During a TV interview years ago, I said, tongue-only-slightly-in-cheek, that Roger Ailes, the visionary who created and ran Fox News, should send thank-you notes and flowers to the presidents of ABC, NBC and CBS news networks for delivering so many of their viewers to Fox.
Fox was built on alienation. It was the place to go if you didn't like the biases of the old TV networks. But I never bought into the fairy tale that those unhappy viewers, who rightly spotted a liberal slant at the networks, abandoned Dan Rather and the others because they craved "fair and balanced" coverage at Fox.
They went over, I was convinced — most of them, anyway — because they wanted a comfortable place where they could sit back, relax and get their own biases validated.
It wasn't so much that they were against bias per se. They were against bias they didn't agree with.
Ailes gave them refuge from the liberal sensibilities that held sway at the networks. Now — especially in the age of Donald Trump — MSNBC and CNN are also places that cater to particular tastes in politics and culture. Yes, there are a few hard news broadcasts on cable that at least try to play it straight. But very often I can't tell the difference between a news program and an opinion show. The line separating the two used to be bright red; now it's fuzzy and gray.
The key to understanding how it all works is to grasp one simple concept: Cable TV is not broadcasting, which needs to appeal to a broad audience with varied tastes. It's narrowcasting, which needs to attract a narrow audience with particular tastes.
Forgive me for stating the obvious: If you like Donald Trump you're more likely to watch Fox. If you detest the president, MSNBC is the place for you, as are more than a few programs on CNN.
Kellyanne Conway understandably may be not be a model of objectivity, but she hit CNN's Brian Stelter right between the eyes recently with an objective truth: "Just say we're doing better in the ratings," she told him, "we're getting better ad revenues because we're one of the more anti-Trump than down-the-line outlets, just own it." In other words, bashing Donald Trump has been good for CNN's bottom line. But Stelter had a reply — unfortunately it was a pathetic one: "We're not anti-Trump, we're pro honesty, we're pro decency." There's a good chance even the brass at CNN got a chuckle out of that one.
A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center didn't exactly break news with this analysis: "When it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds. There is little overlap in the news sources they turn to and trust. And whether discussing politics online or with friends, they are more likely than others to interact with like-minded individuals."
If you're a car manufacturer it makes sense to survey your potential customers to learn what kind of cars they want. If they want SUVs, it's good business to give them SUVs. If you make shoes and your customers want stilettos, give them stilettos.
But if your product is information, while it may be good business to give your customers what they want, pandering to their tastes comes with a price: it fuels an already toxic polarization in America.
There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution, of course, protecting the rights of car manufacturers or people who make shoes. But the business of information — especially political information — being considerably more important to the wellbeing of the republic, is different than any other business. Or least it's supposed to be.