Last week's Chelsea Clinton furor marks a low point in cable network competition for eyeballs and ears during the 24/7 news cycle and raises broader questions about their prime-time "journalism," which has degenerated into a babble of idiot ids vying for attention.
David Shuster's "pimped out" remark exemplifies a trend reported almost a year ago by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, that "cable news channels...are moving more toward personalities, often opinionated ones, to win audiences.
"The most strident voices, such as Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck, are among the biggest successes in winning viewers, as is CNN’s new crusader, Lou Dobbs. How much those individual shows affect a channel’s overall audience is harder to gauge. Their growth in 2006 was substantial, particularly among 25-to-54-year-olds, but those gains were not enough to stanch the overall declines.
"The shifts toward even edgier opinion are also probably a response to another change. Cable is beginning to lose its claim as the primary destination for what was once its main appeal: news on demand. That is something the Internet can now provide more efficiently."
Something even more basic is involved as well. Unlike newspapers, magazines and even blogs, TV news has always been a zero-sum game. If a viewer loses interest and switches channels, it's over, so the premium is on attention-getting and holding. Blowhards and gasbags are the means of choice.
So Olbermann, as much as he rants at Bill O'Reilly, is driven to his own extremes as are Chris Matthews, Joe Scarborough and the trash-talking heads they assemble every night.
Only when there is immediate news to analyze, as on election nights, are the more rational voices heard--the Andrea Mitchells, Candy Crowleys, Jeffrey Toobins, Jeff Greenfields and even the Tom Brokaws of TV's greatest generation.
The rest of the time, it's hyperbole and hype, with the news, you might say, being pimped out.