What Should the Media Care About?

Jon Gabriel rightly got a lot of notice for his chart of “What Americans Care About vs. What the Media Cares About,” juxtaposing the latest Bloomberg poll of the top issues for Americans and the results of a Media Research Center survey of nightly network news coverage from late May to late June.

If you haven’t seen it, please visit the link; plenty of other outlets have been lifting it without adequate attribution.

The chart raises a perennial question in journalism: to what degree is the media to reflect public interest?  For example, in this Bloomberg poll, “other,” “none” and “not sure” add up to 8 percent.  Should we presume, therefore, that there is very little interest in the issue of media bias and thus no need for the media to cover it?  I would say “no,” but I don’t think the media should be wedded to what registers in polls, in part because the media often has input into what issues get mentioned in polls of top issues.

On the politics and coverage of the moment, Gabriel’s chart is instructive.  However, it’s not clear that the poll-driven approach Gabriel seems to champion would benefit Pres. Trump or the GOP overall.

Gabriel’s key takeaway: “Just 6 percent of Americans think Russia is the top issue, yet nightly newscasts devoted 75 percent of their airtime to the story. Meanwhile, Americans’ biggest concern, health care, only garnered 4 percent of the major networks’ total coverage.”

Health care was listed as the top issue by 35% of Americans, most likely because it is (and was) the big issue in Congress.  I suspect, however, that if the networks had spent 35% of their time covering GOP legislation with a 15% approval rating — legislation that almost no GOP officeholder from Pres. Trump on down wanted to try to sell — those upset with the media might not have enjoyed the effect of that coverage on the GOP.

Indeed, given the GOP’s clown car derby on the top issue for Americans, perhaps the GOP should be glad the media is spending an inordinate amount of time on a Russia story few seem to care about at the moment.

Pres. Trump’s biggest supporters often say that he is a master of changing the subject.  Perhaps his newsy and self-destructive comments on the Russia investigation are his brilliant way of diverting some of the media attention away from his party’s incompetence in ramming a wildly unpopular bill through Congress.  After all, Trump is known for taking one for the team when needed.

If GOPers should have a problem with the networks’ editorial judgment, it should be that jobs — normally the number one issue with Americans, but second in this poll at 13% — received only 1% of the networks’ airtime.  As Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman noted earlier this week, the polling on the economy (and Trump’s performance on the economy) is much better that Trump’s overall approval.  The economy is also probably why so few care about the Russia story, an effect that would be enhanced by more poll-driven editorial judgments.

Whether the likely damage to the GOP from more health care stories would be offset by more economic coverage is anyone’s guess.

Lastly, Gabriel asserts that if the networks “want to earn back their hemorrhaging Nielsen numbers, perhaps they can spend time on something other than Russia Russia Russia.”

However, the network numbers are down only a few percent over the same period as last year, as one might expect following a presidential election year.  It’s also part of a longer-term slow decline across quarters and years.  Their numbers are not suddenly hemorrhaging due to the Russia story.

Moreover, if one looks beyond the networks, cable newsers that seem similarly obsessed with the Russia story generally are doing their best ratings in years.  Indeed, the biggest beneficiary has been the openly left-branded MSNBC.

Just as during the campaign, when Les Moonves infamously said the saturation Trump coverage “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” the Trump Show makes for good theater (or sports).

I get that many on the Right would like to believe that the media obsession with the Russia story is destroying the media.  It isn’t, and believing it is will only cause people to misjudge how the media is going to behave.  Whatever you think the media should care about, what it does care about is ratings.  And the ratings are generally good.

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