A recent conversation with friends about the state of American politics went where many of them go: to the influence of cable news in American political discourse.  This got me thinking again about something that has bothered me, particularly about the way the so-called “mainstream media” think about the cable-news talk machine.  Like most people, even those who are otherwise well-informed, my friends had no idea bout the relative size of the audiences for cable news and other media, and the sizes of those audiences in relation to print media.

According to the most recent data, the total audience for cable news on a typical evening is 1.3 million in the commercially (but not necessarily politically) crucial 25-54 age bracket.  That is in-between the daily circulation (1 million) and Sunday circulation (1.6 million) of the New York Times.   True, for major events, cable can pull in big audiences (Fox claims 6 milllion of all ages watched the night Scott Brown was elected) but day-to-day, those are probably the figures to keep in mind.

Now, how does that compare to the “mainstream media?”  Here are the network news figures for the week of January 26:  Their total audience in all age brackets was 27.3 million.  In the 25-54 bracket (where the majority of the cable audience is concentrated) is much less: 9.01 million, still roughly seven times the cable audience in the same demographic.

There is more to think about here.  For example: that issue of the demographics.  Sure, the 25-54 bracket is important, but if it is voters we are interested in, voting is actually higher the older the demographic.  And what about those between 18-25?  Aren’t they interesting?  There is also the very interesting question of the influence of local news.  More and more local stations are actually carrying national news, as the phenomena of the “video news release” and targeted viral media take off.  I’d venture to guess that the combined local news audience is larger by a considerable amount than the network news audience.

Of course, the question is not just who is watching but also what influence these various sources have.  My eye was caught by a relevant set of statistics in the New York Times over the weekend.  New data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press looked at what they called “political illiteracy.”  Only 32% of those polled, or example, knew that no Republicans had voted for the Senate Health Care Bill in December.  Now, if cable news–and particularly Fox News, (which accounts for about 60% of the cable news audience)–was really influential or having an impact, wouldn’t we expect that figure to be a lot higher?  I mean, the one thing they presumably covered like a wet blanket was the positions Republicans were taking on the bill and efforts by Republicans to stall it.  Their influence might show up in the difference in the Pew figures for men (39%) or women (25%) on that knowledge question, as Fox tends to skew male.

The real issue, in my view, is how the rest of the media, and the political chattering classes, treat cable news.  It reminds me of the early days of Televangelism when everyone in the world of religion and beyond it continually over-stated the influence of these programs and the size of their audiences.  We still live with that legacy today as the whole image of Evangelicalism in the public media is conditioned by the particular political and theological agendas of the Televangelists from thirty years ago.  That makes such things as a seeming resurgence of interest in environmental issues among younger Evangelicals notable, when what it may be revealing is that the movement always was more diverse that its stereotype in Evangelical media.

The same thing seems to be going on in relation to cable news.  The one thing “the media” are really not very good at is assessing their own location and influence in politics.  Most deny it on the one hand (the canons of objectivist journalism discourage such speculation) but over-estimate it on the other.  The fact that Fundamentalism suddenly had a voice in modern media meant that they were–by definition–as influential as other media.  Today, many observers seem to be making a similar assumption about cable news in relation to political discourse.

Yes, there may be nuanced and layered ways in which cable does exert influence–shaping messages, testing ideas, floating trial balloons, organizing the faithful, giving voice to marginal views, etc.  But before we assume its influence, we should more carefully reflect on what and where that influence is.  The raw numbers raise some serious questions.