Rush Limbaugh gloated Wednesday. Rachel Maddow went the glass-half-full route – offering “straws to grasp,” as the MSNBC host put it – by opening her show accentuating some of Tuesday’s positive results for Democratic candidates and progressive causes. And Bill O’Reilly said Democrats got “their butts kicked,” and deserved it.
But while Democratic candidates experienced an overall election-day thumping, partisan media no doubt came out of the midterm balloting feeling like several million bucks.
Divided government might yield gridlock, but it also fosters political drama. And for professional bloviators on all sides, that’s good for business, even if it’s not quite as sexy as “Scandal” or “House of Cards.”
So as Limbaugh expressed satisfaction about Republican victories, he also cited the Obama presidency as being “an abject national calamity,” to be railed against until his very last day in office. Indeed, the only agenda he cited for the GOP was to block the President at every turn.
Obama is termed out, obviously, but for Limbaugh and his many talkradio clones, the prospect of 2016 and an expected run by Hillary Clinton looms large on the horizon.
Progressive voices, meanwhile, will have the entire legislative branch to kick around, savoring every hyperbolic or crazy-sounding utterance. Nor is it an exaggeration to say the afterglow from the midterms will very quickly shift to the coming presidential race, placing the several GOP senators poised to enter the arena under an even-more-intense microscope.
From that perspective, cable news and talkradio’s perpetual campaign reflects a shift in media terms even from 1998 and the final two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when channels like Fox News and MSNBC, both introduced in 1996, were still in their relative infancy. That’s because those outlets have developed a symbiotic relationship with partisanship — inflaming the passions of their respective bases, then feeding on the outcome.
No wonder “The Colbert Report” could find clips of TV anchors and pundits referring to the election results as a “tsunami,” “tidal wave,” “earthquake” and “landslide” — or as host Stephen Colbert summarized that list, “All the things God sends when he’s happy with what’s going on.” More level-headed analysis could be found in bastions like Doyle McManus’ Los Angeles Times column, but the media is always attracted to the heat of conflict, and besides, nuance doesn’t translate well into screaming cable banners.
Granted, sagging ratings for the cable news channels, and MSNBC in particular, underscore a certain weariness with the process. The audience eager to wallow in politics year-round is both small and — perhaps more significantly from an ad-selling perspective — older. With the median age for viewers of premiere host O’Reilly around 72, that image of your irascible uncle or grandparent leaving Fox News blaring in the background all day isn’t much of an exaggeration.
As for MSNBC, O’Reilly suggested Wednesday that the channel has “destroyed” itself by emphasizing racial politics, at best a simplistic reading of the network’s woes, part of which can be traced to management’s many questionable decisions pertaining to on-air talent.
Yet these networks don’t require huge audiences to be successful, and the drumbeat toward the next presidential campaign should provide a boost that the midterms can’t rival – especially with another potentially historic moment in regard to breaking the gender barrier. That includes greater interest among younger voters who, once again, stayed away from the midterms in droves, and didn’t watch much TV coverage either.
For partisan media, those factors add up to the good news. As for anyone prone to lamenting the toxic, often tedious nature of their relentless sputtering, it’s the bad news as well.