This post will be different from what you are accustomed to reading. I am not commenting specifically on the current situation in Ukraine or the future of BRICS or the possible outbreak of a war with China. What I want to discuss is how the mainstream media — both traditional networks and mainline news papers and magazines — and cable news are losing influence to blogs and social media.
Part of my motivation to tackle this subject comes from a weekly Zoom meeting that I attend with a group of very smart men and women, most over the age of 65. If I named some of this distinguished souls in this group your next question would be, “Why the hell did they let you into the group?” They were feeling charitable, I guess, when they invited me to participate.
Several in this group have been doing some pretty interesting mental gymnastics in trying to explain away the Tucker Carlson/Donald Trump interview. It is an internet phenomena and set a new record as the most watched video ever on X (formerly twitter). Yet, some of these good folks just cannot believe that so many people actually watched the interview and try to dismiss the 260 million plus number as nothing more than idle clicks. These are the people who still watch cable news and spend much of their day with CNBC, Fox Business and Bloomberg News on their screens.
The television news business that reigned supreme in the 1980s and 1990s is dead. I have written previously about the difference between 1968 and 2016 in terms of ratings and viewers. In August 1968 more than 53 million Americans watched the nightly news on ABC, CBS and NBC. Walter Cronkite on CBS reigned supreme with 28 million viewers. At that time there were a little over 200 million Americans. That means a whopping 14% of all Americans were watching Walter. I was shocked to discover what had happened to ratings when I looked at the numbers for August 2016. All major networks and cable news shows combined had a total of roughly 28 million viewers. (Yes, I added up the ratings for ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News).
Although fewer people were watching these various news shows, the anchors continued to make big money and the corporate control of these various outlets became more concentrated. The new reality is that legacy media and cable news cater primarily to an elite audience that is not representative of the American social and ethnic classes.
I made my first appearance as a terrorism pundit on August 15, 1994 on CNN to talk about the capture of Carlos the Jackal aka Ilich Ramírez Sánchez. Way back then this was a simple news hit. I was invited on to talk about the terrorist past of Carlos and the meaning of his arrest. As a result of that bit of punditry I started getting invites from all the other networks, and I do mean all. I appeared multiple times on CNN’s Crossfire, NBC’s Today Show, ABC’s Nightline, CBS 60 Minutes and the Jim Lehrer Newshour, just to mention a few. In late 1999 NBC hired met to be their terrorism consultant as we waited for the world to implode with the arrival of Y2K aka New Year’s 2000. After 9-11, Fox News put me under contract for a year (all of 2002). Roger Ailes decided not renew my contract because I was raising questions about the wisdom of invading Iraq.
Whenever I was asked to appear on any show the process was the same regardless of network. There would be a pre-interview (the producers wanted to know what I was going to say). The network would send a limo to my home. I made sure I was cleaned up and wearing a suit jacket of some type. The drivers of the limos were from Pakistan. Always. The immigrant Pakis had the limo business with the various networks locked down.
When I arrived at the station I would be hustled into make-up and then sit in the “green” room making chit chat with any other pundit waiting to go on air. Met some interesting folks this way. When the time came for my hit I would be taken to either a small studio or ushered into the main stage where I sat across from folks like Wolf Blitzer, Bill Press, Patrick Buchanan and even Tucker Carlson. Except for the appearances on Cross Fire, most of the time on air lasted five to eight minutes. Once my moment of punditry was over I trundled back to the make up room to remove my disguise, exited the building, climbed into the limo and returned home. This whole process consumed two to two-and-a-half hours for a brief bit of punditry.
There was one exception to this pattern. Sixty Minutes. They brought a five man crew to my home in Bethesda in October 2001. They set up for more than two hours — lighting and sound — and then Bob Simon showed up. He needed to change clothes and the next thing I knew I had Bob Simon in his underwear in my foyer. Hilarious. All of this for a 45 second comment on the story about 9-11. Hey, it was CBS money, not mine.
That world no longer exists, thanks in large part to Covid. All of the networks, both in the United States and abroad, discovered Zoom, Skype, Streamyard and Google as more efficient, cheaper and quicker ways to snag an interview. I feel for the poor Pakistani limo driver’s . Their days of being the primary chauffeurs for pundits in Washington, DC have been decimated by the internet.
But that is not the revolutionary change that has transformed the TV and Cable News empire into tabloid, propaganda outlets. Starting in 2008, with the arrival of Barack Obama, the networks and cable shows became more political. Prior to 2008 I remember being able to have legitimate debates on air with people who had opposite points of views. I recall vividly debating Professor Alan Dershowitz during the Wye River Summit in October 1998. I laughed at him insisting that Jonathan Pollard was not a spy and it discombobulated him. But at least we had an honest disagreement without rancor or screaming.
After 2008 all of that changed. Fox became the anti-Obama channel and the rest of the media donned their Obama cheerleading outfits. The age of honest debate (if it ever existed) was over. My anti-Iraq comments and my appearance in the documentary, Outfoxed, ensured I would never be invited to appear on Fox News. My criticism of Barack Obama and his ties to terrorists and other unsavory political characters made me persona non grata with the rest of the media. I am not complaining and I have no regrets. Just telling the story.
In 2017 I started to get invites to appear on foreign media, such as RT. I appeared several times on RT’s program, Cross Talk. Remember, this was pre-covid. Only with RT I did not get a limo. I had to drive myself but they paid for parking. When Covid hit, the media world changed. No more in person interviews. Instead, the TV interviewers were content to use my computer camera and audio. Wasn’t great but it got the job done.
We are now in an era where I believe that the mainstream media, especially TV and Cable, are largely irrelevant. Yet the tradition of using those platforms is still firmly embedded in the establishment mentality. Politicians raise tons of money, or try to, just to buy time on conventional TV and Cable that a diminishing number of people are watching. The action has shifted to podcasts, X and other social media platforms. That is what the vast majority of Americans are watching.
Most politicians do not understand nor comprehend the shift that has taken place. There are exceptions. Barack Obama picked up on it early. Donald Trump is the king of social media. And Vivek Ramaswamy gets in. The rest are still welded to the legacy media and foolishly spend money on TV ads that people skip if they can.
The wild west world of the internet scares the hell out of the traditional media gatekeepers. They no longer can wield total control over what messages get out. That is why the Biden Administration was working so frantically to get social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube to quash any voice that failed to genuflect before acceptable government policy. These dummies fail to realize that the world of the internet is still relatively free and that alternative channels exist or are being created every day.
There was a time when all of the cable news shows would permit a debate about the war in Iraq, for example. Now? Complete shutdown of anyone who speaks out against the U.S. policy in Ukraine. Col. Doug MacGregor is one of the rare exceptions. He appeared several times on Tucker’s show, and a few others. But now that Tucker’s gone, Doug and I are relegated to doing internet podcasts. Great! Instead of trying to discuss the complexities of the Ukraine/Russia war in five minutes, we can spend 30 minutes to an hour and a half going in depth.
We cannot (and should not) go back to the halcyon days of the 1990s and early 2000s. The combination of blogs and podcasts have created a new world that cuts across international borders and provides the means for creating a genuine international community of conversation. We just have to do what we can. That is why I have this blog and I thank you for being part of this new community.