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Here's the Reason Cable News Is Going Down the Tubes

| Mon May 11, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

cable news ratings

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief of Vox.

Cable news is in trouble. The Pew Research Center reports that the median daily audience for Fox, CNN, and MSNBC is down about 11 percent since 2008.

The Washington Post's Paul Farhi sees a grim future for the industry. He argues that cable news is pretty much where newspapers were a decade ago: Their audience is aging, their medium is being disrupted by new technologies, and the next generation of viewers is developing habits and preferences that they're poorly placed to serve. (This is probably a good moment to note that I'm a contributor to MSNBC.)

The networks may still be making money—in 2014, Fox News managed $1.2 billion in profits, while CNN cleared $300 million and MSNBC made a bit more than $200 million—but Farhi suggests the "the cable news networks will face bankruptcy the same way Ernest Hemingway once described a character’s financial demise: 'Gradually and then suddenly.'"

Perhaps that's right. But while Farhi's account of cable news' woes focuses mainly on the cable part of the equation, it's also worth considering the problems all three networks are having with the news itself.

The rise of the three major cable news networks were all driven by stories they dominated. CNN was made by the 1991 Gulf War. It wasn't just the first time they passed the networks in ratings. It was the first time they showed they could beat the networks in coverage. You can still feel the surprise in this New York Times article from 1991:

The shooting in the Persian Gulf began tonight with the three broadcast networks committed to covering the war on a 24-hour basis, although their image as news leaders was damaged by the Cable News Network's early dominance of the coverage…the networks' image was certainly not helped when Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said he was following the attacks on Baghdad on CNN. At least one network station, an NBC station in Detroit, decided to quit its network's coverage to run CNN's. And NBC finally was compelled to interview CNN reporters on the air to get information out of Baghdad.

Fox News, for its part, saw basically exponential growth around 9/11, and then again around the 2008 campaign and Obama's election. MSNBC's rise was driven by the backlash to the Bush administration, and particularly to the Iraq War:

The network held those gains in the first half of the Obama era as liberals went from terrified to triumphant. But as liberals have gone from triumphant to a bit depressed and checked out, viewership has begun to decline.

The recent rise of cable news, particularly Fox and MSNBC, came in a period when the news—particularly political news—was unusually interesting.

Between 2000 and 2012, we saw a contested US presidential election, the largest terrorist attack ever on US soil, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, repeated wave elections, a global financial crisis, the first black president, the rise of the tea party, the fight over Obamacare, and the first states to legalize gay marriage and marijuana—and much more. It's been a weirdly interesting, consequential period in American politics. And so the cable news networks, which could devote 24 hours a day to covering these stories, benefited.

But now it's an unusually dull period in American politics. Congress is gridlocked, and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. The United States, thankfully, isn't reeling from a terrorist attack or a financial crisis. We haven't invaded Iran, at least not yet. And it's not just cable news that's losing viewers because of it. Turnout in the 2014 election was the lowest it's been in 70 years.

You see this, I think, in the specific fortunes of the cable networks. Farhi reports that MSNBC lost 14 percent of its audience in 2014, and Fox lost 2 percent. But CNN prime time—which swung away from politics towards covering plane crashes and airing documentaries—is up 10 percent in 2015.

Which is all to say that Farhi may be right about the long-term decline of cable news—over some extended period of time, both network and cable channels are going to be diminished by whatever it is the internet creates in their place.

But year to year, a lot of the ups and downs might just be the appeal of what's actually in the news. If President Scott Walker goes to war with Iran, MSNBC's ratings are going to go up. If President Hillary Clinton takes away everyone's guns, Fox is going to boom. But for now, relative peace and stability are bad news for cable news.

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Shelby Lynne's Down-Home Country Music Is the Real Deal

| Mon May 11, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Shelby Lynne
I Can't Imagine
Rounder

Shelby Lynne shouldn't be hurried. Her earthy voice works best at a leisurely pace, indicating hard-won lessons of a world-weary heart as well as pleasures of the moment worth savoring. (Not surprisingly, one of her new songs bears the Zen-like title "Be in the Now.") The thoroughly satisfying I Can't Imagine features Lynne's usual brew of down-home country, unadorned R&B, plainspoken folk, and passionate gospel, but what it really sounds like is her own unique self. Like the great Tony Joe White (Lynne's spiritual kin), she's created a fresh and distinctive language out of these familiar sources, spinning tales of longing and fulfillment that never feel less than genuine.

Best Coast's "California Nights" Is an Enticing Combination of Angst and Beat

| Mon May 11, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Best Coast
California Nights
Harvest

Bethany Cosentino, the singer-songwriter half of Best Coast—multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno is her longtime collaborator—excels at existential distress encased in a bright candy shell. California Nights, the duo's fine third album, is a delicious brew of big pop melodies, yearning vocals that wouldn't be out of place in an old-fashioned girl group, and densely textured wall-of-sound production. While Cosentino's lyrics are often disarmingly simple and direct, along the lines of "I love you" and "I miss you," collectively they can hint at deranged obsession, as if a crazed romantic poet had picked up an electric guitar and started a band. Having once sung "Who Have I Become?" she continues her soul-searching ways here on the soaring "So Unaware," asking, "What is life/What is love/What's the meaning of it all?/Do I even care?/Or is it just that I am so unaware?" Add equally restless tunes like "When Will I Change?" and "Sleep Won't Ever Come," and you've got the most enticing combination of angst and beat to be found anywhere.

What Do Iran Trade Sanctions Have to Do With California Pistachios?

| Mon May 11, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Amid an epochal drought with no end in sight, farmers in California's Central Valley have entered a veritable well-drilling arms race to capture water from fast-depleting aquifers, causing large swaths of land to sink and permanently reducing its ability to hold water. But none of that has reined in the pistachio industry's relentless expansion. Acreage devoted to pistachios grew more than 20 percent between 2012 and 2014; at a conference in March, nut magnate Stewart Resnick, co-owner and president of Wonderful Pistachios, urged growers to plant more, more, more, claiming that the tasty nuts deliver an even tastier $3,519 average per acre profit. (Resnick's team also beseeched growers to invest some of their windfall in lobbying to maintain industry-friendly water rules.)

With Iranian pistachios banned in the United States, California farmers sensed an opportunity and started putting in groves.

But if California's epic water crunch can't slow down the state's pistachio juggernaut, here's one thing that just might: a possible deal, now being negotiated within the United Nations, to end trade sanctions against Iran if it agrees to curb its nuclear program.

What does Iran have to do with California pistachios? Pretty much everything, it turns out. Flash back to 1979. Iran, governed for decades by the US-friendly Shah, dominated the global pistachio trade. Pistachios barely registered as a crop in California. Then came the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis; overnight, the nation went from trusted trading partner to pariah—a status it has held, more or less, ever since. With Iranian pistachios banned in the United States, California farmers sensed an opportunity and started putting in groves. By 1990, the state's pistachio acreage had more than doubled. By 2014, it stood at more than 294,000 acres—nearly ten-fold growth since the Shah's fall. (Numbers here.)

But if the Iran nuke deal goes into effect, trade barriers will tumble and Iranian pistachios will again be available in the United States—exposing California farmers to competition and possibly threatening those windfall profits being brandished by Resnick. "Iran has far more clout in the market for cocktail nibbles than it does in crude trading," Bloomberg notes. "While it ranks only as the world's seventh-largest oil producer, the Middle Eastern country vies with the U.S. to be the biggest pistachio grower."

Then there's Europe, a market worth about $300 million to US growers. Iranian pistachios aren't banned outright there, Bloomberg reports, but are severely constrained by broader sanctions on banking and shipping. A deal on nukes would change all that.  

No one knows precisely how much an open market for Iranian product would affect prices for the profitable nibbles. But Bloomberg speculates the "biggest losers may be Californian farmers who have doubled pistachio acreage over the past ten years despite drought conditions."

Religous Zealot Would Like to Talk to You For a Minute About the Drought

| Sun May 10, 2015 1:48 PM EDT

As you may know, there is a drought in California. The water? It's gone! The state? It's dry! The consequences? Very bad, indeed.

Where did the water go? I have no idea. I'm not a private detective who specializes in missing water.

Why did the water leave? No clue. Maybe it's climate change or almonds or squirrels or people or agricultural blah blah blah. Maybe the water saw Thelma & Louise and got inspired. Again: If you're looking for answers, you're reading the wrong writer. But you know who else has no idea why the drought happened? This idiot.

[Conservative journalist Bill Koenig] suggested that the drought in California is a result of the state’s support for same-sex marriage and abortion rights: “We’ve got a state that over and over again will go against the word of God, that will continually take positions on marriage and abortion and on a lot of things that are just completely opposed to the scriptures and unfortunately a lot of times when it starts in California it spreads to the rest of the country and even spreads to the rest of the world. So there very likely could be a drought component to this judgment.”

The end-times crowd always does this whenever there is a natural disaster or terror attack or anything. They always finger the same suspect. Gay people. 9/11? Gays. Katrina? Gays. Drought? Gays.

Social conservatives are the guy in the movie theater who keeps whispering to his friends, "I KNOW WHO DID IT."

Pundit blames California's catastrophic drought on the gays. http://t.co/Xt101dJfKz

— HuffPost Green (@HuffPostGreen) May 8, 2015

The thing is, the lunatic premise that God is punishing California for being less inhospitable to gays than Bill Koenig would like wouldn't even lead to the conclusion that the drought is the fault of gays and LGBT allies in California. The conclusion it would lead to is: it's God's fault. 

If someone stole some fruit and the store manager caught them and punished them by murdering their entire family and everyone they'd ever met, the headline would not be, "Millions Dead, Fruit Thief Blamed," it would be, "Maniac Murders Millions." The fruit thief wouldn't even be mentioned until the fifth paragraph.

And One Chart to Rule Them All

| Sat May 9, 2015 8:34 PM EDT

It feels like it's been weeks since I last created a chart for this blog. I suppose this is because it has been weeks. Today that changes.

Over on the right is the chart that's controlled my life for the past couple of weeks. That's not to say there weren't plenty of others. My potassium level seemed to be of particular concern, for example, but that would make an especially boring chart since it just bounced around between 3.3 and 3.9 the entire time. (They added a bag of IV potassium to my usual daily hydration whenever it fell below 3.6.) Now that I'm home and my IV line is gone, I'm eating more bananas than usual, just to be on the safe side, but that's about it.

But that was nothing. What really mattered was my white blood count. You can see it on the right. For some reason, the two days of actual chemotherapy are called Day -2 and Day -1, and the day of the stem cell transplant is Day 0. On that day, as you can see, my count was around 6500, which is quite normal. Then, as the Melphalan steamrolled everything in its path, it plummeted to ~0 on days 7 and 8. Bye bye, immune system. Finally, on Day 9, as the transplanted stem cells started to morph into various blood products, my count skyrocketed. By the time I was discharged on Day 14, it was back to normal levels.

Fascinating, no? Especially when it's in chart form!

Lessee. Any other news? My fatigue is still pretty heavy, and will stay that way for 2-3 weeks. I didn't realize it would last so long, partly because my doctor waited literally until my discharge date to tell me. But it's for real. It took me two tries to create this post: one session to create the chart, after which I crashed, and a second session to write the text. Not exactly speed demon blogging. What else? I have a nasty metallic taste in my mouth all the time. It sucks. And I think my hair is finally getting ready to fall out completely. This morning my pillow was covered with tiny little pieces of hair, and it's pretty obvious where they came from. On the bright side, my appetite is improving. I'm not yet at the stage where I really want to eat, but I'm mostly willing to eat, which is good enough for now. This may be partly due to the fact that I'm wearing one of those seasickness patches behind my ear to fight nausea. It seems to be working.

Oh, and I can now take a nice, normal shower without first having to spend ten minutes trying to bundle up my catheter so it doesn't get wet. Woohoo!

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Friday Cat Blogging - May 8 2015

| Fri May 8, 2015 3:44 PM EDT
VZ and CC

While Kevin is taking a break and getting better, we're rounding out the usual Friday Cat Blogging routine with some special Mother Jones-affiliated guests.

Today, I'm happy to present CC and VZ. These handsome brothers were adopted from a Berkeley shelter by Ian Gordon, our copy editor. Named Sacco and Vanzetti at birth (I did mention the shelter was in Berkeley, right?), their new family quickly developed nicknames that would be less of a mouthful. Below you'll find CC on the left, and VZ on the right.


These fellas are intrepid neighborhood explorers. Ian reports that they have indoor visitation rights at at least three nearby houses. Don't you wish they'd stop by and class up your joint sometime?

If they did, they just might come bearing gifts. Their phase of hunting, gathering, and gifting mysterious objects to their caregivers is well cataloged on Ian's Look What the Cats Dragged In Tumblr, where you'll find alternately hilarious and discomfiting documentation of undergarments, empty food packages, and decades-old newspapers.

Where do they get this stuff? How do they make their selections? What are they trying to communicate?

The only ones who know aren't talking.

These Were the Most Popular Baby Names of 2014

| Fri May 8, 2015 3:42 PM EDT

Have you given birth to a human in the last year? If so, you very well may have bestowed onto said baby human one of the following monikers. According to the Social Security Administration, the agency tasked to tracked such data, these were the most popular baby names of 2014:

Social Security Matters

Judging by the list of popular girl names, it's apparent the allure of the Victorian-era is all the rage. Emma, Olivia, Abigail, Emily, Charlotte—Downton USA has basically written itself into production! But the list of popular boy names doesn't appear to fit into such period-defining molds. Can someone please explain this to me? I'm childless and lost.

After a Mother Jones Investigation, Starbucks Says It Will Stop Bottling Water in California

| Fri May 8, 2015 2:49 PM EDT

On the heels of a Mother Jones investigation last week that found that Starbucks sources its bottled water from a spring in the heart of California's drought country, Starbucks announced yesterday that it will phase out use of its California bottling plant for Ethos Water over the next six months. Because of "the serious drought conditions" in California, the company will transition to its Pennsylvania supplier while looking for another source to cover the western United States, Starbucks officials said in a press release.

The Pennsylvania county to which Starbucks is now shifting its water production is itself facing drought conditions.

The California counties from which Starbucks sources and bottles Ethos have been in a drought emergency for years now. Placer County, where Ethos' spring water is drawn, was already declared a natural disaster area by the USDA because of the drought back in 2012. Reports from more than a year ago noted that the county was already scrambling to deal with the area's "extreme drought." Merced county, where the bottling facility is located, declared a local emergency due to drought more than a year ago, as "extremely dry conditions have persisted since 2012."

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania county to which Starbucks is now shifting its entire national production of Ethos Water is itself facing drought conditions. While not as catastrophic as California's historic water emergency, Luzerne County, where Starbucks' east coast supplier sources and bottles Ethos, was declared to be under Drought Watch by Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection back in March. DEP issued the declaration after below-normal rainfall over the past year has led to low groundwater levels in the region, which the agency noted has the potential to cause well-fed water supplies to go dry. The state is asking local residents to voluntarily reduce water consumption and to "run water only when absolutely necessary." DEP has put large water users on notice to plan for possible reductions in water supplies.

Nevertheless, Ethos' Pennsylvania bottler, Nature's Way Purewater, which bottles a number of other brands at its facility, announced in January that it planned to double production going forward.

This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from the Puffin Foundation.

That Time Mike Huckabee Preached Against Booze, Sex, and Monty Python

| Fri May 8, 2015 1:34 PM EDT

Good luck tracking down sermons from Mike Huckabee's two decades as a Baptist preacher. The GOP presidential candidate, who once started a television station out of his church to broadcast his sermons, kept those tapes under wraps during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Among the handful of sermons open to the public is a partial recording of a 1979 sermon in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, at the congregation Huckabee had tended as a pastor a decade earlier when he was a student at Ouachita Baptist University. The sermon, included in the school's special collections, catches a young Huckabee confident in his beliefs and fluid in his rhetoric, riffing from one New Testament passage to the next in critiquing the most "pleasure-mad society that probably has ever been since Rome and Greece, in the days when there was just absolute chaos and debauchery on the streets":

It's a sad thing but it's true in this country: 10,000 people a year are directly killed by alcohol in this country. Ten thousand. But we license liquor. There's one person a year on average killed by a mad dog, just one. But you know what we do? We license liquor, and we shoot the mad dog. That's an insane logic! But it's what's happening, it's because we love pleasure more than anything else. A lot of times we look around our society we see this problem we see pornography and prostitution and child abuse and all the different things that we're all so upset about. You know why they're there? You know why they're in the communities? You say "because the Devil"—they're there because of us.

It was dark days indeed, he argued, when "an x-rated theater can open up down the street from a church." Above all, Huckabee was upset with Monty Python's 1979 movie, Life of Brian. Huckabee was hardly alone in condemning Life of Brian, which follows the story of a Jewish man, Brian, who is mistaken for the Messiah because he was born on the same day as Jesus. The film was banned in Ireland; picketed in New Jersey; denounced by a coalition of Christian and Jewish leaders; and canceled in Columbia, South Carolina after a last-minute intervention from Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond. (On the other hand, the movie does have a score of 96 at Rotten Tomatoes.) Per Huckabee:

There was a time in this country when a movie like The Life of Brian which, I just read—thank God the theaters in Little Rock decided not to show, but it's showing all over the Fort Worth–Dallas area, which is a mockery, which is a blasphemy against the very name of Jesus Christ, and I can remember a day even as young as I am when that would not have happened in this country or in the city in the South.

But friend, it's happening all over and no one's blinking an eye, and we can talk about how the devil's moved in and the devil's moved in but what's really happened is God's people have moved out and made room for it. We've put up the for sale sign and we've announced a very cheap price for what our lives really are. We've sold our character, we've sold our convictions, we've compromised we've sold out and as a result we've moved out the devil's moved in and he's set up shop. And friend [he's] praying on our own craving for pleasure.

No word on whether Huckabee will defund the Ministry of Silly Walks if elected.