Culture & Society

Past Their Prime (Time)

Fox News and CNN enter the last stage of their parallel history

A fading picture. The era of primetime news is over. Image Credit: Cavan Images/Getty Images

Both Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and CNN’s Don Lemon parted ways with their respective networks this past Monday, and there is certainly some accidental symbolism in these concurrent oustings. Their departures open the last chapter in the histories of these dual titans among American TV networks. Their histories have had many parallels; now, it seems they are coming to an end in parallel, too.

Longtime Fox News host Tucker Carlson parted ways with the network on Monday. Image Credit: Jason Koerner/Getty Images

Carlson’s and Lemon’s departures are certainly headline-worthy—particularly that of Carlson, who’s been a main driver of Fox News’ primetime viewership—and in the days ahead, there’s sure to be a lot of speculation regarding the events surrounding their exits. But what really matters for the media is the future fate of CNN, Fox News and TV news in general—and it’s not a pretty picture. From rising levels of opinion content to changing business models to the challenges of a digital news future, CNN and Fox News have tracked each other closely at every turn of their journeys. Perhaps more than ever in their histories, the right next steps for the networks are unclear. Indeed, it’s even unsure whether they do have viable paths for survival.

On the Origin of Species

In biology, the concept of convergent evolution explains why different species can develop similar features despite belonging to different classes of animals or plants. For example, sharks and dolphins belong to fishes and mammals, respectively, and biologically, they have nothing in common. However, living in the same environmental niche, they eventually developed similar physical characteristics. It was ecological conditions, not biological kinship, that gave them fins and made their body structures similar, even though they remain antagonists.

Morning anchor Don Lemon was ousted from CNN on Monday. Image Credit: Paul Marotta/Getty Images

It turns out that convergent evolution can tell us just as much about the media landscape. CNN is only 16 years older than Fox News (the networks were founded in 1980 and 1996, respectively), but they emerged during different technological eras in the history of TV, and these differences shaped their initially different approaches to journalism. But as with sharks and dolphins, the media environment eventually made CNN and Fox News into two specimens that looked very much the same.

In the late 1970s, CNN founder Ted Turner led the wave of technological innovation that afforded 24/7 TV news coverage. As always happens when a new medium emerges that delivers information faster, from much farther away or in a new format, the public wanted more news of this amazing kind. By the 1980s, the technologies of electronic news gathering replaced film cameras and video cassettes. The speed of news production increased exponentially. On-the-scene satellite transmission made news trucks another technological breakthrough. Live news streaming became possible and started shaping the news habits of the TV audience. In response, the demand for “raw” news grew. In such conditions, journalism of facts inevitably dominates. CNN became the new TV medium that shaped and satisfied the demand for “raw” facts.

The young and ambitious network became nationally renowned after the space shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986. As hard as it might be to believe today, CNN was the only live national news broadcaster of the launch. The shock of the tragedy was tremendously amplified, of course, by a media effect—by the effect of “happening right now” innate to live TV. This was perhaps the first media catastrophe of this kind and scale—a live-TV catastrophe, followed by the rolling news coverage for hours and days.

Before the Challenger disaster, CNN had struggled to figure out its mission and place. But “after this coverage, I rarely had to explain to people what CNN was,” recalled a staffer. A new quality of news was tasted and accepted by millions. Ted Turner gained the reputation of a man who “transformed viewers in 150 countries into ‘instant witnesses of history.’”

The format reached its pinnacle in January 1991, during the first hours of the Gulf War when CNN covered the airstrike in Baghdad. This was the first war televised live. For the first time, humankind watched rocket blasts as “happening right now”, not as recorded footage. Sadly, live news reporting soon made the public way more present in the sights of mass deaths, which culminated, of course, in the live TV coverage of the 9/11 attacks, when the tragedy unfolded right before viewers’ eyes for hours.

Milestone events—from the Challenger disaster to the January 1991 Gulf War airstrike in Baghdad to the 9/11 terrorist attacks—fully revealed the strength of the live news streaming approach. Live, objective reporting became CNN’s product and its creed—and it stayed that way for more than a decade and a half. The format truly transformed TV journalism: The focus on the immediacy of the picture—on the “presence effect”—enforced the ethos of objectivity in reporting. Commentary was reserved for pundits in the studio. Most importantly, judgment was left to viewers.

The User Becomes the Content

The success of CNN in 24/7 news programming generated numerous imitations and increased the prominence of live news reporting on TV. But soon, it became apparent that the medium’s capacity to deliver 24/7 news surpassed the world’s ability to provide 24/7 events. News streaming without events became monotonous, even pointless. News streaming with events became overwhelming and required guidance. A market and need for commentaries and explanations emerged.

This is what caused the simultaneous emergence of Fox News and MSNBC in 1996. Both emulated the rolling news cycle but emphasized longer stories with more extensive details and extended commentaries, aimed more at viewers than at the news. News coverage became dependent not only on what was happening, but also on what the audience wanted to see. In part, it also was a by-product of the new technologies that allowed networks to measure the viewership and see the characteristics of the audience for better advertising. Since the magic of 24/7 news coverage weakened, a new focus of TV production emerged—the audience’s social demographics. As media theorist Marshall McLuhan once predicted, the user became the content.

Thus, technological changes that enhanced and accelerated the supply of news paradoxically favored the drift from journalism of facts to opinion journalism. This posed an interesting ethical implication of media technology. Journalism of facts sees professional dignity in unbiased mediation and supplying data for people to make their own decisions. Therefore, journalism of facts recognizes the agency of the public; it treats the audience as adults who can take in information and make their own judgments. Opinion journalism, on the other hand, responds to the need to navigate and undertakes the task of guiding. Seduced into shepherding, opinion journalism tends to treat the audience as children and ends up, eventually, in didactics. In a media ecosystem in which journalism of facts dominates, the public is seen as able, curious, responsible and smart. But in a media ecosystem dominated by opinion journalism, the public is seen as dependent, fragile, deceived and, frankly, stupid. It is expected that someone authoritative and morally capable must step in to tell the audience right from wrong.

If Ted Turner televised the telegraph, then Roger Ailes completed the making of television. As the chairman and CEO of Fox News, he refocused TV production from news supply to viewers’ attraction. He fully unveiled the specific and unique capacity of TV: the delivery of an affirmative emotional world picture talking to the viewers at their homes and within their value systems.

Being more audience-centered than news-centered, both Fox News and MSNBC spearheaded the shift from objectivity to subjectivity in covering news. News anchors stopped being presenters and became news sherpas, guiding their audiences to conclusions. Giving more air to commentaries and opinions, both new networks, Fox News and MSNBC, drifted toward more political engagement. As networks designed for more political commentary, Fox News and MSNBC started outperforming CNN in attracting the audience. But among all three, Fox News happened to be a better fit for what came next.

The Last Mutation

The internet gave everyone access to content production and delivery. Blogs enabled anyone to be a published writer. Social media made everyone accidental reporters and commentators. As a result, everyone, from corporations to ordinary people, became the media on their own. As opposed to the Challenger disaster, the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003 was not just televised by three 24-hour cable networks—CNN, Fox News and MSNBC—but the internet also had its share in the coverage.

By the 2010s, traditional media had lost its monopoly over the news, commentary and even the “presence effect”. A new medium, the internet, provided oversupply of not just news but everything—any kind of content. The pendulum between journalism of facts and opinion journalism was broken. The media were confused, and they reacted within the old paradigm: They responded to the oversupply of content with even more “guidance,” having rapidly grown into “adults” talking to children. In 2013, Pew Research Center looked at the ratio between news and opinion content on the leading cable news networks and found that 85% of MSNBC’s content was opinion, compared with 15% news. On CNN, factual reporting made up slightly greater than half of its content—not too far behind the Fox News ratio, where opinion slightly exceeded news.

And keep in mind: This happened long before the political rise of Donald Trump. Because of the internet, the ecology of news shifted dramatically, changed journalism and thus modified the ways society spoke about its issues. A massive study of news presentation over the past 30 years, conducted recently by the RAND Corporation, revealed that broadcast journalism—non-cable TV news like CBS, NBC and ABC—after 2000 lost its former adherence to precise and concrete language and increased the share of “unplanned speech, expression of opinions, interviews, and arguments.” Even more dramatic changes happened to journalism in cable news: Prime-time cable news was based more “on the expression of opinion than on the provision of facts” and more likely offered “advocacy for those same opinions rather than a balanced description of context or events.”

The massive increase of subjectivity in cable news as compared to broadcast news came from the business model. Cable news financially relied not only on ads but also on bundle subscription. As the RAND study says, this made cable news even more “opinion-oriented than broadcast news in order to appeal to specific niche audiences.” Therefore, cable news presenters became more inclined than their broadcast counterparts to become advocates and guides for their niche audiences—as, say, many Fox News hosts have become for their politically conservative viewers.

Cable TV’s growing attention to viewers’ social demographics delivered the last and deadly blow to CNN’s fact-reporting approach to news. After audiences’ media habits gravitated toward digital sources—and ads followed suit—media started wooing the digital audience. It was the early years of social media, and the digital public consisted predominantly of educated and progressive urbanites. The media strived to earn the favor of this audience and aligned with its values. It was not difficult, as most journalists—educated and progressive urbanites themselves—already belonged to the same digital elite.

This is how CNN found a new reference group to appeal to, after already being dragged from factual reporting into opinion journalism. The issue, however, was that digitally advanced users—progressive early adopters of the internet—did not need TV to inform them. Even worse, advertisers were aware of it—their dramatically decreased ad budgets in traditional media makes that more than clear. In terms of the traditional media business, targeting progressive digital audiences became a dead end, a trap in which the new leadership of CNN now finds itself.

Finally, in the early 2010s, journalism rapidly mutated into postjournalism: The digital audience did not need the media for receiving news. They could check their newsfeeds on their smartphones before even getting out of bed in the morning—news websites, newspapers and TV programs were no longer necessary. But when something disturbing happened, people wanted to check how bad the bad news was. For this purposes, traditional media still had something to offer. Even though they lost the function of news supply, they still could use their former authority for news validation.

Enter Trump

Before the internet, mainstream media outlets simulated objectivity in order not to narrow their audience: These outlets needed a wider, more diverse audience to attract advertisers. But as advertisers migrated to digital platforms, media outlets felt free to embrace a more specific niche audience—educated progressives—in their hopes of garnering subscriptions. Not long ago, the mainstream media were often accused of “hidden liberal bias.” They rejected it and insisted on their unbiased reporting and objective journalism, the most neutral and therefore suitable vehicle for advertising. After the media stuck to the digital progressives and lost ad money, any accusation and rejection of “hidden liberal bias” became pointless.

However, this rapid and massive progressive shift in news coverage caused backlash among conservatives. By the mid-2010s, their use of social media had grown big enough to accumulate their grievances into a significant political force. Thus emerged Donald Trump.

The news media quickly learned to profit on the validation of Trump as a threat to democracy. In doing so, the media, of course, fell into the temptation of not only validating but also producing disturbing news for its further recycling. No matter how much they warned each other not to be obsessed with Trump, they simply could not stop reporting on him. This last business convulsion strengthened the ties of the news media with the progressives and, basically, made the media hostages of the Twitterati, whose demand for loyalty will never be paid off, though disloyalty will be punished—a classic abusive relationship.

Postjournalism was not a big deal for Fox News. Because the network was focused on opinion journalism from the start, its move to news validation instead of news reporting was quick and easy. But postjournalism completely redesigned the rest of the mainstream media—they had farther to move on the road from facts to opinion than Fox News did. But they caught up.

The Environmental Deadlock

Can CNN reverse “my-side boosterism” and be forced back to “objective” reporting? Technically, yes: The restoring of unbiased news reporting and all-sides consideration are simple professional solutions, and there are still a lot of people around who remember how to do that. But would this save CNN? No.

The task to restore objectivity and fact-based reporting on CNN is what Marshall McLuhan called the “rear-view mirror” conscience: moving forward while looking back at the rear-view mirror. This kind of journalism that the new leadership of CNN supposedly wants to restore disappeared not because of malevolence or negligence of the past leadership, but because the conditions for that kind of journalism are now gone. It was the environment, not someone’s will or conspiracy, that turned CNN into an opinionated media outlet. To reverse the mutation of CNN, one would need to reverse the evolution of the entire media environment. Good luck with that.

There is some residual TV business remaining, but it is tied to a certain social demographic that is already mostly owned by Fox News. This older social demographic has largely held onto its TV consumption habits and will continue to do so until the last TV generation holds the last remote controls in its hands. But beyond this social demographic and its habits, TV news has already lost its industrial scale. This has little to do with the quality of news or journalism—it’s an environmental shift. Cord-cutting, for example, has resulted in a major decline in cable consumption in American households.

Of course, former cable news producers can switch to digital delivery of their TV production, but they will never have the monopoly in supplying the news or any content to people on the internet that they used to have on the air. The most critical digital shift related to the freedom of watching: Digital viewers want to watch whatever content they want when they want and not when some TV programmer wants them to.

The paradox is that objective, middle-ground, adult-conversation journalism can be produced but cannot be consumed at the scale sufficient to support TV production. It is technically possible to restore objective TV journalism of very high quality. This could even secure some recognizable spot in the news menu. But it will always rely on life support, not on the market.

The generational shift in media platforms is accompanied and exacerbated by the generational shift in users. The demand for objective journalism primarily comes from those who want to disseminate it, not consume it. Those who could consume news are seduced by other media habits and don’t really care if journalism is objective, subjective or even exists at all. Therefore, the only viable business model for objective journalism is to be financially supported “from above”—by those who want this noble kind of journalism to survive to be delivered to others. But “others” don’t care.

Amidst this tectonic shift, the departure of signature news anchors is a relatively insignificant event, yet it’s definitely a symbolic one. It represents the last chapters in the historical parallelism of CNN and Fox News. While the networks were founded in different technological eras with different professional ideologies, they became similar as they lived through the same climate changes that converged their journalistic approaches. The only difference between CNN and Fox News that matters is the difference between their demographics. The social demographic of Fox News remains, and will remain for some time, more loyal to the habits of classical TV watching in its last form: an affirmative and emotional picture of the world delivered in the fashion of scheduled broadcasting. But their demographic resource is limited anyway: Old TV habits will be gone with the last TV generation. As for objective journalism, it was gone when the media—CNN included—were forced to chase the audience running away to digital. The prime time of primetime news is truly over.

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