One of the peculiarities of the Donald Trump presidency is the amount of personal time Trump invests in watching cable news channels.
Unlike his predecessors who scoffed at the idea of getting caught up in the play-by-play, blow-by-blow that fills cable news channels, Trump personally watches, and for better or for worse, he sometimes reacts on Twitter to what he sees on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.
What else would you expect from a reality television star who transitioned to politics?
This is not a habit he picked up after inauguration, but one that goes back long before his presidential campaign, according to multiple press accounts. And as the most powerful man in the free world, it’s unlikely he will give up that habit.
With the president as a major cable news consumer, those channels’ programming impacts the political climate more than ever.
Cable news hasn’t always been influential. When CNN first came on the air in 1980, it was regarded as a novelty. Back then, only 22 percent of American households that owned a television had basic cable. The three broadcast evening news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC still dominated the TV news landscape.
Not until 1991,11 years later, was CNN able to surpass the networks. At the launch of the first Gulf war, CNN was able to broadcast from inside Iraq during the initial bombing campaign, giving it a competitive advantage over the big three.
Even with CNN nipping at the networks’ heels for influence, the early ‘90s largely saw consumers serious about current events continue to go to the networks and the major newspapers — such as The Washington Post and The New York Times — for political news. If you were really a news junkie, you might also watch CNN and CNBC, listen to NPR and read The Wall Street Journal.
But that changed midway through the decade.
In 1996, MSNBC and Fox News came along. It took both of those channels a few years to settle into the identities we know them as today — that is, MSNBC being a left-leaning outlet and Fox News being a right-leaning outlet.
Although a viewer may perceive a liberal bias in CNN, it never overtly took on an ideological brand like its two competitors, but that seems to be changing in the Trump era.
Twenty years later, cable news is bigger than ever in viewership.
Even now, many still scoffed at cable news. Some — who are fooling themselves — believe outlets such as NPR’s “All Things Considered,” The New York Times editorial pages or CSPAN provide more erudite coverage of news. By extension, they believe listening to and reading those sources make them smarter and better informed than the general public. They don’t need pundits on Fox News, CNN or MSNBC telling them how or what to think, darn it!
If you insist on taking that approach to news, however, you will be under-informed. Neglecting those news outlets, even though they approach silliness at times, will leave you without a barometer of where the mass news-consuming, hyper-partisan segment of the public is.
The evening broadcast network news shows — CBS’s “Evening News,” NBC’s “Nightly News” and ABC’s “World News Tonight” — still have much larger viewerships than any cable news show. Fox News Channel’s highest-rated program in 2016, the now-defunct “The O’Reilly Factor,” averaged 3.29 million that year. That’s about half what an ABC, NBC or CBS weeknight evening news broadcast draws.
The difference is the cable news viewer is likely to be more active in the political process. These viewers are the ones who participate in primary elections. They are the ones who made Donald Trump the GOP’s nominee. They are the ones who even made something like Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vermont) presidential bid a possibility.
To them, the national political news isn’t something to catch up on after the local news reports or something to watch while waiting for “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” to come on. It’s a lifestyle.
Yes, they may not have heard the clever analysis from the Harvard political science professor about Trump’s first 100 days on NPR or the speech the backbencher from Tennessee delivered on the floor of the House of Representatives about the turmoil in the Middle East. They did, however, see MSNBC make the repeated case Russia hacked the election or Fox News report the Obama administration may have spied on Trump during the campaign.
Those are the people who tend to make their voices heard. It’s not the casual news consumer. It’s not the millennial who went to vote because Ludacris said to on MTV’s “Rock the Vote.” Yes, those people matter on Election Day. But there’s a lot that goes on the other 364 days a year.
While (ironically) the media and Trump’s opponents mock the president for his hyper-focus on cable news given his access to information through intelligence reports, it is an advantage for him politically. There is a market system that guides the cable news channels. Each has their ideologically dedicated audience, and the executives at those networks tend to deliver what they think those audiences want.
It’s beyond where Americans get their news. Once prime time rolls around, most people who watch those channels already know the basics. It is the point of view, through the eyes of a Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow, which steers the takeaway from the basic facts.
Where a lot of Republican presidential hopefuls went wrong is in trying to develop a campaign platform catering to the average likely GOP voter who maybe reads the local paper and is up on how the Associated Press covered an issue, but not the steaming hot takes on cable news.
Look at the culmination of the GOP contest — in the end, it was a reportedly cable news-obsessed Trump versus Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who also is known to have shaped his image around being the Tea Partier’s Tea Partier.
On the Democratic side, it was a little different. But if you had been a viewer of any of MSNBC’s prime-time lineup, you probably would have heard the channel echo a lot of Sanders’ policy positions … the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer, support socialized medicine, increase the minimum wage, etc.
In the end, Sanders was not able to defeat the Clinton machine, but a self-proclaimed socialist went much farther than people expected him to.
Dismiss cable news as hot air if you want. It can be difficult to watch. But a lot of what you see on those channels will be what politicians will use as guidance in their election campaigns and for the policies they support if elected.