The video age has sped up our cognitive powers. We get to the point faster. … People who watch the evening news see entire South American cities collapse under earthquakes in sixty seconds or less. So if you’re just talking for sixty seconds, you’d better be good and interesting.
—Roger Ailes, 1989

“I hope you enjoyed that fancy burger, Mr. President.”

Less than four months after President Obama was sworn in, Sean Hannity was knocking his choice of mustard.

The story hit Fox News Channel’s prime-time lineup in the spring of 2009 after ricocheting around local news blogs and MSNBC earlier that day, and it became a partisan Rorschach test: liberals saw common-man appeal in Obama’s visit to the faddish environs of Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia—where one can order a patty topped with foie gras—while conservatives thought the opposite: elitist snob!

Trying to place exactly when cable news lost its mind is futile, but this is as good a place to start as any: “Burgergate” has become typical of 21st-century cable news. The story was trivial, but it compactly illustrated how Fox and MSNBC have calibrated their partisanship over the last several years.

Since 2008, even though each major party is now represented by a cable news channel—MSNBC for Democrats, Fox News for Republicans—the range of opinion allowed on air has become narrower than Sean Hannity’s taste in burger toppings.

On Fox, this has meant more hosts and contributors from the GOP establishment who can be relied on for talking points and well-spun analysis; people like Karl Rove, or former Bush press secretary Dana Perino, now a host for “The Five.” Divergent views are out: Hannity’s liberal co-host Alan Colmes left their show in 2008, while the idiosyncratic Glenn Beck was booted from the network last year.

MSNBC maintains a token conservative presence, but the network’s leftward drift has made it all the more responsive to activist groups’ demands for political correctness. Most recently, emboldened by their success in removing Beck from Fox—he became “a bit of a branding issue,” said Roger Ailes, which reveals less about Beck’s unpopularity than the network’s ideological purity—the gendarmerie of acceptable opinion, led by Media Matters and Color of Change, claimed the scalp of Pat Buchanan over alleged racism in his book The Suicide of a Superpower.

To many on the right, the downfall of Beck and Buchanan seems proof positive of the multicultural left’s power to crush dissent. But as Ailes’s remark suggests, network interests in streamlined branding played as big a role.

Buchanan was a holdover from the old days of MSNBC, before president Phil Griffin proclaimed the network, “the place to go for progressives,” and he seemed as out of place among lightweight Republican contributors like Meghan McCain and Michael Steele as he did next to liberals like Rachel Maddow.

During an interview with the Hoover Institution’s Peter Robinson weeks after his break with the network, Buchanan revealed, “I knew the book would be controversial. The fact it caused my departure from MSNBC, I’ll let people decide whether that says something about my book, or something about MSNBC.”

“Breaking it down into the MSNBC versus Fox thing [actually] reflects what’s in that book, which is the division, polarization, divorce, and separation of Americans from Americans,” Buchanan continued. “A racist back when I was growing up was Bull Connor shooting fire hoses at folks. Now you can hear that comment on cable TV all the time, people just throw it out there.”

“I find many of Pat’s views to be abhorrent, but the best answer is to counter Pat and prove him wrong, not to silence him,” Buchanan’s former co-host Bill Press told TAC. Liberal MSNBC host Chris Matthews also spoke up for him after the incident.

But Buchanan was a poor fit for MSNBC’s progressive brand, and L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Media Research Center, wonders if his voice had been lost on the network’s left-wing viewership.

“I just don’t know what he was doing for the cause; I don’t say that as a criticism, I say that as someone who is in awe of that man’s mind, and I want to see greater exposure for him. … I think it’s a tragedy, he didn’t deserve it, and I’m glad he’s not there.”

But should commentators only address an audience on their own side—and should they side so closely with parties and movements in the first place?

“Aside from the emergence and dominance of social media, the biggest change I’ve seen in my media career, both on television and radio, is the tribalization of political debate,” says Press, former host of MSNBC’s “Buchanan and Press” and CNN’s “Crossfire,” the first point-counterpoint cable news show. “It used to be, you seldom saw a liberal without a conservative by his side, and vice versa. But no longer. Today, it’s either all right or all left. In prime time, neither MSNBC nor Current TV makes any attempt to include a conservative point of view. And Fox, with rare exceptions, slams its doors on liberals.”

Journalists who fall outside the two-party schematic are pushed to the margins. Libertarians like John Stossel, who with 19 Emmys has won more awards than the entire Fox News network, are relegated to ratings oblivion on the Fox Business Channel. In February when FBC cancelled its entire prime-time lineup, the only other libertarian with a regular slot on cable, Judge Andrew Napolitano, was edged out and consigned to a contributor’s role.

The network cited business constraints and poor ratings as the reasons for the shake-up, but the effect has been to silence controversial opinions on civil liberties, foreign intervention, and the drug war.

It was not always thus. Before “Crossfire,” and before cable, there was “Firing Line,” the venerable discussion program hosted by William F. Buckley Jr. The show’s extended debate format probably had a lot to do with why the show moved to public television in the early 1970s. “Firing Line” didn’t just permit guests to defend their personal views, it required them to do so. Everyone got a fair exposition and an unreserved rebuttal, and if Allen Ginsberg wanted to make his point by singing “Hare Krishna” while accompanying himself on harmonium, so be it.

Today unpredictability is out; demographic targeting is in. Competition drives this process, but to what degree are cable news companies competing—and to what degree are they cultivating new, narrower monopolies? Rupert Murdoch correctly saw that conservatives were an underserved market in the media environment of 20 years ago. MSNBC now strives to match Fox’s partisan intensity.

Cable news is more or less a lost cause, argues Clay Johnson is in his book The Information Diet. “Instead of having to do your own research and your own homework, television does that for you, which is a huge convenience,” says Johnson, an open-government activist and co-founder of the firm that managed Barack Obama’s online campaign in 2008. “The grocery store does a lot of meat preparation; nobody wants to butcher their own cows. I think that’s what makes television extremely convenient.”

So why has the left sometimes seemed better—if not by much—at getting independent, non-establishment voices on television? How could Buchanan last as long as he did?

“Basically, I look at Fox News as a disruptive technology—that Roger Ailes invented a new manufacturing process for news. It’s something that MSNBC has only recently begun to catch up on. While the left can bring in interesting people, it’s really that the left is still figuring out which products sell better than others.”

 

There’s more at stake in the ideological branding of today’s cable news than ratings or pundits’ careers. The more complex or controversial an issue, the more it suffers from the networks’ stereotyping. Nowhere is this more obvious than in international affairs.

Since CNN broadcast some of the opening volleys in the first Gulf War, the history of cable news has been inextricably tied to foreign conflict. War is a godsend for the networks. The public sits at home in rapt patriotism while the network brings on experts who speculate about minute details and strategies in language with just enough jargon to sound convincing.

The elephant in the room—the advertising and viewership benefits of war—has never been acknowledged by any of the three networks. But they regularly censor antiwar voices.

“There is little room for an antiwar point of view, either from the left or right, on television today,” says Press, whose show on MSNBC was cancelled because he and co-host Buchanan were both against the Iraq War. He criticizes the media’s failure to question government assertions about military operations.

“It did not do so in Vietnam, the first Gulf War, nor the war in Iraq. For the most part, reporters just recycled propaganda coming out of the White House and helped the White House sell war after war to the American people. Also networks mainly book cheerleaders for the war—because they’re afraid of being dubbed ‘anti-American.’”

“That was clearly a show where there was debate,” says Jeff Cohen, founder of the liberal media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and a producer at MSNBC when “Buchanan & Press” was on the air. “It was often Buchanan and Press against two interventionists. That show didn’t last. One by one the voices of reason, the ones that turned out to be right on Iraq, were silenced.”

Uncritical coverage of the Iraq War was a product of either fear and cowardice or opportunism. At least in the case of MSNBC’s “Donahue,” where Cohen was senior producer, that’s perfectly clear. An internal NBC memo warned that antiwar host Phil Donahue might be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.”

“We were still the top-rated show” at the time, says Cohen, and “if we could have been the one show that allowed moderate voices and noninterventionist voices, we would have been huge.” But network executives “were less interested in ratings than in tamping down controversy.”

“As it got closer to the invasion day, they clamped down on our program more and more with edicts that came down from management that we had to have more pro-war views than anti-invasion views. What that resulted in—and I think management was happy about this—was that the hawks seemed to outshout the voices of reason that were arguing we should wait.”

Cable news today perpetuates a vicious circle: critical views of American foreign policy are unrepresented in the leadership of either party, and producers are reluctant to air opinions perceived as out of the mainstream. Nobody was eager to book Ron Paul before 2007. But as the Texas congressman showed in the GOP debates that year, once views such as his get a hearing, they can be galvanizing. Without being included in forums like the presidential debates—glorified cable news shows—antiwar and realist dissidents have little chance to influence their parties. The Internet is changing that, but not fast enough.

What’s true for foreign affairs is true for other difficult subjects as well, such as the nation’s economic crisis. Instead of challenging viewers, ideologically segregated networks reinforce what their audiences think they already know. Eventually consumers of the news may really believe that they’re more interested in things like President Obama’s choice of mustard than in the real problems that cable is so good at distracting us from. Perhaps this is the way the cable news world ends. Not with a bang, but with a burger. 

Jordan Bloom is associate editor of The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter.