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cableI used to be a cable subscriber for one year out of four: election year. As a political junkie, I found the up-to-the-minute news of a presidential campaign thrilling. I loved the drama.

Election 2016 changed that. It wasn't because, this time around, I was unable to enthusiastically support either candidate. It was a growing concern with the toxic atmosphere of the cable news channels and the worrisome trends they reveal about our society.

Problem #1: The Disappearing Aim of Journalism

The first problem is the blending of journalism and advocacy. Fewer reporters seek to be unbiased and objective; and fewer viewers expect or desire good journalism in its classic sense.

Problem #2: The Disappearing Desire for Truth

A second problem follows from the first. We go to news for affirmation of what we already think, instead of information we need to know. Viewers don't want the truth; they want their truth, the convenient spin or “alternative facts” that lead their political heroes to triumph or lead their opponents to shame.

Problem #3: The Rise of News as Show

A third problem is that we have become conditioned in our viewing habits to expect infotainment--an unfortunate amalgamation of facts, fads, and fun that rewards theatrics over truth.

Here is an example. When Roger Ailes, founder of Fox News, died earlier this year, an editorial in National Review recounted the creation of The Five. Ailes knew what types he wanted on that show: the "bombshell blonde," the middle-of-the-road guy, the renegade, the brunette, and the token liberal (white or black) to round out the panel. When casting the show, he made it clear to the panelists that they were replaceable precisely because they were typecast.

"Ailes was proud of the fact that he got his start in theater. He told me that he brought that sensibility to television," Jonah Goldberg writes.

"TV is an entertainment medium, one that appeals to the rational parts of our brains but also to the emotional parts. This was not an insight unique to Ailes, but he understood better than most that if the emotional part wasn't working (what people see), people wouldn't pay attention to the rational parts (what people said). That's why Ailes famously watched the news on mute when he was assessing talent. 'If there was nothing happening on screen in the way the host looked or moved that made me interested enough to stand up and turn the sound up, then I knew that the host was not a great television performer,' Ailes wrote in his book."

CNN and MSNBC play the same game as Fox, even if they tailor the theatrics for a different audience. (Remember the admission from a CNN producer that the Russia scandal was great for ratings?)

Let's be clear. We are watching shows in the old-fashioned sense of the word, as anyone who has ever seen Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews, or Rachel Maddow can attest. The personalities, the panels, the performances--it's all meant to hold on to viewers until we get through the next commercial break. 

Are We Throwing the Baby Out?

But then hurricanes hit, and I am grateful for the news coverage that warns people about the storm surge, or the flood. I’m inspired by the stories of individual families, of daring rescues, and the ongoing relief efforts.

I realize that even in the realm of politics, by creating more avenues for reporting, these networks broke the stranglehold on news and information that had once been the privilege of just a few national outlets. New theories and important stories can now circulate more widely.

The flow of information is one of the hallmarks of a free society. And just as traditional newscasters were rocked by cable news channels, now the internet has come along to rock all the TV news boats.

It is true that good journalism sneaks onto the cable networks. I could list several people whose voices I look forward to hearing whenever they show up on the major networks. Still, these reporters are the exceptions, not the rule. What's more, I can usually discover their fine work in articles online or in print magazines. I don't need TV to find them. What’s more, some of the best reporting on recent natural disasters have been done by local news channels.

What Is Cable News Doing to Us? 

In a culture that has lost its appetite for truth and has developed an appetite for coarseness and sensationalism, cable news plays to our worst tendencies.

A steady diet of cable news reinforces the idea that everything is about politics, that everything is life or death, and that we should all devote our attention to the big news story every day. (Consider how news channels count down to big events, as if the entire country waits breathlessly for whatever the channel determines is most important!)

No TV 

Recently, I finished Andy Crouch's The Tech-wise Family, a book from a journalist and writer who I've long respected for his insight into faith and culture. Crouch is a brilliant commentator on society and culture. And he doesn't have a television in the living room. The TV is in the basement. (The family turns it on so rarely that his daughter wasn't even sure they had one!)

John Piper, a preacher and writer highly influential in American evangelicalism (especially among younger generations) doesn't have a TV at all. He's never had one.

Which makes me wonder: could it be that the reason Andy Crouch's cultural analysis is so astute and Piper's devotional and exegetical writing is so compelling is because they don't spend time in front of the screen?

Asking Tough Questions

Critics could say that tuning out cable news is the mark of an escapist--a privileged form of turning a blind eye to the culture you're called to reach, or a snooty way of ignoring your neighbor. But the people I know who have cut off cable news (and that number has grown in recent months) are usually more engaged in their neighborhoods and churches, not less. No one who has followed the work of Crouch or Piper would say that these men are disengaged from what is happening in the world around them.

Instead, we could make the opposite case: the steady diet of infotainment desensitizes us to true suffering and leads to paralysis in searching for real solutions.

Does a regular rhythm of cable news make us better neighbors? Better moms and dads? Better church members?

Are these shows good for our souls?

Do they build character and increase our wisdom?

As Crouch writes:

"Technology is in its proper place when it helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love . . . when it starts great conversations . . . when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we are part of and responsible for stewarding, when we use it with intention and care" (20-21).

If cable news helps you do these things, then keep watching. If it doesn't, cut the cord, and find other ways to keep up with the news. Whatever you do, make sure you're intentional about your habits, because your viewing patterns shape your heart.

If we want renewed minds that discern the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God (Romans 12:2), some of us may to turn off the TV. The world needs fewer talking heads and more thinking heads . . . and bigger hearts.

View Comments


17 thoughts on “Should We Pull the Plug on Cable News?”

  1. Curt Day says:

    To me, the issue isn’t cable news or non-cable news, it is whether we get our news from one ideological source. Those who read just conservative sights or just liberal sites or just leftist sights are the ones who are most susceptible to the kind of exposure which was associated with cable news in the article above.

    Yes, cable news doesn’t always inform, but neither does the mainstream media. And what they have in common is that they are owned by giant corporations who have their own reasons for sponsoring cable news shows. Thus it is who owns your news source that is a very significant factor in what news you will or will not see.

  2. Dean P says:

    Trevin: What are some other ways that you have found to keep up with the news? Websites, blogs, journals etc.?
    I don’t have cable but I still look at CNN and for my news only because I don’t know where else to go.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      I know it will sound almost silly in its simplicity, but I check the homepage once a day, just to see what’s happening. I also subscribe to a lot of magazines. World, Christianity Today, The New Yorker, Weekly Standard, National Review, Time, etc.

      1. Dean P says:

        Thanks Trevin that is very helpful.

  3. Michael Bragg says:

    To a certain extent, everything does relate to “politics,” but not in the usual way we think of politics. One of the first lessons I learned as a young political science student was that “politics” is not limited to campaigns, elections, and government process. Instead, “politics” is group decision making; hence, we have office politics, church politics, and family politics. 2016 changed my life in a substantial way. Previously, Fox News ran 24/7. No more because it became a Trump propaganda arm. Certain Evangelical leaders were exposed to care more about the world than our Lord. The Bible Belt myth was busted to show who populate our churches or at least claim to be Christians. Civil religion was put on display as the real hope for many. Yet we better not turn off the news or cloister into monasteries, but should be aware of what is happening around us, not just with “them” but with “us.”

  4. Philmonomer says:

    On the one hand, I’m glad that Trevin Wax has come to this opinion now, in 2017. On the other hand, this was also (largely) Jon Stewart’s critique of the media in his epic 2004 appearance on Crossfire.

    I think many people have known that cable news is garbage for years and years.

    1. Philmonomer says:

      This comment reads more snarky than I originally intended it. I apologize for that.

  5. Craig says:

    Yes, for most, I think – but they won’t. It’s an extension (was?) of early conservative radio. Meaning it has added, in a cumulative effect, to the divisive nature of life in America. I’m older than your average reader (I’m guessing… Imonk introduced me to you) but all the means of this constant barrage, regardless of medium (I’d say social media is the next “culprit” after targeted cable TV networks) is culpable for the current state of “division-ism”.

  6. Tim Bryant says:

    About 4 years ago I sat in a restaurant that had CNN and Fox playing on opposite sides of the dining room. I noticed they did not seem to be reporting news from the same world. At that moment I realized they present news their respective audiences want to see. Since then I’ll check both CNN and Fox to see to see what they are presenting, and if they are reporting on the same event, I know I should take notice.

  7. Vic N says:

    I pulled the plug years ago. I have a very old non flat screen TV. It still works because I play some DVD’s like the Waltons once or so every year or two. I look at news sources from all sides. I limit what I see out of those. Your No TV paragraph is dead on. I have more time for things that will serve Christ and serve others without developing the bad habit of TV. Its one less bad habit I have to get rid of.

  8. Brad C. says:

    You can pretty much get all the news that’s important from Drudge Report, on-line.

    1. Laura says:

      It’s curated by Drudge though so you are getting one side. And unless he’s stopped you are getting made-up news from the likes of Infowars and Prison Planet.

  9. ChrisB says:

    I’ve cut way back on the new I take in because it’s just not a useful way to spend my time.

    This is the news: Here are the days latest outrages and crises that either don’t affect you or are completely out of your control.

  10. Randy Armstrong says:

    Very insightful. Might want to include other electronic media sources as contributors to the “toxic atmosphere” you mentioned. Facebook and Twitter make the promulgation of sensationalist articles much more prevalent, whether we have a cable news connection or not.

  11. Jody Wentzel says:

    It’s not just cable news. It’s all news. ABC, NBC, & CBS are just as bad. I spent decades watching the news with a liberal slant, so I’m sticking with Fox in moderation.

    I think as long as you are intellectually honest and realize the slant of the news you’re watching, you’re ok.

    I wish there was a place to get the facts without all the needless adjectives & conclusions drawn, but I haven’t found it yet.

  12. Laura says:

    We don’t have cable. We use our TV to watch Netflix shows and movies. I get my main news from New York Times and Washington Post online, and I have a Twitter feed that balances between left and right so I get a variety of viewpoints. I quit watching TV many years ago because of all the violence. Even if I was watching something else they’d hawk their violent shows in commercials. I don’t want that normalized in my psyche.

  13. Ted Thomas says:

    My mother did a good deed for our family; she got rid of our TV when I have 15. Now, some 45+ years later, I don’t miss it, and frankly never have. That said, my family definitely comsumes entertainment on the net (Netflix, Amazon, etc.) but because of the control one has in those contexts, the choices are far more constructive.
    I don’t pay for cable, but I do definitely still listen to liberal/progressive podcasts at times, because I want to pray for and understand the culture around me. These are my neighbors; I don’t get to create the neighborhood I live in– I must deal with the one I have.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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