The liberal media may be in a funk. MSNBC is getting some of its worst ratings in years, and Digby tells us that liberal blogs have experienced serious declines in traffic since the election as well. So why might this be happening?
There are two answers, neither of which would give you much solace if your job depended on raising TV ratings or bringing in more ad revenue for your web site. The first is that outside events, in the form of the natural ebb and flow of the political world, have conspired against the liberal media. The second is that the model—liberals talking about politics—is affected by that ebb and flow in a way conservative media aren't.
Let's take a quick look at the last decade or so in the life of liberalism. If we go back to the early stages of the Bush administration, we see liberals getting riled up just at a time when the Internet as a source of news and political engagement began to come of age. George Bush started an insane war in 2003, then there was an election in 2004. Then there was an extraordinary amount of ferment on the left as the direction of the Democratic party and progressivism itself was being argued over. Then there was an economic crisis and another election. Then in the first couple of years of the Obama administration, there were hugely consequential policy battles over economic stimulus and health-care reform. Then you had the rise of a political movement made up of fascinatingly, terrifyingly crazy people, and then another presidential election. All that happened without much pause, ten solid years of important political events that had liberals alternately excited and angered. When people are excited and angered, they read more and watch more. And so liberal media thrived across many platforms, and MSNBC, which had once given shows to the likes of Tucker Carlson, Pat Buchanan, Michael Savage, and Alan Keyes, made a decision that stepping in the direction of becoming a left version of Fox News could be good business.
But look where we are now. The policy arguments we're having don't seem as earthshaking. Enough has happened that liberals' ideas about President Obama are complex and ambivalent. The next election seems a long way off. Republicans have succeeded in ginning up some faux-scandals, but none of them seems a real threat to the president, so they don't look worth getting too worked up over. So is it any surprise that liberals don't feel the need to read 20 blogs a day and watch five hours of cable news?
Furthermore, liberal media just aren't built to be sustainable through any political environment the way conservative media are. Look at Fox News, which continues to lead its competitors in the ratings, and probably always will. The reason is that there is a symbiosis between the network's perspective and its viewers' predilections. If you watch Fox (or listen to conservative talk radio, for that matter) you'll hear each and every day that the grand battle is going on right now, no matter what may actually be happening. You thought the election was the critical moment, my friend? Nay. The crisis has only grown since then. The fate of everything you hold dear is about to be decided. The crisis is at hand. Catastrophe is upon us if we don't stop the liberals. Thus it is today, just as it was yesterday, and just as it will be tomorrow. Every liberal proposal is the End of Freedom, every liberal politician the most terrifying villain America has ever seen.
Fox's continued success is a testament to the fact that anger is what keeps their audience coming back. As Palpatine says to Anakin, "I can feel your anger. It gives you focus. Makes you stronger." If anger wasn't attractive to them, they wouldn't keep watching. Liberals look at shows like Bill O'Reilly's or Sean Hannity's and wonder how a person could possibly enjoy all that rage and contempt, night after night after night. But they do. As Alex Pareene says, "do you know who watches cable news all day? And at prime time? When there's not an election on, or a war, or some terrorism? Older conservative people." For them, it's always the eleventh hour.
But what is the grand battle in which liberals are now engaged? For the first time in a decade, there isn't one. Sure, you can make a reasonable case that the next three years are going to be decisive for the liberal project. But it doesn't feel that urgent to liberals. They may find a thoughtful discussion of economic inequality moderated by Chris Hayes to be interesting, but if they miss it, it won't seem like that big a deal. So at least some of them are tuning out.
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