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Cable news is redeemable

I'm going to use Rupert Murdoch this week to help make my point. It might be a stretch to argue Fox News is redeemable because its own founder doesn't even believe their content, but stick with me.

I can say one thing for sure as someone who has worked in both public broadcasting and cable news: the financial incentives in commercial TV irreparably distort the content. The people who I worked with in public radio and the people at MSNBC, by and large, cared about the same types of stories and issues. My former colleagues at MSNBC cared about immigrants, science, and the climate the same way my fellow producers in public radio did. The reason the content is so radically different is mostly due to the need to rate. Not only do cable news producers ignore many topics they care about, but they have incentives to cherry pick information and amp inflammatory content to keep the masses watching.

Public broadcasting does not have that pressure to rate, so the tone is much more civilized and the topics span a greater range. NPR producers decide when to cover minorities and climate change based on their earnest judgment and how the stories fit into any particular news cycle.

That is why I believe we must find a way to minimize ratings in TV news. I saw cable producers regularly downplay stories and topics that they themselves actually believed were important, almost always for the sake of ratings. To me, it's logical. If you remove those incentives, or if you are able to mitigate them, then the tone and content will change. It will automatically become more responsible. If we focus on the process and improve editorial ethics, then the end product will fix itself.

So what does this have to do with Rupert Murdoch? This week, a former Fox News executive wrote an op-ed lambasting the founder of the network. Preston Padden, who was a Republican for 50 years, helped launch the conservative outlet. He should have some sway with Murdoch, yet this year, he tried in vain to get his old colleague to correct the channel's content. Padden says he doesn't understand why Murdoch allows disinformation to persist on air, especially because Rupert Murdoch himself doesn't believe those lies. Specifically, Padden wrote about Murdoch:

“I believe that he thought that it was important to protect his own health by wearing a mask during the pandemic and he encouraged me to do the same. I believe that he thought that it was important to protect his own health by getting vaccinated at the earliest opportunity and he encouraged me to do the same. And I believe that he thinks that former President Trump is an egomaniac who lost the election by turning off voters, especially suburban women, with his behavior. He owes himself a better legacy than a news channel that no reasonable person would believe.”

Why would Rupert Murdoch possibly allow content on the network he created if he doesn't believe it himself? Because, it seems easy to presume, he is pandering to his audience. Murdoch tried to break from Trump, albeit slightly, after the election and his network lost viewers to the Trump loyalists, Newsmax and OAN. However, since Fox News anchors have rallied around Trump and stoked distrust in vaccines, their audience has returned. The network may not be as strong as it was this time last year -- that's to be expected as all audiences are down -- but I can assure you that they were trying to chase an audience and they have succeeded. That's why Murdoch allows it, even if he doesn't believe the material himself. The network's earning billions in advertising revenue. That is strong incentive.

Needless to say, that leaves us with the question, "so what can be done?" For starters, I believe everyone should read Martha Minow's new release, "Saving the News," in which she provides the legal framework for regulating and supporting a free press. By phone, the Harvard law professor discussed specific questions I had related to cable news. We have the power to regulate, much like a public utility. It's implicit in the constitution, she says. Furthermore, by focusing on the editorial process, say, by pressing outlets to adopt ethical standards, then that would help avoid many of the prickly First Amendment issues that have created obstacles to regulation in the past.

You can read more about this topic in my latest column for CJR -- and I'll be covering it further in the weeks and months to come. Essentially, we can provide oversight, while also making public television more accessible as an alternative to cable news. Minow's book actually provides the constitutional foundation for such changes.

Now, can we get Murdoch to abide by an ethical code, such as the one provided by the Society of Professional Journalists? That's hard to say. (But he is 90.) The better question is why wouldn't Murdoch (or Jeff Zucker at CNN or Rashida Jones at MSNBC) voluntarily adopt ethical standards? The template provided by SPJ would certainly help minimize the influence of ratings. But, again, as Martha Minow argues, we the people have the power, so we can demand better even from private companies. Stay tuned!

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