Growing up, I watched a lot of professional wrestling. In that time, wrestling was in a sort of renaissance: Stone Cold Steve Austin reigned supreme, The Rock was growing in popularity, and Degeneration X told everyone to “Suck it!”. There were high flying acrobatics, lavish introductions, and plenty of in-ring drama. But one of the unforgettable elements for me was the ringside commentary.
For the WWF (now WWE), “JR” Jim Ross and Jerry “The King” Lawler accompanied nearly every broadcast I can remember. Jerry “The King”, a legend in his own right, famously wrestled against Andy Kaufmann in one of the greatest rivalries the sport had seen in those early years. He played an over-the-top, obsequious persona loyal to Vince McMahon and his “Corporation”. JR acted as the “Al Michaels to his Chris Collinsworth”; an adult voice providing structure and maturity to the dialogue. Lawler supplied the inanity.
At a certain point, JR took to calling Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson “the most electrifying man in sports entertainment history.” That line is etched into my mind, as is the phrase “sports entertainment”. The predetermined outcomes disqualified WWE from being the ‘competitive’ sports we generally watch. However, the training, athleticism, and brutality made for an inherently sporty endeavor that was less artistic than, say, ballet. Hence, Vince McMahon and the WWE coined the term “sports entertainment.”
Lately, while watching cable news, it reminded me of the WWE. Then, a deeper thought occurred to me: the news isn’t real. Now, before you blow a gasket, let me further refine my idea: cable news shows are not news, they’re “news entertainment”. To borrow a form from the SAT tests of olde, cable news shows are to the actual news what professional wrestling is to actual wrestling. In that sense, it is the news equivalent of sports entertainment.
I know that’s a controversial statement, but hear me out on a few points. For example, let’s say you are on the left. Why on earth would you go on Fox News to be ridiculed, interrupted, or insulted? Similarly, if you are on the right, why would you subject yourself to the same treatment on MSNBC or CNN? There could be any number of reasons. Someone who truly wants to spread their message could find it an appropriate forum for debate. But, with the deck stacked so solidly against you, it is hard to consider.
I can imagine two scenarios in which a person might subject themselves to that sort of treatment: they need the money or they want to build their brand. There’s an old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Being the right-leaning punching bag on Rachel Maddow’s show probably pays a decent wage. To draw a parallel with pro wrestling, someone has to go out there and lose to Macho Man Randy Savage. You might not become a superstar, but at least you make a living.
Say you’re on the right, though, and you go on MSNBC intent upon fiercely debating with the host or anchor. The deck is stacked against you, as you do not have home-field advantage. Just like in the Aaron Sorkin shows “The Newsroom” and “Sports Night”, cable news anchors wear earpieces through which the production team can communicate with them. This is necessary for all of the operational aspects of production, like coordinating the display of a video clip. But, anyone in that room could also feed information to the anchor. Your average viewer might not realize (or could easily forget) that there is an entire team behind one anchor or host.
Now, those last two problems have long existed in cable news. The first stems from the bias of different cable news networks; the second is inherent to the production of news on television. A third, more interesting example has reared its ugly head recently: the cable news networks attack each other. For example, on a recent broadcast, Sean Hannity referred to CNN as “the Cannabis Fake News Network”, mimicking the President and mocking CNN’s coverage of New Year’s Eve in Colorado.
Hannity’s outrage, and his denigration of left-leaning colleagues reminded me of the promo videos in which Hulk Hogan stood for an interview during a WWE broadcast and insulted his opponent. Granted, Fox News originally bore the title “fair and balanced”, a jab at the left-leaning bias of most media outlets, so they are somewhat pugnacious at the outset. But, if you turn on CNN or MSNBC, similar shots are taken back at their right-leaning colleagues by Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow, and co. Both sides love to show montages of the other.
The hypothesis I’m presenting is that cable news is not the news, it’s news entertainment. It looks like news. It smells like news. But, they are not news programs. They are a form of entertainment centered around the daily current events. There is a look and a feel that news is being presented and that policy is being debated. However, I believe that not to be the full story.
This is a topic I’m very passionate about, so I’m sure you’ll hear more on this from me in the weeks and months to come. For now, just know I like the term “news entertainment”.