Why is cable news so stupid?

In which I repeat the same action – going on CNN – and expect a different result.

An old maxim (which I’ve seen attributed to Mark Twain – but what hasn’t been?) tells us “Never complain. Half the people won’t care, and the other half will figure you had it coming.”

Pardon me while I violate that rule.

After my appearance with Erin Burnett about the consulting assignment for cannabis legalization in Washington State, a producer at CNN emailed inviting me to come on again, today, with Fredricka Whitfield. She came across as very friendly and competent. We negotiated about how I would be identified (I explained why “pot czar” would be inaccurate). I had Oxford University Press FedEx a copy of Marijuana Legalization so CNN could put the cover on screen.

The interview itself went fine; straightforward questions, no giggling, no did-you-inhale. I got to make my key point – that every choice has disadvantages as well as advantages, and that the job of the consulting team is to help the Washington State Liquor Control Board understand the likely consequences of different choices – using the decision about the how many growers to license as an example. Brief, hardly profound, but basically OK.

That’s the good news. Everything else was bad news. The book was nowhere to be seen. They used exactly the same lead-in – Cheech & Chong, Bill Clinton not inhaling, some clips from the press conference with Steve Davenport deflecting the “How-many-of-you-smoke?” question – as they used before Erin Burnett, and during the interview there was background video of young people smoking and green cannabis plants. I guess I should be grateful the contract wasn’t to give advice on preventing teen pregnancy.

I’m coming to think that conventional explanations of the low intellectual quality of cable news might overestimate the importance of the networks trying to appeal to low-IQ, low-information viewers and underestimate the effects of sheer cheapness and laziness. CNN had that Cheech & Chong clip (which I’m told is technically called the “package,” and which does not go up on line) all made, so they used it, thus filling a couple of minutes of the downtime between commercial breaks without incurring any new expense or effort.

And with all of that, I think it was still worth going on. That’s the terrible thing.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

7 thoughts on “Why is cable news so stupid?”

  1. I saw you at the tail-end of the interview and thought that it went well. I didn’t know about the goofy beginning again!

    You should see CNN International-it is actually a lot better than US CNN. You are right though that cable news production is just sub-par.

    I do think though a big problem for television news is that a lot of their better informed viewers left over the last 15 years to read the news online.

    You did do a good thing though going on CNN-they rarely ever have guests as thoughtful as you. Try to get some gigs on MSNBC. Even Chris Mathews would be a step up from most of cable news…

    It will be interesting to see if MSNBC trying to reach those lost viewers through more intellectually engaging programming-notably Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow-will work in the long-term…


  2. I just saw a CNN link at Digby’s: Anderson Cooper and Nancy Grace going on and on about the latter’s missing handcuff necklace. As Digby said, “Sigh.” Hard to imagine any of the pioneers of TV news engaging in such stupidity. It was cheaper than maintaining a bureau in Tokyo though.

    Mark, you are to be commended for doing this. Frank is right about International CNN, which is something like Ted Turner’s original idea in my limited experience in Europe. He may also be right about who watches cable news. I stopped watching virtually all cable/TV news during the 1992 election, which is when I first noticed production values had very little to do with news. And I used to actually pay attention to George Herman at CBS and Lawrence Spivak at NBC and the early Brinkley Sunday morning thing (albeit as much to throw things at Geo. F. Will as anything). No more, and it makes for better psychic health. Possibly. But I also gave up cable TV when it got ridiculously expensive, so as much as Hayes and Maddow might be better (each has recently written a useful book that I have read), the occasional snippet on the interwebs is all I’ll see. We get what the market will bear, and it seems to bear very little intelligence of any sensibility.

  3. In the early days of television, the news was supposedly off-limits to the marketing folk. It was supposed to be about news, period. That’s definitely not the case nowadays. News is entertainment, like everything else. What matters is whether you can persuade an otherwise jaded TV audience to tune in. If they want bread and circuses, that’s what you give them.

  4. Cable news is so stupid because it’s partly modern ‘journalism’, which means trying to make the world what you think it should be by telling people what you think they should know, whether or not it’s what THEY would like to know, and whether or not it’s, strictly speaking, true. And it’s particularly stupid because the rest of it is the production of a “reality show” using everybody else as unpaid actors.

  5. Go on biggish TV any time you can, Mark. Getting just a couple more strong, honest minds for truth on TV might be all we need to hold the fort.

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