Oppenheim: Anxiety In The Echo Chamber

Nov 2, 2016

In the news business, presidential election years are a time for punditry – and profits.

Consider that CNN, which struggled for years to find its mojo, is now on pace to earn more than a billion dollars in 2016. Megyn Kelly, the Fox News star known for her recent clash with Newt Gingrich, is up for contract renewal. The bidding war for her services has reportedly gone up to 20 million dollars a year – just a sample of how the media is cashing in – and spending.

I’d argue that’s not entirely bad. In the U.S., we mostly rely on a commercial system to be informed. To have entirely public-funded or state run media would be a lousy alternative. Instead, we need an open marketplace where the public demands reliable information – and gets it from news outlets that,  from a financial and moral perspective, care about the public’s trust.

Now before you start yelling at your radio – I know, the media landscape is a lot more sensational and partisan than the fairyland I just described. Fair enough. But another problem is that coverage is also more petty - too often about stuff that gets disproportionate attention.

And that gets me to Hillary Clinton’s emails – and now ones from her aide, Huma Abedin. The news value has been the accusation that, as Secretary of State, Clinton mishandled classified information or covered something up. The latest cache, found on Anthony Weiner’s computer, suggests there could be more to this saga. FBI Director James Comey opted to reveal the emails exist, without revealing what they actually contain.

That’s not a nothing story. But the timing is unfortunate. In the media world, the period before Election Day is when the noise in the echo chamber is the loudest and anxiety is the worst. It’s when public engagement is high and substance is low.

That’s what happens in a normal election year but this year has been anything but normal, from historical precedent to unprecedented controversy – making previous elections that seemed fraught at the time seem tame by comparison.

Now we have a late-breaking controversy that can’t be resolved before voters cast their ballots. The resulting hysteria may keep us glued to the tube, and make money for media companies. But it will do little to enlighten us about what lies ahead for our country and our next leader.