Once the television and radio news anchors and print journalists were people you trusted to provide you with factual information.
Things like arrests, indictments, and the results of criminal prosecutions and trials.
Or how your city, county, state, and federal elected representatives voted on particular issues or bills, and what legislation they were writing or co-sponsoring. The dates and times of upcoming social events. Local and regional sports scores.
And, sometimes, some clearly identified opinion or editorializing.
When there was editorializing, there was no assumption that all of the readers or listeners would agree. If they did there would be little point in doing so unless it was just to praise an action or program and thus encourage elected officials to continue acting in such a manner.
There was likewise no assumption from listeners or readers that – just because they disagreed with the editorial take – the rest of the information the outlet reported was also suspect.
Listeners mostly understood that when facts were vetted across multiple competing networks, who backed them up with clear documentation and research, they could be trusted.
Then, cable television happened, and with it a demand for 24-hours of continuous content.
Some stations created original content, which they repeated on an accelerated version of the seasonal re-run schedule. Others looked to the UHF model, running syndicated content and old movies during the day and low-budget local commentary and news in the late night hours.
That’s what Ted Turner did after turning the advertising business he inherited from his father into a media empire.
His “Super Station” TBS was one of the first to share content with fledgling cable providers and – a few short years after converting his local Atlanta-based broadcast station to a cable station – he founded CNN, the world’s first 24-hour news station.
Initially CNN was exactly what it’s call letters stood for – a Cable News Network. But there is only so much news copy that can be written in a typical workday. After a while, like on TBS, Turner had to start repeating content. But when content starts repeating, viewers or listeners change the station. There’s no incentive for them to hang around and listen to something they’ve already heard unless they’re waiting to catch something they might have missed before. Then, once they’ve gone through the second round, they’ll change the station. Sponsors, however, want eyes on the programming they are paying for, and businesses want sponsors.
Five years after founding the station added Larry King and talk shows to the format, and since then the content has continued to change, with “journalists” talking to pundits or politicians on each side of an issue.
In theory this content – based on policy disagreements and varying stances on social issues – adheres to the FCC’s fairness doctrine because it does provide a platform to both sides of controversial and contentious issues.
In reality what these shows do, however, is find the loudest and most obnoxious voices on each end of a broad spectrum and point them at each other in the political equivalent of a rooster fight to satisfy the base cravings of their viewers and the demands of their advertisers.
It’s popular on the left to blame Fox News for conflating fact and opinion and creating the television media monster we see today. On the right the media boogie man is usually MSNBC. (Or, in some corners, the “socialists” in public broadcasting.)
But the truth is that Fox and MSNBC are simply feeding the 24-hour news cycle monster that CNN brought us.
And none of them are giving us unbiased and fact-based news. Or, if they do, it’s so covered over in partisan bickering you have to dig and mine for those nuggets of fact before they’re buried again in the rubble of personal opinion.
There are a lot of opinions about what’s driving the political rancor of the 21st century. Opportunistic politicians, who find it easier to focus, and run, on eye-ball drawing outrage than boring policy and procedure are part of the problem, to be sure. Extremists who hijack legitimate political movements to push a personal agenda of hate and violence. Outside agitators who hope to gain from division in American society.
These are all real threats to our democracy, to be sure.
But the bigger problem is a lack of media literacy and a broadcast media ecosystem focused on the bottom line to the exclusion of all other concerns.
With all this in mind, we should be able to look forward with hope to the death of cable television and the growth of on-demand streaming media. But here we not only have the same players as in cable, we also have any number of “independent” media personalities and self-styled journalists – all in a race to the bottom and free of even the limited burdens placed on the big players by sponsors who want to appeal to as broad a range of consumers as possible.
And they’re all just following the model created by Ted Turner, and refined by Rupert Murdoch – adding their chorus to the cacophony of outrage drowning objectivity.
If we want to do something about it, it’s up to us to get better at separating the wheat from the chaff.
I recommend you start by turning off the TV. Take some time to digest what you hear. Don’t let others keep you in outrage mode. It’s exhausting. And it’s destroying our nation.