When Rachel Maddow plowed her pick-up truck into the gates of the predominantly white and male country club that is cable news this time last year, it was a reminder of the growing need to encourage on-air diversity. Over the course of the next few years, with the blogosphere serving as an outlet for every conceivable opinion, consumers of news will increasingly turn away from the stale sameness emanating from the cable networks unless they begin to hear perspectives that take them beyond what is already available in the mainstream.
MSNBC's Maddow move has been instructive. Cast as it is against a backdrop of declining ratings, her meteoric rise has reflected both the scale of the crisis and one possible solution to it. Giving Maddow a platform was a step in the right direction as it helped revive a medium that has been teetering on the edge for some time. Cable news networks naturally want to guard against this slide in ratings, and they would be well served by dedicating more attention to finding and cultivating on-air talent that reflects their diverse viewer base.
The first change in programming should mirror the increasing political engagement of the MTV generation. Experience provides valuable insights, of course, and a host such as Chris Matthews -- with his years as a Washington power broker -- has his place. But while experience offers its own vantage points, it cannot trump the importance of relating to your audience, and with the networks packed with middle-aged hosts, there is an absence of youth perspectives. For young Americans, no debate on death panels or end-of-life counseling will ever triumph over discussion of student loans and the market for entry-level jobs.
There is no shortage of young, intelligent twenty-somethings -- journalists, think-tank wonks, political consultants -- whose critical faculties are well-honed and who would be capable of directing debate for an hour on one of the networks. Already a presence on the cable news circuit, a potential candidate for this job could be Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard. At just 25 years of age, his intelligence, wit and charm always seem to eclipse the other guests he appears alongside with, and is proof that he could hold his own as a host. For those concerned by Continetti's conservative bonafides, he could be counter-balanced in a way that Bob Novak and Tucker Carlson were on CNN's Crossfire. A possible option could be Sam Stein of the Huffington Post, who really established himself as an on-air option during his questioning of President Obama at a White House presser back in February.
That this should be an easy sell to cable news network executives is beyond doubt; young people will buy just about anything -- as the Trucker Hat fad showed -- and advertisers will pay big money to speak to them. Cable news executives need not be motivated by the public good, but they will certainly serve this if they follow their wallets.
The second change should address the need for ethnic diversity. According to the 2006 U.S. census, there are more than 100 million non-white Americans -- roughly 30% of the national population. If we take CNN as a test case, weekly prime-time programming has zero minority hosts. Fareed Zakaria has had own show on the network for over a year now, but it only airs on Sundays.
In the wake of Obama's election, there have been increasingly vocal calls for greater African-American representation on cable news shows. Such calls should not go unheard. Yet, the debate need not remain fixed to the binary distinction between black and white. Where are the Hispanics? Or the Arabs? Or the Asians? The president is a Kenyan-American, with a past stretching to Indonesia; America's cable news rosters reflect diversity only in political identity.
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