I’ve been streaming my television content since I moved to Miami Beach in 2013, mainly because I don’t watch enough channels to get any value out of a cable package. In 2016, I decided to download the CNN Go app to follow the election because I felt like I was missing out on important coverage during such a monumental shift in American politics. I tuned out after election night, though, because I felt bamboozled with the election results and placed the blame on my reliance on cable news as a primary source of information.
I will admit that, at first, I tuned out in an attempt to bury my head in the sand and live in denial about our current political leadership. But then months passed and I didn’t feel any desire to check in with New Day or AC360, the programs I watched the most last year. Instead, I subscribed to The New Yorker and went back to reading The Economist and The Guardian to stay informed.
Current events seemed so heavy at the time that I frequently read pieces from The New Yorker’s archives to take a step back and gain perspective on the issues of the present. It was there that I came across a piece written by E.B. White in 1960, another election year, that helped illuminate my problem with cable news and television programming in general.
“If you open a copy of the Times to a page that has in one column a Macy ad displaying a set of china and in an adjoining column a news story about China itself, your eye makes a choice; you read about Macy’s china or about Mao’s China, according to your whim. It’s a free selection. But if you turn your TV set to a channel, only one image appears, and after you have watched for a few moments, an advertiser buttonholes you and says his piece in a loud voice while you listen or try not to listen, as the case may be. Thus, your attention is not just invited by the commercial, it is to a large extent preempted. Preemption of this sort does not occur in periodicals. It cannot occur. There, advertising matter competes with editorial matter for the reader’s attention, and it is fair competition,” wrote White in “How Television Has Changed Us“.
Reading his words, which could have been written last year without losing their effect, made me realize that my problem wasn’t with one television journalist or cable network, but with the business of television programming in general. While cable subscribers enjoy a sense of choice by being able to switch channels from one network to another, they still experience the effect that programming and advertisers have on the information they are consuming.
If there’s anything the 2016 election taught me, its the power of television networks to create and inflate celebrity. Gone are the days when we knew nothing about our trusted news anchors. These days, journalists and pundits make their careers based on Q Scores, not the validity of the information they are sharing. This issue was exacerbated when Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States.
While most of us were fixated on all of his gaffes and blunders on the campaign trail, Trump was fixated on the television ratings his candidacy generated (a fixation that has followed him into the Oval Office). He was the most covered candidate from the primaries through the general election and cable news has benefitted from his political ascent, even though neither networks executives nor Trump himself want to admit to their symbiotic relationship.
These days, I stream episodes of Survivor in lieu of tuning into cable news in my free time. I find the skills necessary to win a game like like that far more useful in my daily life than what I learned from watching pundits vie for a chance to shine on CNN.
On Survivor, you get blindsided if you’re too altruistic. You get voted out of the game if people see your leadership qualities as a threat early on. At the end, it is a jury of your peers that decides if you deserve to win $1 Million, usually based on your ability to make friends and gain influence while playing the game. I wish I had been exposed to these ideas before the 2016 election.
Sure, hindsight is 20/20, but maybe I wouldn’t have been blindsided by the election results and would have been better equipped to help my candidate win if I had tuned out of cable news earlier and focused my attention on how to outlast, outwit and outplay the competition.