News or views? Auds vote for partisanship

'Vital center' lacking as right and left duke it out for cable ratings

A presidential election is supposed to provide good theater, but this year both the theater — and the theatergoers — seem to be missing in action.

One harbinger is that CNN is experiencing its worst ratings in a generation, but maybe that’s also evidence of another phenomenon: “Viewers of primetime cable want the op-ed opinion section, not straight news,” observes Lawrence O’Donnell, whose liberal views are emblazoned across MSNBC.

The upshot is that while Fox News and MSNBC, both hyperpartisan, have lost some viewers this year, CNN has been hemorraghing them. CNN’s primetime audience in the key 25-54 demo these days is well under half that of Fox News.

Cable news provides an eerie reflection of the presidential candidates. There’s hard right and hard left and a void in what Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the historian, used to call “the vital center.”

If given a choice, why would TV viewers prefer to be told what to think rather than get the facts? That question baffles the leaders of CNN, who have been trying to reinvent the cable news net’s schedule and rebrand its news segments, without much success.

A case in point is “Piers Morgan Tonight,” which averaged 417,000 viewers during the last full week of May, down from its opening-night aud of 2.1 million in January 2011 and well below Larry King’s final audience of 657,000, which the network found unacceptable. It was still better than Anderson Cooper, who drew just 352,000.

Cooper has, arguably, lost some credibility since launching his femme-friendly syndicated daytime talkshow. He also may be too objective and too gentle compared with Rachel Maddow, who all but bellows her opinions before about 925,000 fans on MSNBC, or Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, who lectures to 2.6 million of the already converted.

CNN’s corporate defenders are quick to point out that, ratings aside, its revenues are healthy. If you include CNN’s various international and online components, the network contributes some $600 million to the Time Warner balance sheet.

Ted Turner’s old network, they remind us, will always be television’s emergency room, which becomes must viewing in times of crisis. The nation may nod off to Piers Morgan, but it still needs Wolf Blitzer in moments of stress.

News junkies nonetheless feel the absence today of Walter Cronkite-like figures who bring nuance, rather than noise, to the airways. Can’t MSNBC do better than Al Sharpton when it wants to recruit a new resident ideologue?

That network did well to anoint O’Donnell last year as its new wonk-in-residence. Nonetheless, the former writer-producer of “The West Wing” and staff director of the Senate Finance Committee has decided that his audience shares his obsession with the minutiae of presidential politics, rehashing every Mitt Romney faux pas, however inconsequential. Further, his show, like others on MSNBC, is cluttered with teasers and promos designed to navigate through the 16 minutes of commercials crammed into every hour.

O’Donnell, like his other liberal cohorts, must find it frustrating that the number of MSNBC viewers soars on the weekend, when the ideology ends and a parade of prison shows commences.

News junkies’ fond memories of the Cronkite era were jolted last week when a biography of the legendary newsman by Douglas Brinkley pointed out that even the King of All Anchors had his frailties. According to Brinkley, Cronkite bent conflict-of-interest rules by making a deal with Pan Am Airways to fly to vacation spots around the world. He also used his clout to urge Robert Kennedy to run against Lyndon Johnson — then, cloaking himself in objectivity once again, nailed an exclusive interview with Kennedy to announce his candidacy.

If Cronkite let his liberal bias seep through now and then, he was nonetheless a paragon of honesty most of the time and changed the culture of the news business. Under his tutelage, millions of Americans looked to news shows to learn what was going on in the world, not simply to reinforce their existing layers of bias.