I am a news junkie, I admit it. The problem with being a news junkie in today’s media world is that so much of the news is junk.
News that’s been fact-checked and investigated still exists of course, it’s just a little harder to find. Newspapers still practice good, old-fashioned journalism but their numbers are diminishing and declining revenues means fewer reporters and less investigative journalism. The Internet offers a wealth of fact-based news if one chooses credible sites. But it’s television that now provides the primary source of news for most people. How ironic, then, that as television has evolved into broadcasting news 24/7, so little news actually gets reported.
What television news so often gives us is an abundance of political theater that sheds more heat than light on the many weighty issues we face today. We’re too often presented with anchors ineffectually moderating a chaotic discussion with as many as four paid partisan commentators that goes something like this: Red state says this, blue state says that; you decide.
During these shout fests masquerading as news, commentators eschew facts for talking points, interrupt each other constantly, and apparently believe the volume of their voice is more important than the content of their information. It could be perceived as a 21st century version of ancient Roman gladiator games with viewers expected to cheer from home rather than a coliseum. It may be entertaining for some, but it’s sure not informative.
The format of competing partisan talking heads “explaining” the news is so prevalent on 24/7 cable news that viewers may as well watch “The View” for their daily dose of news and information.
Somehow the journalistic concept of checking facts before they’re aired has fallen by the wayside, leading to hours or days of speculation about a weird-looking empty balloon floating in the sky, non-existent death panels in the health-care reform bill, and daylong news conferences with an unknown small-town pastor with a flock of 30 being treated as if he was an international leader negotiating world peace.
On opinion programs, processions of carefully selected guests can and do say anything as fact with little or no follow-up reporting or fact-checks, demonstrating Mark Twain’s famous adage: “A lie can travel half-way around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”
Twitter and tweets infect even the three broadcast networks 22-minute nightly new programs and are ubiquitous on cable news. That leads to the curious situation of having the news report viewer’s opinions of the news that hasn’t really been reported. Politicians and public figures routinely make news headlines by tweeting 140-characters without having to substantiate or even explain their claim. “You tweet, we report,” could be the new slogan for some news programs.
Ideologically driven cable news channels report news through a particular prism of the political spectrum. Fox leans right, MSNBC leans left, and CNN — the grandfather of 24/7 broadcast news — just seems lost, not yet deciding whether it wants to present fact-based news or news primarily driven by an anchor’s personality.
What we lose is television’s great potential to unite us during times of crisis such as 9/11, ongoing wars and major upheavals. When facts no longer matter, ideologically driven spin and distortion prevails, depriving us of the opportunity to share a common understanding of core events and history. The intense and divisive polarization permeating our nation is, in part, a result of the continual blurring of the line between opinion and fact, and the abdication of fact-based journalism by too many media.
One can imagine a day when viewers can choose news on demand that is designed to confirm their personal biases and preferences:
Press 1 if you believe 9/11 was an inside job and President Bush is a war criminal; press 2 if you believe President Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya; press 3 if you believe the world will end in 2012; press 4 for more options.
Ideally, one of those options will be fact-based news provided by journalists who remember exactly why our founding fathers protected their profession.