In the famous baseball sing-along, the suggestion is we “root, root, root for the home team, if they don’t win it’s a shame.” But for many Americans and their news choices, it seems that rooting against is more of a draw.
Consider an Axios report that came out last week, claiming that cable news viewing amongst the three major outlets has dropped dramatically in the U.S., “down 19% in prime time for the first half of this year compared to the first half of 2021.”
The report suggested that Americans are growing weary of the headlines.
But a closer look at the numbers reveals that CNN actually sagged 47% and MSNBC 33%, while Fox News has gone up by 12%.
This follows a trend that has been going on since the change of occupants in the White House in early 2021. The more left-leaning networks, who enjoyed large audiences during the Donald Trump years, have been losing viewers ever since he left, while right-leaning Fox has been gaining them.
Some will claim this reflects a change in the nation’s political leanings, that the recent Supreme Court decisions and expected gains in the November elections show an American shift to the right, after shifting the other way in 2020.
It may be more basic than that.
It may just be we enjoy rooting against more than rooting for.
Why so negative?
I work in the radio business, where it was long believed that Rush Limbaugh, the premier practitioner of conservative political talk, always did better when a Democrat was in the White House. In 2009, President Obama criticized the radio host by name, warning Republicans in Congress that “you can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.”
The next month, Limbaugh’s ratings went through the roof.
Attacking is more seductive than defending. That seems to be how audiences respond. It is no secret that President Trump, however little CNN folks thought of him, was the best thing for their business. When he was in office, it often felt like their hosts couldn’t wait to dig their hooks into him. Their efforts were rewarded in the ratings.
Now that shoe has shifted feet. The prime time hosts on Fox regularly feast on President Biden’s gaffes and missteps. They lead with them. They pound them home. And their audiences dwarf the competition.
This trend isn’t limited to political news. We get far more interested when we can slam a celebrity than celebrate one. The recent Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial created great interest at least in part because both parties seemed so unlikable. People argued over who was worse. Do we ever argue over who is nicer?
In sports, you often hear about how certain fans are rooting for this team or that athlete to lose (LeBron James, anyone?) as much as they root for a winner.
And isn’t social media far more active when it’s attacking than when it’s promoting? Don’t we rush to cancel somebody much faster than we show appreciation for work well done? How many people jump onto the pile when a police officer does something wrong, but are silent on the countless everyday things police officers get right? How many of us act like language cops when someone makes a verbal gaffe, but never bother to compliment a well-stated sentence?
The pandemic has made everyone less tolerant and more aggressive. You can feel it in daily interactions. You can witness it in the uptick of random violence, people striking other people for no apparent reason. What’s driving this gravitational pull towards attack mode?
Everyone’s got an angle
Whatever it is, the news business has caught the bug, especially in the TV or talk radio worlds, where there is barely even a pretense of neutrality. More traditional outlets — newspapers, for example — may claim they are even handed, but can we really buy that anymore? The editorial pages of the New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal consistently reflect a particular point of view. Even in reporting straight news, what gets covered, the placement of the stories, the size of the headline, the quotes chosen versus those left out, can all reveal an advocacy position.
During the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, the actor John Krasinski started a YouTube broadcast called “Some Good News.” It was a collection of only positive stories from around the world. Big things sometimes, about coping with the pandemic, but more often small things, sweet stories, acts of kindness.
It grew exponentially. It actually became so huge that after its initial eight weeks, Krasinski had to sell it because, he said, it was too big an obligation to continue with his acting career. CBS reportedly paid him a tidy sum for the rights. And guess what?
He was attacked on social media for selling it.
I wish there was an easy solution to this. I would say being positive is healthier than being negative, but most people would just laugh at me. I would warn that the tides can turn, that a new administration may only switch players on the board, offense becomes defense, etc. But I believe those in charge already know this.
In the end, it’s on us. We are the audience. We set the trend. Fox, CNN or MSNBC — or this newspaper for that matter—- don’t exist if we don’t use them. So ask yourself, if you’ve stopped consuming news, is it because it’s too negative or not negative enough? Is it more interesting to watch our institutions get chopped down than built up? Are we root, root, rooting for the home team to fail more than win, and if they don’t win is it really a shame, or pretty much what we wanted?