Former Twin Cities Reader editor David Carr has earned his formidable national perch as the New York Times media columnist. But for one day, little-known locally based media writer Rick Ellis may have knocked Carr off.
In an otherwise smart column chiding Stewart for aiming at the media, rather than D.C.’s decision-makers, Carr downplayed the importance of Stewart’s target-rich environment:
But here’s the problem: Most Americans don’t watch or pay attention to cable television. In even a good news night, about five million people take a seat on the cable wars, which is less than 2 percent of all Americans. People are scared of what they see in their pay envelopes and neighborhoods, not because of what Keith Olbermann said last night or how Bill O’Reilly came back at him.
“If we amplify everything, we hear nothing,” Mr. Stewart said, and then went on to say, “not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people but to the racists themselves who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate,” he said.
All due respect to Mr. Williams and Mr. Sanchez, not many people know or care who they are.
While it’s true that the three major cable news channels only have a few million viewers, their reach and influence resonates in every corner of the political landscape. These channels dominate the D.C. Beltway agenda and the arguments that you hear on Beck or Maddow today are the ones that will spread out to every local radio call-in show and weekly newspaper by the weekend. In much the same way that an influential priest can influence an entire neighborhood outside his congregation, Fox News, MSNBC and CNN help set the media agenda for all of their print and web competitors. And with the number of related radio shows, books and guest appearances by the various cable news personalities, their ability to influence politics is nearly unbridled.
If the size of the audience was an accurate reflection of influence, then even the NY Times could be dismissed since it only reaches a fraction of American society. But the Times impacts the public discourse for the same reason that MSNBC or Fox does — it’s not the number of people who listen, it’s the identity of who’s paying attention. Stories bounce from Politico to cable news to local TV and back to talk radio at nearly light speed. Conventional wisdom becomes political dogma within hours.
Correct. While there has been a swing away from President Obama’s policies, the scale of this year’s likely GOP sweep will be a result of voter intensity. You’d have to have your head in the sand not to see how Fox News is the undisputed master of magnifying intensity. While MSNBC isn’t a conscientious objector here, Fox isn’t paying seven-figure salaries to GOP presidential hopefuls for no reason.
If audience size mattered, Katie Couric would be twice as influential as Glenn Beck, since she has twice the audience. But, Palin interview aside, Couric is so “reasonable” that she has little impact. That’s not the tolerance Jon Stewart seeks, but that network news so rarely crawls out of its snoozy conventional wisdom that it is little more than a cultural artifact.
Thankfully, we have “The Daily Show” to lambaste the daily inanities as well as the decorum violations that the “Rally” focused on.
To be sure, propaganda knows no ideology, but Carr is right in noting the Rally’s broad-brush soft-focus drifted dangerously close to the false equivalencies Stewart criticizes nightly. (Then again, this was a parody of a Fox News personality’s gathering.)
Carr is also right that the deciders are more important than the media. But with less of a gap between the two, it’s hard to go nuts about Stewart’s aim.