Where to begin with this extremely complex and important issue? I admit that I am not a journalist, a student of journalism, or a media personality. What I am is a consumer of news and one of the many people journalism claims it stands up for, that it informs. I am the client so to speak, and I have an opinion, like so many millions.
News, journalism, and the media writ large are at the center of a political and social crisis affecting the US and large parts of the world. Accusations are regularly hurled that news organizations are biased, spread lies and false information, support one political group or another, and are willing to sell themselves for ratings and profits. All true, we see it every day. The spread of false information in all manner of media is one of the major causes of the United States' current divisions. Opinion and propaganda wrapped up as news and information are destroying this country. A former Australian Prime Minister recently wrote an op-ed piece saying that Rupert Murdock and his media empire are the greatest threat to democracy that we face. How did we get here?
Modern news, what came about in the 50s and 60s, and the information the average American received, was based on print (newspapers, magazines) and television. There were three major television news outlets—ABC, CBS, and NBC (the big three)—and depending on which city you lived in two or more local TV stations. The big three devoted one hour in the evening to local news and half an hour to national and international news. The news divisions at the big three ran at a loss, that is, they did not earn profits for the television stations, because the US government owned the airwaves. They created the broadcasting system, paid for by tax dollars, and given to the television corporations for free, like many things in this country, with one condition: television companies had to provide a set amount of programming for the common good, i.e. the news.
So while the rest of their entertainment programming was focused on making money, the news division was not. The rest of the programming covered the earnings. In turn, news divisions were focused on providing news, providing facts. Of course, as I've noted in previous articles, this wasn't one hundred percent of the time. But in general, this was their goal. Given the limited time they had on air, they focused on the news, with very limited commentary. They left it to the American people to assess the information and make up their minds. Cable changed all that.
I won't go into the details because that would take up pages and pages, but suffice it to say that cable changed the broadcasting scene. Key to that was the development of 24/7 news stations. Instead of 1-2 hours of news per day, Americans now had access to the news all the time. TV stations did not go blank at midnight or 1 am, they were always on. Added to this was that 24/7 news stations stood on their own, they had to make a profit. This led to constant coverage of the same story in order to fill air time, it led to more commentary to fill the 24 hours. In the past, newspapers and nightly news had time to work on a story, establish the facts, confirm the information, and determine whether a story was ready to air or be published. The fast-paced cable news cycle limited that time. Newspapers and the big three news stations were forced to compete with the 24-hour cycle.
Ratings became even more important because they made the money. It was all about generating viewers. One way to get views was through emotions, riling the viewers up, making them angry and afraid so they stay tuned for the next installment. The key was to avoid upsetting the viewers too much for fear they would switch to another network. This further led to feeding viewers what they wanted to hear, and making them comfortable even while you stoked their emotions.
On top of this came the internet. Now everyone has a voice (including me) and a platform to exercise that voice. The internet was supposed to create the best-informed population in history, but it has had the opposite effect. Yes, readers, this is the part where I make us take responsibility for our own actions and shortcomings. Instead of researching the issues and collecting facts, we have opted for listening to those who share our views and beliefs. We choose short headlines, lacking the attention span needed to look into an issue so as to make a sound decision. We choose people with no expertise or real knowledge about a topic because they tell us what we want to hear, what we already believe.
We are now in an era where wealthy individuals gobble up news organizations and control the information flow to benefit themselves. They seem to care little if at all for the well-being of the United States, just their own personal enrichment. News organizations are first and foremost focused on turning a profit and if truthful, fact-based, unopinionated news stands in the way of profits, it goes, with some exceptions like PBS and NPR. People prefer to get their news from a headline instead of being forced to think for themselves and actually study an issue in order to make an informed judgment. It is easier to follow whatever line the news or political organization tells one to follow. We have lost our critical thinking skills.
As if this wasn't complex enough the internet has thrown journalism and information into chaos. Available information has multiplied by leaps and bounds, and not all of it good. Anyone can now act as a "journalist," providing information and news that skirts the requirements for verification and truthfulness. Misinformation and lies can reach around the world in seconds without regard for accuracy or impact. Hostile governments and groups use the internet and social media to spread false information and influence nations.
The comedian Alonzo Bodden does a skit where he states there used to be a time when we had two groups of people, the people who knew shit and the people who didn't know shit. The people who didn't know shit respected the people who knew shit. The people who didn't know shit would sit back and listen, saying "I don't know shit so I'm going to listen and learn some shit." We live in an age where those who don't know shit have decided their ignorance is as valid as someone else's expertise. They are comfortable spreading that ignorance.
It was a given that a well-informed public is essential for a thriving democracy. A well-informed public generates healthy debates between differing views. It leads to better decisions that benefit the many rather than the few. It now appears that the few are intent on eliminating the descriptor "well-informed."
What can be done? I have absolutely no idea and that is what is disheartening. We always have to be cautious when dealing with free speech, it is the most important freedom we have, even above the second amendment. Without free speech we are nothing. But what do you do when you see free speech being abused? When it becomes a tool to destroy the very fabric of our democracy? I really don't know, and that is what concerns me the most.