Is the American Viewing Public Really That Dumb?

My nephew Andrew says he doesn’t watch much television these days. He is especially leery of TV news shows. And he is not alone. Everywhere I go, people tell me they’re turning off and tuning out. I force myself to listen to the TV talking heads in the hope that I will derive insights that might otherwise escape me. But it is getting more onerous all the time. There are few, if any, insights to be had from today’s television programs. And the irritation factor has escalated to test the limits of my endurance.

Yet the myth endures that these pundits have some relevance in today’s America. Consider this recent gem from the Hollywood Reporter:

You can’t deny Bill O’Reilly’s success. On Tuesday, the fiery host of Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor” will mark his 100th consecutive month as the No. 1-rated cable news show. A former schoolteacher who first gained national prominence as the host of “Inside Edition,” O’Reilly boasts three Emmys and several best-selling books.

o’reillyYou might not know who Bill O’Reilly (photo at right) is. The audience for his type of show is minuscule compared with blockbusters like “American Idol,” “Survivor” or “Dancing With the Stars.” In a country of more than 300 million people, O’Reilly’s show usually attracts less than half a million viewers. (And the Hollywood Reporter is behind the times calling the Factor “the No. 1 rated cable news show.” Recent Nielsen surveys show MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann slightly ahead in the ratings game.) Compared with American Idol’s 22.3 million viewers, all of the cable news shows are virtually unwatched. Even talk radio outdraws them by millions – and radio was supposed to be dead when TV emerged.

With a cast of such blatantly right-wing propagandists as O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, Fox News attracts an audience of hard-core anti-Obama, pro-Republican zealots. The commentators make no attempt to be logical or factually accurate because their loyal followers don’t want reporting or reason. They want what TV commentators tastelessly describe as “red meat.”

Fox News viewers want to reinforce their prejudices, not expand their understanding. Some relatives who regularly tune in to Hannity, for example, were already convinced that President Obama is a Marxist “baby murderer.” They are gratified by Hannity’s reassurances that they were right all along.

While Fox News is the most blatantly biased information source, it is not alone. Olbermann and Rachel Maddow make no pretense of being anything but tree-hugging liberals. While the Fox pack yaps at President Obama’s heels from the right, Olbermann and  Maddow peck away from the left. Chris Matthews, another MSNBC pundit, is all over the place, becoming less credible every day. His claim that he is “teaching politics to the experts” is not only grandiose but also ludicrous.

I find CNN most revolting of all. Its “unbiased” posture is insulting to anyone with the slightest glimmer of intelligence. What exactly was John King trying to prove when he gave Dick Cheney a platform from which to spread his venom? No one that I know wants to hear from Cheney. He is gone and good riddance. Why resurrect him to annoy us? And who on earth wants to listen ad infinitum to talking points from Democratic and Republican mouthpieces? Yet good ol’ CNN relentlessly subjects us to extreme arguments from one side and the other instead of seeking out uncommitted observers with views we might find enlightening.

Most cable news shows have become as predictable as a traditional kabuki play. Whatever influence they might once have had is long gone. The American viewing public is not as dumb as TV producers seem to think. Cable news has become the great unwatched wasteland in an increasingly deserted television landscape.