Cable Grows, News Shrinks

Despite the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s new “State of the Media” report likening the current U.S. media condition to “someone about to begin physical therapy following a stroke suddenly contracting a debilitating secondary illness,” Eric Alterman and Danielle Ivory spot (Center for American Progress, 3/26/09) “one sunny area in the news business, according to the report”: “Cable ‘shined‘ in 2008. Its audience grew by 38 percent. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC gained viewers and expected to see record profits.”

While “unlike their paper-based compadres, they actually had money to burn on things like newsgathering and international bureaus,” Alterman and Ivory write:

If cable news is more profitable than before, that’s because, increasingly, it features less and less news. It certainly contains nothing that will likely replace the reporting role of the newspapers that are currently surviving on life-support. “State of the Media” juxtaposes these robust figures with some pretty unsettling data about what people actually see on their sets:

In a news year dominated by two major stories [the election and the economy], the television sector with the most time to fill, cable news, offered the narrowest news agenda of all. According to an analysis of the coverage examined by PEJ, the cable TV channels spent about three out of every five minutes on a single story: the 2008 presidential election.

The report found “obsessive, often irrelevant horserace coverage of the election eclipsed all other news” to the extent that “it accounted for 59 percent of the cable newshole in 2008, while coverage of the economy accounted for only 10 percent.” And, of course, “coverage of the Iraq War fell everywhere, but it positively crashed on cable,” where it “fell nearly 90 percent” and “accounted for just 2 percent of overall coverage.”