Once upon a time, the news media’s role was that of a public servant. Journalists and editors fought tirelessly and selflessly to deliver relevant stories of politicians, events and policies to viewers as objectively as possible. Media was trustworthy, and if you read and watched it enough, you could be sure that you would be a better citizen of your respective democratic nation (and of the planet) as a result.
All of that changed in 1987. Under President Reagan’s trend of deregulation, the Federal Communication Commission got rid of a policy known as the ‘Fairness Doctrine,’ under which news organizations were obligated to present contrasting views on controversial issues of public interest. Since then, “news” agencies realized that it paid better to be opinionated and biased, partly because viewers seemed drawn to more controversial claims and opinions than the unbiased, “bland” stories told with equal representation for different views, and partly because news tycoons found that if their bias happened to coincide with the interests of large corporations, there was money to be had.
Today, it’s quite a challenge to find sources of honest and objective news. While many newspapers appear to make a valiant effort – hiring columnists of various allegiances and posting a plethora of diverging opinions in their Op-Ed sections – most Americans don’t read the newspapers anymore. How do they get their news? How do they stay informed?
It turns out that most Americans get their news from three main sources. First, they get it through word of mouth. They hear things from their friends, coworkers, teachers and family. Second, they get it through social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – usually shared by friends, coworkers, teachers and family. Both of these sources are influenced by the third source, the mainstream television news media – the same ones that have discovered it pays to be biased and sometimes less than completely honest in their attempt to hold a captive audience.
I’ll go out on a limb and assume that most readers share my view that Fox News and MSNBC are the main culprits of blatantly opinionated and sometimes outright misleading ‘news’ dissemination, particularly the anchor personalities like Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow. A somewhat more controversial assertion is that CNN and ABC really aren’t that much better. Even the newspapers, including online journals like The Huffington Post and mainstream papers like The New York Times, The New Yorker, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal, aren’t immune to the allure of trading of a little objectivity for higher readership.
The crux of the problem is this – the most widely viewed news media sources are Fox and MSNBC. These stations aren’t subsidized, which tells us all we need to know: they aren’t in the business of public service and education, they’re in the business of entertainment. But they pass themselves off as being humble public servants that bring you, the viewer, the latest and most important in objective candor, and they do it brilliantly. The fact that they’ve fooled so many is impressive, but it’s also misleading and ideologically polarizing the viewing population.
It could be argued that self-proclaimed entertainers like Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and Glenn Beck are the worst. Not because of anything they do per se – I myself am a huge Colbert fan – but I recognize the Report (pronounced ‘re-pore’) for what it is: entertainment. Droves of pundit-watchers have become convinced that they are getting their news from these shows, which is only – and misleadingly – half-true. They talk about real-world events, but through such a tinted lens of bias and propaganda that lies are built out of truth the way truths are built from lies in myth and literature. To stay truly informed, a citizen of a democratic society has to at least attempt to find the real truth and make up their own mind, and pundits are the last place to find the objective truth.
Although it’s challenging to see through the haze sometimes, there are ways to stay objectively informed. Perhaps the best thing the dutiful citizen can do is to impose a sort of ad-hoc ‘fairness doctrine’ on himself or herself. If someone honestly tries to gather their news and base their opinions on a variety of sources by watching an hour of Fox for every hour of MSNBC and by checking out stories from Al Jazeera and BBC every once in a while, they’ll be competently informed voters and democratic citizens nine times out of ten.
The other thing that people can do is to learn about the methods and techniques media groups and even politicians, use to change people’s minds. Propaganda is everywhere in our media, but if the voter is on the lookout for a political demagogue who simplifies and repeats, who uses emotional appeals to dodge real questions, and demonizes their opponents with vilifying language, they’ll be better prepared to see through the smokescreen of bias and political agendas that separate them from the real news.