Mainstream News? Lamestream News? Huh… how about a lack of news? It’s incredible to think that with the ubiquitous presence of “news” media and the ever growing number of “news” outlets that exist that could be a lack of news. But what we are trending towards is the adulteration of the term news, where the concept of news and entertainment often merges. As the latter slowly replaces the former, the term news has become increasingly misappropriated, and as a proportion of what the whole actual news is less and less. We ignore that trend with disastrous consequences: the erosion of democracy as we know it.
With the advent of the 24 hour news cycle, it seems that we have forgotten what the news is and what it should do. We forget that journalists have a job carries a lot of responsibility. We forget that journalists are meant to present the facts of situations pertinent to the public interest. We forget that they ought to provide enough context for that information for the public to be informed. We forget that journalists are supposed to seek out and report on what is important to us as a people, a nation, a country. We forget that in exercising the freedom of the press, by reporting on issues that the average person cannot uncover his or herself journalists enable the public to exercise its First Amendment right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Through it all we forget that the news underpins a healthy democracy. We forget what the news is supposed to be and do and, stupidly, we confuse entertainment for it.
The role to monitor all aspects of government plays a critical part for a functioning democracy to exist. It is a fundamental driver of transparency. When freedom of the press is suppressed, there is no one to act as a watchdog for the government, a job no individual can effectively do alone. When that happens, as might be surmised in the case of Venezuela in recent years, the voter is more likely to make decisions that they otherwise may not, given better information. The images used to describe the actions of the state cease to be questioned. Those images become imbedded in the public consciousness as the “truth.” When those images are effectively presented, that truth can take years or even generations to undo.
What we have right now is not the suppression of news media by the government, it is the suppression of news by media itself. It is the result of a democratically unhealthy focus by individuals and organisations who claim to be news sources but are first and foremost concerned about the quantity of their revenue generated rather than the quality of their content.
Whose fault is it? As Americans, we like to place blame somewhere. Perhaps since the market drives what we see, we can say that, collectively, it is all our fault. We as consumers demand entertainment over factual information, and in the process have forgotten (or perhaps we never even considered) what exactly facts are and/or begun to poorly prioritize what we focus on.
We allow search engines to index our interests and provide us with relevant ads and links that fit within our worldview. We click on links that claim to “report” on this amazing new trick or what so-and-so is wearing. We read and listen to commentary by authors/ talking heads who tend to agree with rather than challenge our assumptions. We fail to think critically about claims, examine methodologies, or even let an individual with an opposing view present it fully. We know better than that. Everyone else is an idiot and we know that we are right. With that, one may well conclude that as demand drives content, consumers are definitely to blame in shaping the information that is produced.
But wait a minute. Are consumers consciously demanding entertainment or are they under the belief that they are demanding news? I am not sure if individual consumers are aware whether or not the “news” they consume is predicated on fact.
The presentation of facts to create an image, what a consumer understands to be a representative truth of a situation, vary. Ideally, news media should be neutral. They should present the facts in a manner which allows their consumer to come his or her own conclusion. If there is debate, they should pay equal attention to each position in that debate. They should sustain a level of coverage (though not necessarily of a constant magnitude) until the topic ceases to be of public benefit. However, as we well know, these objectives are often not met.
Many news outlets attempt to sway public opinion, and magnates such as Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers understand the power of the news media as a means to present “facts.” Murdoch has been brilliant in his Fox News Channel which in less than twenty years has come to have such a powerful presence in the public psyche. But, as is the case with Fox News and MSNBC, when media that claim to report the news have political objectives, there is a degree of bias in their products, which ought to be antithetical to the job. The Fox News model, by virtue of its success and the attempts to copy it from several so-called news outlets, has fundamentally shifted the role of the journalist, and in doing so has adulterated the job’s responsibility and capacity to uncover problems of public interest and put them to the public at large. This has serious consequences, such as the increased likelihood that agendas, rather than a quest for knowledge, drive the development of news stories. This path can, and has, led to erroneous reports.
This brings us to a current controversy, the CBS 60 Minutes debacle. CBS’ 60 Minutes apologised over their story regarding the death of Ambassador Christopher Stephens in Benghazi, Libya. In short, the production team failed to vet the source who was the cornerstone of several of the claims that they made. The apology, termed by them as a “mistake” lasted 90 seconds.
The “mistake,” however, is a serious one. The Benghazi story has led to the crafting of a set of images that have been used as a rallying cry for many of the President’s detractors, used in a manner to question the legitimacy and competency of the Obama Administration. Given the story as it was presented, the public should have exercised its right to seek redress; but without correct facts, that process is inevitably doomed.
The incorrect reporting achieved two things, neither one positive for the country as a whole. First, by misrepresenting the facts of the case, the report made it nearly impossible for the public to follow the verifiable facts of the case, thus neutering their ability to seek redress from the government. Second, the report introduced a set of conjectures which are used to delegitimate the government, that were not based in fact, and are likely to persist in spite of the reporter’s implicit acknowledgement of misrepresentation. Those images were painstakingly built up over several months; there is no way a 90 second apology would be enough to correct them. They will be invariably reemployed and, when they are, they will detract from any fruitful discussion.
In short, no matter how you cut it, erroneous reporting results in the curbing of any capacity to exercise the right to request redress, which in itself is an assault on liberty which detracts from democracy. Without confidence in the news sources, how can the public believe that it has any ability to petition for redress? Clearly Edward Snowden did not feel that the US press would do its job or that his First Amendment rights would be respected by the U.S. Government. And as time goes on, it seems that he was probably right in his assumptions.
News media has to behave like news media. There needs to be a refocusing of what it means to be a journalist and what responsibilities that job carries. If we allow journalists to become entertainers, or worse, allow entertainers to displace journalists, we have little hope to be able to oversee the government in any capacity. Forget any fears that you might have, the dearth of news, and perhaps its impending death as a means to drive transparency, is, at best, a precursor and, at worst, a sign of the erosion of democracy.