A few days ago, Tucker Carlson met with Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban. This apparently caused a lot of outrage by ‘the left’, yet until someone mentioned the controversy on Reddit, I wasn’t even aware of this meeting. Even though I think I spend too much time online, somehow this went undetected on my radar. Which made me think, how this was possible given how closely I follow the news.
I think everyone overestimates how powerful the media is, on either side of the aisle. Conservatives overestimate the power of the liberal media, and vice-versa. The woke-left, with the help of major media properties such as the New York Times , Vox.com, Vice.com, and other groups, in 2020 pushed to de-fund the police, but it predictably was DOA. On the other extreme, Tucker’s show is only watched by 3 million Americans a day, which seems like so few given how much controversy he supposedly elicits.
But then again, nothing is that popular these days, in large part due to fragmentation: even the mighty NFL only gets 17 million viewers on Sunday.
The same decline is observed in awards shows:
…and ratings overall for top TV shows:
The Jimmy Kimmel Live show, on ABC, gets around 1.5 million viewers/week , about the same as the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. But the likes of Joe Rogan (Instagram, podcast, Twitter), Elon Musk (Twitter) , Lex Fridman (YouTube, podcast), Pew Die Pie (YouTube), and Mr. Beast (YouTube) have way more reach than legacy media hosts. A Space-X, Virgin Galactic, or Bezos launch gets way more views than almost anything by cable TV. Space-X’s 1st astronaut launch, in 2020, drew 10 million concurrent live viewers. Vitalik Buterin’s June 2021 appearance on the Lex Fridman podcast got 1.3 million views on Youtube alone (it’s reasonable to assume other formats also got considerable downloads). To wit, SNL, which much like America’s institutions, is well past its expiration date and long ceased serving whatever purpose it originally intended, was only newsworthy because Elon Musk made an appearance.
I think people are attracted the authenticity and spontaneity of ‘new media’, compared to the careful curation and self-censorship of the mainstream media. Trump’s Twitter account, in 2020 during Covid and the BLM protests, was pulling in 200k-500k ‘likes’ per tweet; Biden, by comparison, only gets 10k-30k likes per tweet. Trump was known to compose his tweets extemporaneously, on a whim, whereas Biden’s tweets are carefully screened and edited for demographics and audience appeal, much like how TV networks use focus groups to gauge popularity.
People are also turned off by the moralizing and hypocrisy of the mainstream media. People want to watch in awe at rocket launches or chill with Rogan, than be lectured about white privilege or be told to wear a mask. Watching two otherwise ordinary-looking guys banter on YouTube or a podcast (even if they are rich), is better than seeing preened TV hosts, with huge salaries, pretend to care about ‘ordinary people,’ or watching overpaid, ungrateful athletes kneeling to fight systemic racism in a country that is apparently so irredeemably racist that many of them them are multi-millionaires.
It seems like Colbert, Kimmel, and others were way more influential pre-2010 than they are now. Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House correspondents’ dinner was a huge deal at the time, and phrases such as ‘reality as a liberal biases’ and ‘truthiness’ became part of the American cultural/political lexicon, but how many people care anymore what Colbert has to say now? Much of the culture war is being fought over a continuously shrinking turf, by people of continuously shrinking relevance.