The recent news coming out of the perennial war of ratings among cable news channels was shocking, I tell you, just shocking: CNN, which three decades ago invented the whole business of cable news, is now dead last in terms of prime time viewership!
The numbers speak clearly: in October, CNN averaged 211,000 daily viewers aged 25 to 54 (the people who matter, because they have money and the inclination to buy what the advertisers sell), against 221,000 of HLN (formerly known as Head Lines News, ironically, a CNN spinoff!), 250,000 of MSNBC, and a whopping 689,000 for Fox.
Things don’t look any better for good old CNN if we look at the performance of individual anchors: Anderson Cooper’s show was dead last at 211,000, while Keith Olbermann was at 295,000, and Bill O’Reilly beat everyone at 881,000 (this is total viewership, regardless of age bracket — notice that O’Reilly is particularly popular with the old white male cantankerous crowd...). The only consolation for Cooper, but not for CNN, is that Lou Dobbs could interest only 162,000 viewers with his cheap populism and anti-immigration rants.
Now, we could be spending our time decrying the fact that Americans seem to have a strong preference for opinionated editorializing (be it Obermann or O’Reilly) over real solid news. Except of course that CNN hasn’t offered real solid news in a long time. Or we could bemoan the fact that a vitriolic ideologue like O’Really totals almost three times more viewers than the equally ideological but far less vitriolic and infinitely more sane Obermann.
But that would be missing the real story. Let me give you some other numbers for comparison, so that we can put things in proper context. The total adult population of the United States is 231 million, which means that even O’Reilly is not actually followed by more than 0.4 percent of the population. The daily readership of the much dreaded (by O’Reilly) New York Times is about 1 million, the audienceship of the beleaguered (by Republican-led budget cuts) National Public Radio is a whopping 6.5 million daily. For crying out loud, even Jon Stewart’s Daily Show beats O’Reilly hands down, with an average viewership of over 2 million, and a peak performance of 3.6 million!
So the real question is: why do we give a damn, as a nation, about what O’Reilly, Obermann, Dobbs, and company say? Why do these people have the power to affect national debates about health care, wars, and the environment, while clearly more reasoned voices actually get much more attention, and when the overwhelming majority of Americans are paying no attention at all?
The latter, of course, is the answer. Yes, O’Reilly’s power derives in part from the dollars that advertisers “invest” on his programs, and in part from the fact that we live in a society where those who shout — even when they are a small minority — get to dictate the terms of the “discussion” to the rest of us (witness the inane spectacle of last summer’s “town hall meetings”).
But it is us who let them do it, largely through apathy. Progressives in this country could count on an overwhelming majority of votes if the majority of eligible voters bothered to vote. A few weeks ago, instead, even in New York City — where there are more political activists than in almost the entire rest of the country combined — a tiny fraction of voters turned out for a runoff primary that for all effective purposes decided the election of a crucial political post like that of City Comptroller.
Republicans know this and act accordingly. Years ago the Christian Coalition devised their “12.5% strategy” to control the country. They reckoned that less than 50% of Americans go to vote, and that the fraction is about half that at primaries, which means that a candidate only needs half again of that (i.e., slightly above 12.5% of the total) to win the primary, which often means winning the general election. It worked, until recently, when the Obama machine turned out unprecedented numbers of minorities and poor to vote during the last presidential election.
Americans are so full of themselves that one of their favorite mantras is that they are “the best democracy in the world,” while actual comparative sociological studies show that the US only ranks below the middle of the pack in terms of quantitative measures of democracy (including, of course, voter participation). As the near certain reelection of Michael Bloomberg as mayor of New York City next week attests — despite the fact that the guy shamefully overturned a term limits law that would have barred him from running a third time — this is simply, the best democracy that money can buy. And what do we do about it? Instead of getting mad and throwing out the clowns, the ideologues and the rich people who think of politics as their personal pastime, we change the channel and watch reruns of Two and Half Men. We truly deserve, then, the little we get from our political class.
About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Cable news: who cares?
Posted by Unknown at 8:23 PM
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Where can I see a ranking of democracies like the one you refer to here? Thanks.ReplyDelete
Massimo said "But it is us who let them do it, largely through apathy. Progressives in this country could count on an overwhelming majority of votes if the majority of eligible voters bothered to vote. A few weeks ago, instead, even in New York City — where there are more political activists than in almost the entire rest of the country combined — a tiny fraction of voters turned out for a runoff primary that for all effective purposes decided the election of a crucial political post like that of City Comptroller."ReplyDelete
Do you really believe that the majority do not vote because they are apathetic? I did have to look "apathy" up to make sure, and instead of "a lack of concern or interest" it is IMHO that they damn well know that their choices suck. Presumably you know Chomsky's (and it is not like he is the only or the first or the best) critique in this area: People do not vote because it is between two wings of basically one pro-corporatist party.
I posted on this topic here (http://letterstotheoregonian.blogspot.com/2008/07/sure-but-so-what.html) but the summary is that if you review the data behind who votes you find it is correlated with race, education, and wealth where white vote in greater % than non-white, more well off vote more than poor, and the greater the education more than the less educated and the tendency is from Democrats (non-white, poor, uneducated) to Republicans (white, rich, educated). And of course this fits completely as it is that group/groups that would want to perpetuate the current social and economic systems in place.
So, I think it is entirely rational why we have such crappy turnout; and it has little to do with apathy: Obviously everyone cares about their lot in life and those around them. But, why should they vote? Does it make a lot of difference?
Or is that completely bogus? I might be totally wrong (and it would be cool if you could point that out), but what is your evidence that it is "apathy": Is there not a difference between "Me vote? I do not care." vs. "Me vote? It does not matter."?
"Americans are so full of themselves..."ReplyDelete
Yeah, but America is also completely FULL of Italians, Africans (no longer wishing to be called Americans), Irish, German and so on. So the
"FULL OF THEMSELVES" thing, where does THAT come from? FYI - WE ARE THE WORLD, Massimo.
We also have, for well over 50 years, helped to prop up the worlds financial status. WHEN "WE" are gone, there may actually be a few reasonable, thinking people that will miss the option of a FREE (believing in such a thing as freewill) America. And that is exactly why people like the opinionated types on the news. There is the perception that at least your choices, or lack of them, still do matter.
"Choice" (and freewill) isn't just some heavy handed notion that is pushed on to pregnant women. By insisting on a cultural push to do away with children not yet born, we have collectively shown that choice and freedom only matters for the non-vulnerable amongst us. But in the end, choice and freewill really has been destroyed at its foundation and roots for EVERYONE.
That's just the way life works. We simply don't trounce on the least amongst us and expect to prosper.
AND THAT is the real reason we as a culture and nation are in decline.
"infinitely more sane Obermann"?!ReplyDelete
And this is an objective, rational fact, right Massimo? Not an opinion based on you ideology (I mean, set of core values)?
As part of the tiny minority that voted in the NYC primary runoff, I tend to share your disillusion with the current political process.
The arrogant overturning of term limits is certainly at issue here: The voters of NYC voted against extending them TWICE, (despite being endorsed by the NY Times), who I hasten to add "enthusiastically endorse" Mr. Bloomberg. (The Times, understandably, a corporate entity, hemorrhaging money from unwise investments, perhaps hope for some pixie dust to brush off from hizzoner's ever growing portfolio!) Still, I'd worry a lot less about the power of elites, if everyday non-ideologues worried more about their ability to change their own perceived powerlessness.
I'll try to find the reference to that article, it was reported about in Discover magazine around the time of the 2000 elections.
I appreciate and sympathize with Chomsky's argument, but I do think he is fundamentally wrong on this: while more and better choices would be welcome, there is in fact a measurable difference between Republicans and Democrats, so the most likely hypothesis for low voter turnout is still apathy.
yes, the difference between Obermann and O'Reilly is rationally obvious, it ought to be even for you my friend...
Massimo said: I appreciate and sympathize with Chomsky's argument, but I do think he is fundamentally wrong on this: while more and better choices would be welcome, there is in fact a measurable difference between Republicans and Democrats, so the most likely hypothesis for low voter turnout is still apathy.ReplyDelete
But where do you think this sense apathy comes from? I certainly think a repetitive disappointment from people by getting their expectations smashed by those they elect can certainly be a downer and discouraging - and I do not just speak of current events like the healthcare debate (there was one back in the 90s as well).
Add to this that as the middle-class deteriorates, more and more people are forced to take on longer work hours (assuming they aren't looking for a job), even second jobs, which also effects their time in what they can take interest in.
I have only found the non-peer reviewed Economist democracy Index which ranks the USA 18 out of 30 "full democracies" as of 2008.ReplyDelete
Massimo said: "... there is in fact a measurable difference between Republicans and Democrats, so the most likely hypothesis for low voter turnout is still apathy."ReplyDelete
Well, is that not what is at dispute? And I am not sure it is the same as being obtuse similar to evolution deniers: People can reasonably disagree on the validity of the differences yes?
But, be that as it may, I did offer some data regarding who does vote. So, what does it mean to you that the poor, non-white, uneducated tend not to vote? Are you saying when you are poor, non-white, and uneducated you are apathetic?
"Are you saying when you are poor, non-white, and uneducated you are apathetic?"
Well, it seems that way, no? As for why that is the case, and what - if anything - can be done about it, those are the crucial questions...
Don't jump so quick to full paternal mode. You have to give credit for some non-voters for rightly deducing the fallacy of composition: my vote doesn't matter.ReplyDelete
Also, you should acknowledge that hyper voter participation (in a free election) is a sure sign of radical upheaval in a society, which probably isn't inherently good. There is a optimal range of voter participation that we might not be so far from.
Finally, voter participation is such a terrible measure of democracy. And what are the policies to "improve" it anyway? It is only a whipping boy - not a subject of policy debate.
Here's a partial list of judging democracy:
1. one person, one vote
2. incumbency re-election rates
3. cost of running for election
Here's some policies that might help:
1. National Popular Vote
2. Instant Runoff Voting
3. Public Campaign Financing
A discussion of these and more is much more helpful than decrying voter participation.
you make good points, but I reject the accusation of "paternalism," let's not get into silly political correctness. I seriously doubt that a lot of people go through the sort of political analysis you are suggesting before deciding as a politically conscious act not to vote (and if they did, their analysis would be wrong and self-defeating).
And of course your policies won't help if people don't bother to vote...
Thanks for responding. I overblew the politically conscious aspect of not voting. It doesn't take any serious analysis to think: "I get more out of watching tv than voting." And people are wrong and self-defeating all the time, what of it?ReplyDelete
My policies aren't intended to simply increase turnout. But as for that goal, voting should be on a Saturday.
"I'll try to find the reference to that article, it was reported about in Discover magazine around the time of the 2000 elections."ReplyDelete
Your comment reminded me of this Discover article about alternative voting systems, inspired by Bush's quasi-win over Gore in 2000.
Nice find. Instant runoff voting is a simplified version of Borda voting.ReplyDelete
Here's another electoral reform - redistricting. Why do we let partisan legislatures draw up such contorted districts? All by itself, gerrymandered districts create safe seats for a particular party in a large majority of House seats. At least insulate it by one step with appointed boards.
But a real game-changer would be a requirement to follow county lines. Why not utilize this ubiquitous and stable political division?
> But a real game-changer would be a requirement to follow county lines. Why not utilize this ubiquitous and stable political division?ReplyDelete
I think we know why not. It has everything to do with the maintenance and aggregation of power - which is, incidentally, the same dynamic that makes "free market capitalism" an oxymoron.
I was originally just going to comment on the Olberman thing, but Benny beat me to it...ReplyDelete
I can't say I'm particularly surprised to find you viewing Olberman (who gives us the nightly "Worst Person In the World" polemic) as fundamentally better and more sane than Bill O'Reilly, but it's pretty shameful given that your blog sanctimoniously pronounces itself the arbiter of rational thought, speaking truth & exposing lies.
Kind of like the Grey Lady's "All the News That's Fit to Print", isn't it?
And then there was this:
"there is in fact a measurable difference between Republicans and Democrats, so the most likely hypothesis for low voter turnout is still apathy."
And that measurable difference is...? This is something that I've been studying in relative depth since I was about 12 years old, and when you actually take the time to look at policy... Republicans & Democrats are virtually indistinguishable. And in fact, here we are in 2009 and after 8 years of absurd corporatism, expansion of the state and centralization of power - did we get more liberty? Nope. We got more of the same. Instead of $700 Billion handed out to favored companies, now we have $2 Trillion. Big "change" there.
So yeah, I think that blaming lack of voter turnout on apathy is particularly intellectually lazy. People are not "apathetic", they're doing other things. Humans tend to take action purposefully afterall, and if the benefit they feel they will get from doing what they're doing is more than what they'll get out of voting, they're likely going to not vote. It's not like most people sleep through election day. Instead, they go to work or have a barbecue - realizing that, given their options and given the minimal likelihood that their vote will saw the election either way, their time is better spent.
Apathy is just a pejorative word for people making a decision that you don't like. That said, if you want them to make a different decision, I can't disagree with some of the solutions Norwegian Shooter offered. But chalking it up to voter apathy ignores the root causes... Which... One would think was in your purview as the arbiter of analyzing "actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions..."
On another note, the United States isn't (and shouldn't be) a Democracy, we have a Constitutional Republic - so putting the US on a ranking list of Democracies is kind of a ridiculous thing to do to begin with. Additionally, no other nations have our Bill of Rights or our history, so I struggle to see how comparisons are all that possible most of the time. What usually happens is that those kinds of rankings are the intellectual equivalent of ranking the best hamburger in Wisconsin. Alternatively, you can rank specifics - election fraud, for instance - except you're then confined to countries that allow unfettered access to researchers, keep *good* records and you have to have consistent methodology, which just about never happens.
All that said... I had read an article of yours earlier in Psychology Today about Dawkins which made me think think that you were perhaps more honest and clear-thinking than the average professor but I find myself disappointed with this blog... Or at least with this post.
Yeah... Disappointing indeed.
(PS...For the record, Perspicio: "free market capitalism" isn't an oxymoron at all...
What would be an oxymoron is if someone was using the terms "free market state capitalism", or "free market corporatism" or "free market socialist corporatism"... Capitalism isn't any of those things, however, and it's important to understand the difference.)
A word of advice. Launching yourself into a discussion involving, among other things, the shortcomings of Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann with such hyperbolic attacks as "your blog sanctimoniously pronounces itself the arbiter of rational thought," all but forcibly implants a comparison between yourself and them into the mind of anybody paying attention...and as bad as they both are, you most assuredly do not come out looking any better.
If you could just stuff jack back in the box and put a lid on him, there's a chance you might have something meaningful to contribute to the discussion. Till then, well, good luck with the flame bait.
my blog isn't sanctimonious about anything. Its title reflects an ideal and an aspiration. If I failed it in your opinion, I'm sorry, but please get off insult mode, it really doesn't bring understanding.
Pace my friend Benny, Obermann makes a lot more sense than O'Reilly. He is still "biased" and I am perfectly aware of it in the rare instances when I actually watch him. But you know, Aristotle said that an intelligent person ought to be able to entertain others' notions, even if he doesn't believe them. Indeed, he said that's the hallmark of being educated.
If you think there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans your own ideological filters must be pretty tightly in place: just think about the current debate on health care, or even the fact that we paid our debt to the UN, or that we are actually working on legislation about climate change. And those are just three examples that cover the past few months. C'mon.
Apathy is the correct word: people may be doing "other things" but it is naive and dangerous to think that political decisions in a democracy can be left to others because one is too busy doing "other things."
And yes, thanks for the civics lesson on the difference between democracies and constitutional republics. The US is both, of course.
Again, sorry for the disappointment. I hope you come back.
Your numbers are very interesting and show a different picture than I would have imagined. However, when I forwarded them to someone I was having a conversation with about this, I received a reply with some very different numbers.
I tried to do a little research, but found that the way the viewership numbers are parsed makes it difficult to compare.
Do you have your references available?
The idea that the Democratic and Republican parties are, if not rhetorically, at least functionally equivalent appears to have a lot of traction in our society, suggesting possible implications regarding the low voter turnout issue.ReplyDelete
There are important observations that can be made in support of the claim that the difference between the parties is greater in public than it is behind closed doors, particularly in the US Senate. However, to downplay their dissimilarities as insignificant is foolhardy and intellectually lazy. A little historical perspective utterly eradicates the notion.
One can certainly argue that both parties must work within the system that exists, and that forces them to adopt similar behaviors. But this does not address questions of strategy, agenda or philosophy. Claiming that they're the same on this basis is like claiming that there's no meaningful difference between Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. Utter rubbish.
the numbers for the fox/msnbc/cnn shows come directly from the article. The rest you can find with a couple of quick google searches. I should have kept track of those links, but here is something to get you started:
(though these numbers are actually higher for the Times than those I found previously)
Here's another source for newspapers:
On the Daily Show:
(though there are better sources out there)
As for that population of the US, I hope that's easy to verify :-)
The NY Times article seems inconsistent with a variety of other sources:
"In fact, according to Nielsen Media Research, Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor averaged 2,274,000 viewers a night in the first quarter of 2006."
Perhaps there is some issue in denominators or what subgroups are included in the stats.
1.The ratings were only shocking to people who are out of touch with the viewpoints shared by the majority of Americans, primarily those in the middle of the country.
2. I think "sanctimonious",the word Sean used in his comment may be a bit strong, but your comments coupled with your introduction to your site, do lead some to wonder if you really believe that, "It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies."
To offer the statement, "Or we could bemoan the fact that a vitriolic ideologue like O’Reilly totals almost three times more viewers than the equally ideological but far less vitriolic and infinitely more sane Obermann." without offering any evidence to support your position is at best a weak argument and at worst outright dishonest. Many conservatives feel that the left instantly pronounces anything on Fox news as "far right wing spin". I maintain that the opposing position to your statement about O'Reilly represents a more truthful and accurate assessment. You admit that you rarely watch Obermann and one can only assume that you NEVER watch O'Reilly. I do watch both programs fairly frequently and although they both can be cantankerous at times, O'Reilly is far more courteous to his guests and makes a point to let them have the last word. Obermann comes across as a very angry man. His comments are laced with sarcasm and venom towards conservatives and most Americans recognize this. O'Reilly's position in the ratings is not maintained because he shouts louder than Obermann. He is simply more popular because most people feel that he makes an attempt (not always successfully) to be fair to his guests and that he presents opposing points of view without being acerbic or demeaning.
James, I watch plenty of O'Reilly clips, I don't watch anyone's show (including Obermann) for the simple reason that I don't have tv.ReplyDelete
And I really don't think the statement that O'Reilly and the Fox crew are vitriolic requires a high-minded intellectual defense, so I don't feel I am violating my own standards on this blog.
Indeed, the fact that Fox's "commentators" are taken seriously at all is a reflection of how low the intellectual discourse in this country has actually gotten.
And if you are a thoughtful conservative, you should be fighting Fox as much as any other thinking being, so that conservatism can recover a semblance of intellectualism, which it once had (think William F. Buckley Jr.).