The Death of Credible TV News Has Failed American Voters and Sabotaged Democracy

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The Death of Credible TV News Has Failed American Voters and Sabotaged Democracy

In the wake of Walter Cronkite’s death in 2009, Time ran a poll that declared satirical news anchor Jon Stewart the most trusted newscaster in America. Stewart prevailed over Katie Couric, Charles Gibson, and Brian Williams—names that are long gone from the evening news lexicon but whose names, at the time, hinted at journalistic gravitas.

If Time were to run a poll today asking its readers to choose between Scott Pelley, David Muir, Lester Holt, and Trevor Noah for the title of most trusted newscaster, people would be perplexed—not because a satirical news anchor was tossed in, but because the evening news broadcasts are no longer populated with household names. Despite the popularity of their predecessors, television ratings show that less than 25-percent of the audience of the major evening programs is between ages 25 and 54, meaning that the rest of the audience is, well, pretty old. And like its aging audience, television news has become progressively trivial to our political future.

Which, of course, isn’t surprising. The Internet has become an important news source: According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 50-percent of 18 to 29-year-olds “often” get their news from the Internet, while more non-millennials are turning to the Internet for news. Despite the pieces of investigative journalism on the Internet that has rivaled, and has sometimes surpassed, the quality of television reporting, a part of me feels that the Internet, in all its encyclopedic glory, has become more of an enforcer rather than a panacea to political apathy.

I was in high school in 2007 when FOX News was at war with the liberal media, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert elevated political satire to unforeseen heights, Saturday Night Live had one of its best casts and writing staff of all-time, and Rosie O’Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck regularly debated Bush-era politics on The View. That sense of thoughtful chaos drew me into politics, as I witnessed how television boldly addressed the increasing chasm between liberal and conservative America with passionate discourse. Whether you agreed with Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow, there was a sense that politics, as seen on television, captured a collective pulse. Public dialogue evolved into a spirited debate, and people tuned in to write about it, read about it, and talk about it. For once, television news strived to be the antithesis to Network’s proclamations about television news. Because television news didn’t want to be an illusion anymore—it wanted to be a reflection of our own burning paranoias and ideologies.

Politics on television reached its apex in 2008. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton vied for the Democratic nomination. John McCain had selected an inexperienced Sarah Palin as his vice presidential candidate. Television’s political stratosphere reacted in a powerful way. Conservative media accused Obama of being born in Kenya to being secretly Muslim to being—and in retrospect, the most impressive accusation of them all—the anti-Christ. Tina Fey introduced her uncanny Sarah Palin impression on SNL. The New York Times even posted CliffNotes for The View’s John McCain interview. Politics and popular culture intertwined in a way that felt culturally revolutionary; even if you weren’t engaged in politics, television made politics digestible, and, most importantly, entertaining.

The 2008 presidential election resulted in 131 million votes, America’s first black president, and the birth of a new kind of conservative movement. Political participation felt tantamount to the citizenry. I can’t help but think that the forces of political commentary within our cultural lexicon galvanized the masses to vote. That dialogue that shaped and defined liberal and conservative America perhaps angered people as much as it inspired people to participate in the political process.

Fast forward to 2016. Somewhere along the way, the cable news wars died down, Jon Stewart left The Daily Show, everyone we loved left SNL, Colbert left The Colbert Report, and The View has become a daytime wasteland. Of no fault of their own, Pelley, Muir, and Holt deliver our evening news with relative anonymity; and Noah, Stewart’s heir, is braving The Daily Show’s ratings plummet. Sure, we still have John Oliver and Samantha Bee, but they lack Stewart’s or Colbert’s clout.

Meanwhile, this year’s primary vote data is telling. Voter turnouts in the Democratic primaries have decreased since 2008, yet Clinton has still received more votes than any other candidate in this election. Though Donald Trump may be correct in boasting that he has increased voter turnout in Republican primaries, he neglected to thank the competitive field of 16 other candidates that had also helped drive early Republican voter turnout.

While increased competition may attract voters, there is another argument here to be made. Pew found that people who were “very likely” to participate in primaries and caucuses got their news from cable; more specifically, cable news remains popular among Republicans and the 65 and over demographic. And those people make up the majority of the voters who voted in the Republican primaries or who voted for Clinton.

The implied thesis here—that people who watch television are more likely to vote—may seem nonsensical. One could argue that non-millennials have nurtured a television habit since childhood, and millennials were raised with the Internet at their immediate disposal. And the youth vote has always been consistently low, but have no fear, the millennials will someday overcome their cynicism and apathy and become voters.

We simply can’t predict future millennial behavior, a generation that has been raised on a different set of rules than their ascendants. However, we do know, based on psychological research on information consumption, that the Internet facilitates selective learning and television exposes the audience to stories they may not have otherwise pursued. There’s enough to suggest that the polymathic noise of political television does indeed mobilize its audience to participate in politics more so than the self-selected Internet paradise where the cynicism and apathy can play on an infinite loop.

Young people will never experience the luxury of being bombarded with a wide array of news stories that will shape their perspectives. Rather, they get to gravitate toward articles they want to read with Facebook algorithms reinforcing that habit. As they become further isolated from diverse news stories, they maintain a strong sense of skepticism of politics: They know they hate Donald Trump because of the snippets they see and hear, but they don’t know how to productively channel their disgust. Thus, they are disappointed with one side of the political spectrum but disregard the other end that desperately needs their support.

Discussions of the millennial vote currently exist under the shadow of Brexit where only 36 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds showed up to vote for the referendum, while 73-percent of those who did vote chose to stay in the European Union. This is a pattern nearly analogous to America’s recent primaries: millennial voters overwhelmingly support Bernie Sanders, yet Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination by a landslide. Regardless of how you feel about Clinton, Sanders, and Trump, there is a strong indication that if millennials, whose number of eligible voters now rivals that of baby boomers, had actively participated in the primaries, the results may have been drastically different.

What matters now is millennials are encouraged to vote as soon as possible, and when that time comes, they will vote responsibly. This year, votes were cast with a few keywords in mind: Woman, winner, socialist. That attitude of lax persuasion has reverberated into this election season with a media rendering characters in this political narrative one-dimensional: Donald Trump is a brash Washington outsider; Hillary Clinton is a female politician; Bernie Sanders is a Democratic-socialist. Sure, people can vote as they see fit, but never has that measure of fitness felt so perfunctory. Young people were and are irrevocably influenced by this mentality, and their allegiance to the Internet as their primary news source will only accentuate a keyword-focused political education. There is no relevant model for intelligent discourse; what remains is the passive consumption of news.

Gone are the days of hope, change, solutions, and maverick—words that fueled a media maelstrom and captivated an audience who saw on television what they felt in their hearts. But it’s 2016 now: Televised polemics aren’t delivered with the same gusto of the recent past, and newscaster recognition has perhaps become a lost art. Because today, the dialogue that provoked late-2000s political angst no longer exists on television—at least not as vividly, passionately, or personally as it raged on before. So more than ever, public dialogue needs to return to our cultural consciousness, or else the democratic process will cease to mean anything at all.