Jeff Cohen could be the only person in the world to talk about the three all-news cable television stations: CNN, MSNBC and Fox. A reborn liberal who studied politics and American media for thirty years, Cohen spent 10 years inside the news monsters that were attacked as too far left, too right or just "fake".
Until 2002, Cohen was the liberal commentator on all three stations, when MSNBC was emerging as a leftist alternative to conservative Fox and CNN was trying to maintain the traditional terrain of journalistic neutrality.
Whatever your political perspective now, there is an agreement that those national networks are increasingly important in the debate about the fate of an America bewildered by divisions and disagreements that threatens to make us separate further.
Observes Cohen: "It is difficult to underestimate the importance of cable stations, in particular Fox", owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns, among others, the Wall Street Journal and the NY Post.
The speech and the press, of course, are protected by the Constitution because we always hoped that open discussions would bring people together to help us make wise choices. "Journalism can be unifying," Cohen told me recently by telephone from his home in Woodstock. "In a democracy it goes after those in power. It presents different points of view. It teaches a lesson every day about democracy".
And then came Cohen's hesitation. "But today there is no doubt that it is more divisive than ever," he said, adding, "Cable TV is very divisive."
Cohen would have known, from his years inside the domain, but also because he still respectfully observes each cable news network to study their behavior. And he is angry and worried about what he sees.
First of all, he says, "They care more about valuations than anything else. Wake up in the morning, check out the ratings." Fox, the conservative powerhouse, is the leader of the rankings, but MSNBC takes her after her. And CNN holds its own, especially in the days when the latest news makes viewers turn to the channel that started the all-news phenomenon in 1980.
"They try to involve viewers in soap operas. The same story, day after day," says Cohen. "Viewers discover who the characters are. And the votes are increased." It's the "Trump Bump".
The problem is that many urgent issues – and the rest of the world – are largely forgotten. The soap opera does not want to introduce complex new plots or send TV crews to distant places. Money rules.
I recently visited the French island of Saint Martin with 13 TV stations, 12 in French and the BBC. The British channel reminded me every day that as many as 50,000 people died in a famine from a war in Yemen that killed 5,000 civilians. A child dies every 10 minutes! Yet a president who shouts "no collusion" rules our radio waves.
"No Yemen, but hundreds of stories about Stormy Daniels," says Cohen of the adult movie star who was paid to remain silent about his relationship with the President. "The other problems are not part of the soap opera."
A profit-oriented American media that crawls into the sewer is not new. William Randolph Hearst said in 1900 that "crime and intimate" was his formula for success. But today it is necessary to add a political advantage.
"No one is telling the full story," says Cohen. "Everyone has a partisan vision and all the exaggerations that derive from it".
Profit and valuations even drive politics. Fox has worked for years to highlight the issues that have attracted the conservative right – Obama's birth certificate, immigration, the "war" at Christmas, abortion. And, in the process, he helped create the base that elected Donald Trump.
And now the kind of things that happen at Fox "put him in a separate league," says Cohen. The most famous talk show host Sean Hannity talks to Trump almost every night, his media counselor. Hannity appears at Trump's country-style gatherings, crossing a journalistic boundary never passed before.
Cohen: "His priorities, his enemies are completely interconnected with the White House. Trump is the first president to reflect the vision of the right side of the party. They took their man, thanks to talk about radio and Fox. And they are the more partisans. "
This does not mean that MSNBC is clearly not a left-wing partisan station. The difference, in my opinion, is that the verification of the facts is much higher in MSNBC. Rachel Maddow, the popular prime-time host, attacks Trump but her deeds do not get lost in the extraordinary ways they do to Fox.
CNN, once ranking leader in all news, has been trying to provide more balanced and traditional news for a while. The spectator could hear both sides. Their assessments fell badly. And now, their inclination is obvious, so much so that the President cannot stop tweeting about his prejudice.
Last week he suggested that the United States should set up a global state-run news network to counter CNN's "unfair". "We need to do something, start our global network to show the world how we really are, BIG!"
In the United States, Trump doesn't need a network because he has Fox.
Caution. When the First Amendment was adopted in 1791, the Framers feared that the ruling party would control the media and allow their voices to be heard. This is why the President cannot touch the news. We wanted a reliable and independent media to help us govern ourselves, but when it comes to cable stations, we have neither one nor the other.
"Hannity makes so many mistakes in a show. Even Maddow makes mistakes," says Cohen. Moreover, they carry "a close story every day, (as if there were no other stories.)"
The loser is an American public that cannot see the forest for the trees, stuck in a miasma of unreliable media and an unprecedented division. We remain rooted in our separate political silos, without talking to each other or able to obtain reliable facts.
The American media initially moved towards neutrality because it allowed the press to capture and keep a wider audience. In other words, neutrality has made money. Today, partisanship captures a more profitable audience. Last year, Fox earned $ 2.7 billion.
The best hope for countering the soap opera media, according to Cohen, is to keep the internet wide open and immune to multinational control. The "net neutrality" provides this, an internet pipeline that allows a thriving independent and thriving journalism to grow.
Do not get me wrong. I am not upset that Fox is right or that MSNBC has remained. I am shocked that in the television vacuum we cannot go to one place and get a reliable and independent view of a world that is collapsing and burning, a world fueled by profit and partisan politics. But I'm not Pollyanna: it won't change soon.
Rob Miraldi's writings on the First Amendment have won numerous state and national awards. He teaches journalism at SUNY Paltz. Twitter @ miral98 and e-mail email@example.com.
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