The fighting public sphere



Briefly today, I want to note the downfall this week of another incumbent.

That would be Campbell Brown, the 8 p.m. host on CNN. Judging by the lousy ratings that her show garnered - according to Nielsen, she drew only 314,000 viewers last Friday, a nationwide tally that's roughly equivalent to the circulation of a certain big-city newspaper - I assume that most people will shrug at the news that she is giving up the show and leaving the network.

But I see her departure as a sad testament to the times we live in. Brown is a journalist, not a shrieking partisan. She tried to helm a show based on journalistic values; she hosted a number of opinionated regulars (including Democrat Donna Bazille and Republican Alex Castellanos), but sought to question and challenge them with professional dispassion. The problem was, most political junkies who watch cable TV tend not to value dispassion. They prefer instead to get their opinions validated by the shrieking partisans - Bill O'Reilly, Keith Olbermann - with whom they already agree.

As commentator Paul Starr recently noted in The Atlantic magazine, the ever-growing polarization of our politics has fueled and reinforced polarization within the media: "On cable talk radio, and the Internet, partisanship pays...It's not just that (Walter) Cronkite is gone, the world that made Cronkite possible is dead. Now we have a fighting public sphere...Fox News and MSNBC stir up the emotions, not just of their devoted viewers, but of those who abhor them."

Brown herself acknowledged all this, as well as her own failures to buck the tide, in a candid Monday announcement. She said, "While the rest of the cable news world moved to opinion, CNN allowed me to stay true to my hard-news roots and supported me with a true commitment to old-school journalism." As a result, however, the size of her audience fell by 38 percent over the past year - which meant that her only option was to morph into a shrill partisan. But she couldn't do it: "Shedding my own journalistic skin to try to inhabit the kind of persona that might co-exist in that (8 pm) lineup is simply impossible for me. It is not who I am or who I want to be."

Let's at least give this incumbent some extra points for sheer honesty. When Brown bluntly stated, "The simple fact is that not enough people want to watch my program, and I owe it to myself and to CNN to get out of the way," that's the equivalent of a politician saying "I'm leaving office because not enough voters like me anymore, so I'm just gonna get out of the way" - a spin-free sentence that will never pass the lips of anybody in power.

Beyond that, it's simply tragic that there isn't room for at least one shriek-free cable show at that key evening hour. Given the state of play in our culture, I suppose we can soon anticipate that CNN will fill that slot with a souped-up version of "Crossfire," in which Paul Begala and Erick Erickson don kneepads and wrestle in mud.


This is what happens when tea-party Republicans manage to nominate somebody from the conservative fringe...

Rand Paul, the new Kentucky Senate GOP nominee, believes as a point of principle that government should not regulate the private sector; and, as a point of consistency, he doesn't think the government should play any role in barring the private sector from discriminating on the basis of race. That's the same position that southern racists espoused in the early 1960s, when they tried to keep their restaurants segregated.

Last night on MSNBC, Paul was asked about his principled position. Ready for his verbatim answer?

"What I think would happen -- what I’m saying is, is that I don’t believe in any discrimination. I don’t believe in any private property should discriminate, either. And I wouldn’t attend, wouldn’t support, wouldn’t go to. But what you have to answer when you answer this point of view, which is an abstract, obscure conversation from 1964 that you want to bring up. But if you want to answer, you have to say then that you decide the rules for all restaurants and then you decide that you want to allow them to carry weapons into restaurants."

Normally I'd suggest that the guy better come up with something a tad more coherent, but the mood in Kentucky being what it is, he'll probably win in November anyway.