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From the Center

Years from now, when the obituary for cable television has been written and we have all turned to streaming platforms and other digital sources of news and information, last Thursday may turn out to be a day of tremendous symbolic importance in how cable’s extinction occurred.

First came the release of court documents in the defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News Network for its coverage of the aftermath of the 2020 election. Fox has been criticized in the past for giving a platform to Donald Trump’s legal advisors, who argued that the election had been stolen as a result of widespread voter fraud. They specifically alleged that Dominion had rigged its voting machines to produce a fallacious result. 

Dominion sued Fox for $1.6 billion, charging the conservative news network with intentionally maligning them by not scrutinizing the disproven claims of Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell and others with more diligence. But the newly-disclosed information portrayed a number of Fox luminaries as understanding that Trump’s allegations were false but still presenting them credulously for the purpose of protecting their audience share from more conservative competitors. 

Libel is notoriously difficult to prove in the U.S. legal system, and Fox leaders defended themselves by claiming that they were merely presented both sides of an important new story. But even if Dominion’s suit is unsuccessful, or more likely that the two parties reach a cash settlement without a verdict, the reputational damage to Fox’s news operation will be considerable. While the network’s evening commentators and talk show hosts offer strongly-held opinions each night, the news desk has always presented itself as much more even-handed in its coverage. The lawsuit will make that much harder.

Meanwhile, CNN was dealing with its own ideological embarrassment. The day after former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley had announced her candidacy for president, the network’s morning anchor Don Lemon had managed to suggest that the 51-year-old Haley was “past her prime.” Lemon’s co-hosts reacted with disbelief and outrage toward him began to pour in from critics both within CNN and the broader populace.

Lemon was forced to apologize, but conservative detractors pointed that he had never made similarly dismissive comments toward past Democratic presidential candidates such as Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris during their campaigns. The fact that he chose to level his generational broadside against ant accomplished woman was inexcusable, but the ideological selectivity he showed in insulting a former Trump cabinet member demonstrated a partisan bias that Lemon has worn on his sleeve throughout his time at CNN.

When Chris Licht was named as the network’s CEO last year, one of the first tasks was to move CNN back to the political center. After years of ratings success as a vocal White House provocateur during the Trump presidency, Licht was hired to help CNN regain its former status and a trusted an even-handed information provider. Licht quickly jettisoned progressive luminaries such as Chris Cuomo, Brian Stelter and Jeffrey Toobin, but Lemon survived. He was moved from prime time to a morning program, where his predilection for gaffes, on-air scuffles and partisan statements continued. 

But the Haley slur was much more noticeable than the garden-variety GOP-bashing that had become a Lemon trademark. Because it reflected not just the anchor’s political leanings but a pronounced misogyny and gender-based double standard as well, Lemon’s insult created an immense political and media storm. Licht publicly reprimanded him, Lemon was off the air for a couple of days, and at the time this column had written, he had suffered no other penalty.

The most ardent conservatives will find a way to excuse Fox’s coverage of Trump and Dominion. Equally-committed liberals will minimize Lemon’s unprofessional and intolerant conduct. True believers on both sides will continue to seek refuge in their preferred cable news environment, that provides them with daily reassurance of their own superiority and infallibility.

But their numbers are shrinking. Ratings are dropping. Cable television is a dying beast. The migration of top-level entertainment content to streaming platforms has already happened. Sports coverage is about to follow. And before too long, a limited number of cable news stations will no longer be able to compete against more numerous and nimble digital alternatives. 

The cable news titans could still avoid this fate if they were to decide that they wanted to produce reliably consistent information distribution and objective analysis. But if they continue on their race to the bottom, they will get there sooner than they expect.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

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Image Credit: Clemens v. Vogelsang/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)