Valley Life Time fitness centers pulled the plug on polarizing cable news this past January.; photography by Angelina Aragon

No-Press Bench Press

Written by Marilyn Hawkes Category: Valley News Issue: April 2018
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Valley Life Time gyms ban rancorous cable news, but other fitness centers seem unlikely to follow suit.

Imagine hunkering down on the treadmill at the gym, eager to watch your favorite cable news pundits on the overhead TV, only to discover that it’s no longer available. That’s what happened to members of Minnesota-based Life Time this January when the fitness centers pulled the plug on cable news channels (Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and CNBC). Life Time has 131 outlets in 27 states, including five in the Valley.

Life Time’s decision to remove cable news stations was due to “significant member feedback received over time and our commitment to provide family-oriented environments free of consistently negative or politically charged content,” according to a January 4 message posted by the company on Twitter.

Members will be able to watch “factual” news, says Natalie Bushaw, senior director of public relations. “However, cable opinion networks and shows purporting to be news, but offering only opinionated and polarizing content, are no longer available on our large screens,” Bushaw says. “We can appreciate that these biased and polarizing TV stations are necessary to counterbalance each other, but we have determined that they are not appropriate for our environment.” (Life Time provides WiFi so members can watch TV on personal devices, and new equipment with embedded TVs will play all channels.)

The tweet expressed that the policy reflects Life Time’s “healthy way of life philosophy,” implying that cable news is counter to that. In a 2014 NPR study about stress in American life, 40 percent of respondents listed consuming news as a cause of stress.

Responses on Twitter ranged from supporting Life Time’s move to calling it censorship. Experts say a company limiting members’ viewing does not constitute censorship.

“By definition, only the government can censor,” says Dr. Joseph Russomanno, an educator at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “This is simply a situation in which a private, non-government business is trying to be profitable by keeping most of its customers happy.”

A survey of local fitness centers failed to turn up others that limit news. Tempe’s Mountainside Fitness does not employ channel bans at its 16 Valley locations. “At Mountainside Fitness, we do not censor news coverage. Our guests are free to peruse all the channels and decide what... they choose to watch,” a company spokesperson says.

Jay Jacobs, CEO of Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center, echoes that. “What they want to watch or listen to is not ours to say,” he says. Community TVs are set on stations from sports to news.

At Valley of the Sun YMCA, vice president of operations Katie Smetana says they don’t prohibit any channels in fitness areas, but they do ensure balanced programming to meet diverse demographics. “If problems do arise [about TV programs], we remind our members that the foundation of our mission and core values is to treat each other with respect... Our buildings are a place for all.”

No Valley gyms reported any specific instances of members having disagreements.

Life Time’s decision is another sign of how polarized, angry and extreme American political discourse has become, says Paul Carrese, director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought Leadership at ASU. “While a particular private business might defend escapism or bubble-building for whatever reason, the larger pattern suggests avoidance of deeper issues in a way that actually perpetuates polarization and incivility.”

There’s no doubt today’s corrosive political environment can push people’s buttons, particularly in close quarters like the gym. “It’s unfortunate that so many people can’t seem to tolerate information and perspectives that don’t conform with their own,” Russomanno says. “In reality, that’s what’s unhealthy – an unwillingness to even consider alternate points of view.”

 

WHERE WE GET OUR NEWS: Pew Research Center’s 2016 State of the News Media report
• During the 2016 election cycle, voters reported that cable news was their most watched source of news.

• In 2016, prime-time viewership of cable news channels (CNN, MSNBC and Fox News) increased by 55 percent to 4.8 million viewers.

• 24 million people watched evening network news (CBS, NBC and ABC) in 2016, down 1 percent from 2015.

• Viewership for network local affiliate news stations (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) declined in morning, early evening and late-night time slots, with late-night dropping 31 percent.