Why America’s News Networks Are So Bad
It's Nixon's fault?
In an Atlantic essay, Purdue history professor Kathryn Cramer Brownell argues, “The Problem With Fox News Goes Way, Way Back.”
The cable-news industry that Americans know today is a cautionary tale in what happens when democracy collides with consumerism. For years, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News raked in profits while amplifying partisan rancor in varying ways. Starting in 2015, CNN pumped its ratings by playing up Donald Trump, whose presidency then buoyed all three cable-news giants. But now CNN is in turmoil after a recent change of ownership and the departure of its president, Chris Licht, after 15 months. After the 2020 election, Fox News amplified false claims about voting irregularities rather than offend its disproportionately pro-Trump audience—and subsequently settled a defamation suit by Dominion Voting Systems for more than $700 million. These cable-news networks have long relied on receiving fees from cable companies for each basic-cable subscriber. Now the networks need to replace that income with subscription dollars as more and more Americans cut the cord, and the scramble for money does not bode well for investment in deep, factual reporting about the United States and the rest of the world.
Cable news, in short, is in a crisis—but not a new one. Indeed, the story goes back years, to a time before Fox News or CNN was even founded. More than half a century ago, the United States had decisions to make about how the emerging medium would operate: Should the government strictly regulate it as a common carrier to cultivate a more informed and engaged citizenry, or should cable be a for-profit industry driven by the bottom line?
Richard Nixon settled the issue in the latter direction. The electronic-media landscape has always existed within parameters determined by regulators, and politicians bend regulatory policy to their own political needs. That’s what Nixon did with cable. His motives were mixed: A believer in free competition, he also despised the main broadcast networks and believed that embattled politicians like him could more easily manipulate a fragmented television world. Some of the paths not taken during cable’s early development should remind us that the current cable-news landscape was not inevitable—and that largely forgotten government decisions from earlier eras turned out to have enormous consequences.
I’m a bit skeptical of the claim that Nixon is to blame here. This would have been a decision made by the independent FCC, not Nixon himself. And, while the results of a profit-driven news organization may well have been predictable, it’s noteworthy that it didn’t take place until a quarter-century or so after Nixon left office.
CNN was founded in 1980 and its headline news-oriented spinoff, CNN2/Headline News/HLN came in 1982. They were pretty much straight news outlets, distinguishable from the traditional broadcast network news initially by lower production value and the convenience of being able to watch when desired by the viewer rather than on the network’s schedule. Still, with 24 hours to fill rather than 30 minutes, there was a gradual increase in focusing on trivial but sensational stories and the rise of Left/Right “debate” style shows.
MSNBC and Fox both came onto the scene in 1996, 22 years after Nixon’s resignation and two years after his death. The former wasn’t particularly ideological at the outset while the latter was clearly conservative-leaning but nothing like what it would morph into.
By the late 1960s, federal broadcast-television regulations had fostered a marketplace dominated by the Big Three. The government had effectively allowed CBS, NBC, and ABC to control the national television marketplace in exchange for their promise to serve the public interest. Today’s polarized politics has inspired some nostalgia for an era when Americans all got their TV news—and their entertainment, for that matter—from common sources. But at the time, discontent abounded. Many on the left saw a network culture steeped in racial and gender stereotypes that news and entertainment programs tended to perpetuate. Conservatives were eager to disrupt a media culture that they viewed as ideologically exclusionary. Many economists lamented that new entrants were frozen out, while free-expression advocates reasoned that, as television became the main venue in which national politics played out, average Americans needed ways to present their ideas on the nation’s screens.
Seeking to protect local broadcasters from competition, the Federal Communications Commission initially regulated which programs cable could offer and where systems could even operate. But by the late ’60s, reform-minded FCC commissioners, think-tank researchers, and political activists alike began to see that wired infrastructure, which could offer far more channels than rabbit-ear antennas, could bring about a communications revolution. All of the power, according to the 1970 Sloan Commission on Cable Television, lay with the government, which could “prohibit” cable, “permit it,” or “promote it almost by fiat.”
In the early ’70s, the progressive writer Ralph Lee Smith urged the government to subsidize the creation of a “Wired Nation,” just as it had built the nation’s interstate-highway system. Liberal organizations such as the Americans for Democratic Action, the ACLU, and the Ford Foundation all extolled how the technology could deliver essential employment and educational opportunities to fulfill Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society promises.
Others hoped that cable would bring about more radical social changes. Activists calling themselves “video guerrillas” wanted to use new art forms distributed on the cable dial to criticize capitalism, imperialism, and racial discrimination. To push the boundaries of acceptable content and decentralize production, they built community production centers, shared resources in volunteer collectives, and got support from foundations to underwrite operations.
Nixon, too, saw the possibilities of cable to advance his agenda. The 37th president traced his political struggles to media bias and his own inability to control his media image. He worried that public television—the preferred response of Johnson, his predecessor, to the Big Three monopoly—would only give more power to the liberal elite. So Nixon attacked the credibility and budget of the newly established Corporation for Public Broadcasting and its television-programming partner, PBS.
He saw a different role for cable: undermining the network newsrooms. Nixon was waging a broader campaign against the Big Three’s business operations; his administration also threatened to revoke broadcasting licenses and filed an antitrust suit against them. But his advisers told him that the real dagger to the networks would be to encourage cable television’s expansion as a competitor. In December 1972, an economist for Nixon’s new Office of Technology Policy (OTP) laid out Project BUN (which stood for Break Up Networks), an initiative whose very name shows how Nixon’s media vendetta shaped his policies. It emphasized deregulation of cable, a goal further enshrined in a 1974 special Cabinet-committee report endorsing the idea of letting the medium “prove its worth to the American people” in the marketplace.
This very much fits into Nixon’s paranoid style. But its noteworthy that the broadcast networks weren’t broken up and that PBS continues to operate to this day (along with NPR) as high-quality news outlets aimed at an elite audience.
Nixon’s approach changed the whole conversation. The video guerrillas’ hopes for cable television as a venue for nonprofit and viewer-created programming soon faded.
In fairness, this was always a pipe dream. Regardless of whether it would have been a good idea, it’s not at all consistent with American culture. And, frankly, public access television is crap.
With the Nixon administration dangling the possibility of deregulation, the cable industry rushed to lobby for that outcome, frequently reminding elected officials how cable could serve their political agendas. Subsequent laws and regulations for cable made little effort to promote common citizenship. Notably, although the FCC once required the major networks to cover multiple points of view about matters of controversy in the name of advancing the public interest, subsequent cable legislation did little to cultivate that ethos.
I’m not sure that the courts would have allowed that had they tried. The reason that broadcast has been so heavily regulated is because there was no viable alternative. The nature of bandwidth is such that, to be functional, only one provider at a time can broadcast on a given frequency at a particular locale. This meant that somebody had to allocate the spectrum and provide regulation of things like how much power a given station could have. Because “the public owns the airwaves,” there was a reasonable case for regulation “in the public interest” that would otherwise violate the First Amendment’s free speech protections.
With cable and its successors, none of these factors come into play. There are essentially an infinite number of channels that can exist at a given time, so there’s no compelling reason for, say, a Ted Turner or a Roger Ailes not to be able to have their views dominate the channels they owned. If viewers don’t like it, they can easily switch channels in a way they couldn’t in a three-network world.
By the time Nixon retreated to Southern California in disgrace, in 1974, politicians across the political spectrum understood, as he had, that the emerging cable landscape might give them more chances to be on television and more control over how they were presented. Still, Nixon’s motives—manipulating his image, punishing his opponents, decentralizing the television landscape to open it to new voices—pulled the emerging industry in multiple directions, as illustrated by the trajectory of two men who worked for Nixon: Brian Lamb, a former OTP staffer who went on to launch C-SPAN, and Roger Ailes, a former campaign adviser who later started Fox News.
For Lamb, cable television offered a meaningful path to shift power from elitist television networks to individual viewers, providing voters with more information and more transparency into Washington. C-SPAN, a public-affairs channel that aired call-in shows and brought footage of congressional proceedings into American living rooms, soon became proof of this concept. The channel, voluntarily underwritten as a public service by cable companies, delivered political benefits to the very lawmakers who would in 1984 pass a law explicitly lifting many local and state regulations on the industry. As the cable business flourished in the ’90s and early 2000s, the increasing number of subscribers meant that C-SPAN’s budget grew (operators paid a per-subscriber fee to fund it), and C-SPAN expanded programming to include such earnest shows as Book TV and American History TV.
Ailes had less noble goals for television. In 1970, he championed a White House “Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News,” which celebrated TV’s political power. “People are lazy. With television, you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you,” the plan explained. At the time, Nixon’s team worried that the partisan propaganda Ailes proposed would generate too much blowback. Three decades later, liberal and centrist criticism did not faze Ailes’s Fox News, which mixed news with entertainment in ways that played to conservative viewers’ fears and grievances and kept them glued to the screen.
So, I think most OTB readers would agree that C-SPAN has been better for the country than Fox. But it’s not because Ailes had a profit motive but rather that he had a propagandistic one.
Therein lies the dashed promise of cable: Despite Fox’s recent setbacks—and despite the fact that its divisive brand of programming and deliberate delivery of election falsehoods are, I would argue, toxic for democracy—the network’s approach is likely to retain a distinct, sustainable paying audience, even if shifting viewing habits change the delivery mechanism from cable to streaming. By contrast, C-SPAN, which gives viewers genuine information in a neutral way, faces a budding crisis: Because it is dependent on cable subscriptions, cord cutting has put its future into jeopardy.
Alas, while I’ve got to be in the 99th percentile as a news junkie, I couldn’t tell you the last time I watched C-SPAN. It was probably for a presidential debate or address or the like rather than for any of their standard programming. The rise of the Internet as a major news and information source as well as the advent of social media, podcasts, and other niche content has made C-SPAN rather obsolete. (Of course, I’d say the same for network and cable news; their core audience is literally dying off.)
In recent years, lawmakers in Congress have been debating whether and how to regulate big internet companies. The history of the cable industry highlights the consequences of allowing such a powerful medium to develop with little or no democratic oversight. For the past 50 years, boosters of the cable industry made the case that the marketplace could deliver for American consumers and citizens. But the pursuit of profits has resulted in cable news networks that overwhelmingly appeal to viewers’ worst impulses, overrunning efforts to inculcate good citizenship. That’s why another revelation from Project BUN also matters today as we look at the world it helped create: Technology and public policy together produced our media environment, and this same combination could also change it for the better.
Again, I think that trying to blame all of this on a Nixon-era conspiracy is a distraction. This isn’t an argument for a cable industry that’s somehow not driven by profit. The likes of HBO and ESPN have been a boon for society, giving us a plethora or choices and the ability to serve niche interests. While there was something to be said for there being only three channels, all of which broadcast only shows that were suitable for the whole family and which, by virtue of scarcity, created something of a common culture in that just about everyone watched the hit shows, we’d also have missed “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” “Yellowstone,” and so many other programs that would have been impossible.
That said, I agree with Brownell’s argument that profit-driven news is problematic. But that was true before Nixon was born, going back at least to the days of yellow journalism. Our cousins across the Pond have funded BBC for a century now and it’s something of a gold standard for television news. Then again, we’ve funded PBS for over half a century and it, too, produces excellent news programming. It’s just that essentially no one is watching. And those who do are the opposite of the people Brownell would like to reach—PBS’s audience is wealthy and highly educated.