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Television Staring into the abyss: Midterm madness on U.S. news networks

Fox News Channel and radio talk show host Sean Hannity, left, interviews U.S. President Donald Trump before a campaign rally at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Sept. 20, 2018, in Las Vegas.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The other night, Saturday Night Live opened with a sketch parodying the scaremongering by Fox News personalities about that migrant caravan. Kate McKinnon played Laura Ingraham and Cecily Strong was former judge Jeanine Pirro. “What will happen when they get here?” the Ingraham character asked. “Just look at this footage of the caravan crossing into Mexico,” Strong’s Pirro said, and the sketch cut to a horde of zombies from the movie World War Z.

It was not far from the reality of Fox News hyperbole, that sketch. If you limit yourself to CNN, as many Canadians do, you’re really not getting a full, vivid picture of the tribalism, partisanship and calumny matched with delirium that is part of all-news cable TV coverage in the United States.

But even news junkies must be exhausted at his point. The wearying fact is that Trump-era politics have infested almost everything on TV. It is literally difficult to escape from it, even in the arenas of sports and entertainment. The upshot is this: The dystopia has arrived.

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Americans who tuned in to Sunday Night Football on NBC saw the notoriously toxic Trump ad which has this statement: “Dangerous illegal criminals like cop killer Luis Bracamontes don’t care about our laws. … America cannot allow this invasion. The migrant caravan must be stopped. President Trump and his allies will protect our border and keep our families safe. America’s future depends on you. Stop the caravan. Vote Republican.”

By Monday morning, NBC had decided not to run the ad again and declared it, in retrospect, “racist.” Fox News also decided to stop airing it. That was the unexpected twist. Fox News is maddeningly repetitious in its support of Trump and his Republican allies, and wildly derisive about Democrats running in the midterm elections. Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity berate other news outlets and heap scorn on Democrats.

It works. In prime time, Fox News soundly beats CNN and MSNBC in the ratings. Only Rachel Maddow on MSNBC comes close to Hannity’s ratings. The nourishing of fear, anger and division is a successful formula and that makes the decision not to run the anti-immigrant ad so puzzling. The racist thrust of the ad is what Fox uses to make sense of the world to its viewers.

It’s not possible any more to stand back from what Fox News, CNN and MSNBC broadcast and make sense of it all, or look for authenticity. One recoils from the entire American public consciousness as it is captured by the all-news outlets. All of them, to be honest. It’s a matter of staring into the abyss.

Recently, MSNBC revived a feature it used during the 2016 presidential election. It sent a group of young reporters out to rove the United States and report on the local, rather than the national, picture. What they report back, sometimes, is that many Americans they meet are sick and tired of “division and tribalism." Meanwhile, MSNBC, usually fiercely progressive and critical of Trump, continues to sow division. No matter what way the viewer leans politically, there is the distinct sense of watching a race to the bottom.

But, fact is, the race to the bottom has put Fox News on top. The issue of partisanship and conflicts between the role of news organizations and political favouritism has simply evaporated. The Trump campaign announced on the weekend that Hannity and Rush Limbaugh would appear at Trump’s final campaign rally on Monday night. Hannity wrote on Twitter Monday that he would not be “on stage campaigning with the President” and asserted he would be interviewing Trump for his show. According to Variety, the Trump campaign continued to sell tickets to the event promoting Hannity’s appearance.

The matter was noted in Variety, a trade publication for the entertainment industry, because, well, it’s all a matter of entertainment. It might be dark entertainment, but that’s what it is. There is no escape now. No matter what unfolds on Tuesday night in the United States, the next two years will be worse as all news clamours to be even more partisan. What’s next is another chapter in a dystopian novel about political extremism, and parodying it – as SNL does – is close to impossible

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Finally – ABC, CBS and NBC will all devote much of prime time on Tuesday to coverage of the midterm elections. In late night, both The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (11:35 p.m., CBS, Global) and Late Night with Seth Meyers (12:35 a.m., NBC, CTV Two) are going live. Colbert will have The Circus hosts John Heilemann and Alex Wagner on his show, and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes joins Meyers.

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