This is a particularly dangerous time – for the media
During the final stages of the Trump presidency, we saw the mainstream media mostly do a noble job of trying to play things straight. After all, the threat was simply too high, and there was an impetus to get it right. But now that Trump has been silenced and is just a few days away from being gone for good, we’re suddenly seeing what appears to be a shift.
Donald Trump isn’t even out the door yet, and yesterday we saw various liberal TV hosts trot out guests including disgraced buffoon James Comey, doomsday scaremonger Michael Moore, and pathological liar Kellyanne Conway within the span of a few hours. None of these guests have anything to offer to the public discourse, beyond the fact that most viewers distrust and despise them – meaning of course that they’re great for TV ratings.
Yesterday was a particularly disturbing day for the media, and there’s concern that this could be a pattern going forward. The trouble is that there’s just no way for TV media to get easy ratings going forward. Even after Trump’s loss, the media was expecting to be able to milk his ghost for ratings by pretending he was going to run in 2024, or that his kids had controversial political futures ahead of them. But the Capitol attack ended those fantasies, and now Trump will only be good for ratings on the days that there are legal proceedings against him.
The media was expecting to have Mitch McConnell around as a villain for the next few years. But then the Democrats unexpectedly won the Georgia Senate runoffs, and now McConnell is being relegated to Senate Minority Leader, where his power will be limited at best. MSNBC is already pushing the narrative that McConnell will still somehow be running the show in the Senate as Minority Leader, but that narrative will fade once the Senate actually gets underway.
So with Donald Trump gone and Mitch McConnell minimized, who exactly is the big bad villain who’s going to hand easy TV ratings to the cable news networks over the next couple years? There isn’t one, really – at least not one centralized ratings-friendly villain. There are more small-time villains in American politics than ever, but TV ratings narratives are all about repetition and momentum, not about spreading the story around to cover various small-time idiots in the House and Senate.
Why should you care if the media is going to have a hard time getting TV ratings over the next couple years? The thing is, they’re going to find a way to get their ratings from somewhere. The fear is that, with all the best villains gone, the media will have to resort to making up phony scandals along the lines of “Hillary’s emails” in order to hit their ratings marks.
As a consumer of TV media and cable news, you’ll have to be more vigilant than ever about what it is that you’re consuming. The nation is perhaps still in too much of a crisis for MSNBC and CNN to begin making up phony Biden scandals for ratings. But if you don’t think they’ll go there by the end of the year, I’ll point you back to Hillary’s emails. How long before Biden randomly misspeaks and it becomes the big “scandal” at the top of every hour for weeks on end? How long before the media finally decides it’s safe to play up phony Hunter Biden scandals? And how much will the media overdramatize the comparatively minor differences of opinion within the Democratic Party?
Your job will be to try to keep cable news on track even as you’re consuming. You always get the final say, if you want it, because you get to vote with your remote control. You also have social media avenues for letting your favorite cable news hosts know that you turn the channel whenever certain inappropriate guests are trotted out, and so on. In the end, the quality and honesty of the news you’re consuming on your television is always going to be up to you.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report