If a Carson or a Cronkite were to emerge today, where would he go? The biggest phenomenon in news-opinion programming is Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News. On a good night he gets 3m viewers. That’s about 1% of the country. And he’s the market leader! Even the network news shows get a fraction of the audience they once commanded. Cable, satellite and the internet have all fractured audiences into a thousand tiny, lucrative and not-so-lucrative markets.
And this, Sullivan concludes, is why George W Bush won the recent elections. “In a world without authority and with danger and confusion,” he writes, “Bush is a rock. Even when Americans disagree with him, he seems strong and unyielding. His penchant for absolutes is tailored for a culture where doubt and confusion rule.”
Sullivan’s facts are well-marshalled, but I suspect that his conclusion holds only for the converted. To supporters of Bush he must no doubt be a comforting figure in dangerous times, but to his opponents, those dangerous times would be just the reason to look elsewhere, for misplaced certitude can be more lethal than confusion. Of course, the supporters now outnumber the opponents, but I don’t think one can blame the fragmentation of the media for that.