cop, soldier, pilot, truck driver – just four of many occupations that were until quite recently in historical terms, 100% male. Factory work? Look deeper and you’ll see that the supervisory positions were all male and it goes without saying that men were paid more for the same work.

    The notion that men came back from WW2 and were indifferent to women taking once-male jobs is flatly untrue. Women who had held war time factory jobs were very quickly stuffed into aprons and high heels again. See: Mad Men. The women’s movement was not reacting to nothing, they were reacting to the occupational, career limits that men enjoyed. You know, the glass ceiling?

    The left cannot claim to have made ‘progress’ on women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights etc…, while pretending they aren’t at all responsible for the results. We have made progress. Right? We took specific actions and positions. If you act, you have some responsibility for the consequences. Or are we all just saints on our side, gifted with infallibility?

    As for a vision of the future, the standard doctrine was that the United States was a great and fundamentally good nation that had some serious flaws. Now the left portrays the United States as fundamentally destructive, defined solely by its worst acts. There is no way to put lipstick on that pig and pretend it’s a hopeful vision of the future.

    The hopeful vision of the future is one in which people live thoughtful and pleasurable lives.

    I don’t think that means anything to most people. You might as well just tell people that the future is happy! (Bit of a mixed message, given impending climate catastrophy.) Happiness is not a result of doing whatever you want, happiness comes from a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Part of that is the broader sense of purpose. What is the role of a 45 year-old Wal-Mart clerk who’s been told there is no God, you’re disposable because you ain’t got no education, and anyway you’re just a cog in the racist, misogynistic, imperialist Mordor you call America?

    BTW, mea culpa. Long before atheism was fashionable I was one of those guys sneering and condescending and ridiculing religion. I’m honest enough to acknowledge that there may have been a wee bit of discomfort felt by those who thought they were going to heaven and are now told that the only happiness they’ll ever know is what they can glean in their own lives right now. Be happy, single mom in a hollowed-out town, cause this is all you’re ever getting.

  14. Andy says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    What are you talking about?

    What are you specifically confused about?

    Tucker Carlson said a Sandy Hook truther like Alex Jones is a great journalist. He should have been fired on the spot. The defense that he might be trolling the left is not a defense of either him or Fox at all. It’s just the admission that he’s a liar and that they’re a terrible network.

    Ok, but I’m not sure why anything Tucker Carlson says should matter at all to me. If that’s the dragon you want to slay, don’t let me stop you.

    I don’t wish to participate in the self-licking ice cream cone I described above, where I’m supposed to care what he, or any of the others, say and then spend a lot of time expressing outrage about it online under the delusion that does anything of substance.

    People like Carlson and all the other primetime cable “hosts” are trolls and the first rule is don’t feed them. They love it when what they say triggers their ideological opponents – more views, more clicks, more “engagement,” more $$$. His whole shtick, at least from what I’ve seen, is to “own the libs.” And so many of the “libs” rise to the bait which only strengthens him.

    95% of what I hear about Tucker Carlson comes from liberal voices. They’re spreading his voice, not silencing it. And the same with Maddow – everything I hear about her comes from conservatives. Maybe someone can explain to me what feeding this cycle of primetime “news” grifting actually accomplishes.

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  15. flat earth luddite says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    yes, OANN is on Pluto TV, along with a number of other fringe “news” channels in what I refer to as the Fantasy Block. Kind of like binge-watching Mission Impossible or Thunderbirds, minus the attractive stars and believable plots.

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  16. ImProPer says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    “The left didn’t do that, and it didn’t make right-wing Christians vote for Trump”

    No they didn’t, but they did inspire them, and many others as well. No small feat!

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  17. Kurtz says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    (I think OANN is on Puto TV, which I have but never use).

    Hell of a typo

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  18. mattbernius says:

    Generally speaking James I agree with everything you wrote. There are two points I want to build on:

    [I]ts influence is far greater than its direct readership: it’s an agenda-setter for competing newspapers and the network and cable news programs. Similarly, Fox, CNN, and MSNBC shape the content for talk radio, social media, and the broader political discourse.

    I also think, beyond the professional media sphere, or the things that orbit it like Twitter and blogs, its also worth thinking about how media is agenda setting on the interpersonal level. The people who consume these media are often the people in social circles who are seen as “the most informed” on these topics. And so they help shape discussions and opinions within and among their family, friends, and aquaintances. So in that way they also have outsized reach

    There’s more quality news content now than there has been in the history of mankind.

    Yes and no.

    In terms of national news, and in particular, news about the federal government, yes. Unfortunately, much of the national news coverage is typically of the “if it bleeds, it leads” type (which is distorting) or only items related to national (i.e. federal) issues.

    When it comes to international news, this is probably true. Ironically it’s not because of US media coverage of international events as international bureaus have been shrinking since the 90’s. It’s because the web has brought more access to international local reporting. That said, translation issues remain an access problem.

    Where the statement “There’s more quality news content now than there has been in the history of mankind” is definitively false is when we apply it to the state and local municipality level. The first half of the 20th century was the golden age for that coverage. Things were still pretty good for most of the second half as well–though already a lot of more niche local coverage (i.e. local newspapers for different ethnic groups) were already in decline.

    Since around the launch of the web, State and local coverage has suffered tremendously. I believe something in the area of 2,000 local news outlets folded in the last decade. Which is creating “news” deserts across the country. And the local outlets that remain are a shadow of their former selves–both in terms of the size of the publications and the amount of staff they have. This is leading to the death of investigative journalism in small to mid-sized communities (including many mid-sized cities).

    This should be deeply concerning to all of us (and to some degree has empowered a lof of the legislative excesses we’ve seen at the local and state levels).