Chris Christie should be too busy to second-guess the judgments of cable-TV news.
His latest term as Republican governor of New Jersey began on January 21st. Months of fund-raising lie ahead, as chairman of a Republican committee supporting governors’ election campaigns in 36 states. A darling of his party’s business-friendly Establishment wing, he is a putative contender for the White House in 2016.
If all that were not enough, he suddenly finds himself battling multiple allegations of petty bullying. Mr Christie, a swaggering giant of centre-right politics, has suffered no direct hits. But just now–like King Kong swatting at biplanes–he is struggling to keep his balance.
Mr Christie denies wrongdoing. His aides reject recent claims by the Democratic mayor of Hoboken, who says she was told that post-Hurricane Sandy aid might not flow to her city unless she backed a development scheme favoured by the governor. Carl Lewis, a former Olympic athlete, says Mr Christie tried to “intimidate” him in a politico-sporting dispute. The governor has apologised for just one case, after underlings — he insists without his knowledge — ordered a bridge partly closed, apparently to snarl traffic in a town deemed disloyal.
Amid all this, the governor’s spokesman somehow found time to issue a long, extravagantly detailed denunciation of MSNBC, a lefty cable news channel which has been especially tough on his boss. The statement called MSNBC’s reporting “almost gleeful”, grumbled about presenters comparing Mr Christie to Richard Nixon and accused the channel of devoting excessive airtime to the governor’s woes.
The Left is just as irked by Fox News, a conservative outlet launched in 1996. Even Barack Obama, an exceedingly self-possessed man, was rattled by coverage of his first months in office, calling Fox News a “megaphone” devoted to attacking his administration. A new, hostile biography of the channel’s head, Roger Ailes, calls him a man of almost unrivalled political power, who has “divided a country”.
In part, self-interest explains the hyperbole. Mr Christie has prospered in a largely Democratic state by governing as a fiscal conservative who is moderate on some issues (gun control, immigration and–after Hurricane Sandy–working with Mr Obama). Conservative purists duly distrust him. But they hate MSNBC and the “lamestream media” still more. That makes it shrewd for the governor to portray himself as the victim of an ambush by fact-twisting lefty hacks. As for Gabriel Sherman, Mr Ailes’s breathless biographer, he has a book to sell.
For many, the hysteria is sincere. Ask Democrats why they struggle to win support for such policies as Obamacare, immigration reform or action on global warming, and they often blame Fox News for misinforming voters. Noting the role that Fox News played in promoting the anti-government Tea Party in 2009, many accuse the channel of helping extremists seize control of the Republican Party. Among Republicans, it is an article of faith that America is, deep down, a conservative country, and that if elections do not always reflect that truth, it is because the Right is denied a fair hearing by the elite media, which hides a deep liberal bias beneath pious talk of objectivity.
Plenty of pundits fret that too many Americans inhabit partisan echo chambers, hearing only news that confirms their prejudices. They point to evidence that the country is more divided, and that such changes coincide with the rise of cable TV and the internet. Over the past 30 years of presidential elections, the number of swing states has fallen sharply (just four states were really close in 2012), and the number of landslide states has soared. Ticket-splitting districts–which back one party for the White House but the other for Congress–have become as rare as hen’s teeth. Though voters’ views of “their” party have not much changed, more say they fear or are enraged by the other one.
Those same years saw cable TV spread nationwide (talk radio boomed too, notably after the Reagan-era abolition of rules requiring political “balance” on air). In polls, well over half of Americans report watching cable news at least sometimes. Those channels are growing shoutier. The Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, found Fox News more negative about Mr Obama in 2012 than four years earlier, and found similar changes in MSNBC’s coverage (just 3% of its Mitt Romney stories were positive).
Sean Hannity v “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”
Yet those who blame Fox and MSNBC for dividing the country should check their sums. Markus Prior of Princeton University has dug into data, much of it unpublished, from ratings companies who remotely track viewing habits in sample households. His conclusion is that Americans fib about what they watch, and that large majorities simply shun cable news. Perhaps 10-15% of the voting-age population watch more than 10 minutes of cable news a day, a share that rises modestly before exciting elections. For most individual news shows (including hybrids like Jon Stewart’s satirical “Daily Show”), 2m viewers counts as a wild success. That is the equivalent of 0.8% of voting-age Americans.
In 1969 half of American homes tuned into the big networks’ evening newscasts (it helped that their cautiously high-minded, eat-your-greens reporting was all there was to watch at dinner-time). The advent of cable gave those bored by politics somewhere to flee. If obsessives now dominate political debate, Mr Prior suggests, the real culprit is not Fox but choice. Fiery partisans continue to watch lots of news, but other Americans prefer football or “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”.
The changes are not over. News-lovers are greying (hence all those arthritis ads on TV). For several years most young Americans have told Pew that they do not “enjoy” following news, in any medium. They don’t seem to be changing their minds as they age. In time, politicians may be begging for any coverage at all.
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