School of Thought

Our anger this political season has been entirely misplaced. We turn on one another. Friends and family. I have witnessed levels of anger, unprecedented in my lifetime, directed across partisan lines as insults are hurled back and forth at one another — friend and foe. But the blame truly lies elsewhere.

If our children fail in school, we do not simply call them stupid, ignorant or hopeless and cast them aside as the dregs of society. Instead, we probe the impediments to their education including the school system, its teachers, the child’s study patterns and learning style. We know that, with children, there are two halves in education: how it is being presented and how it is being absorbed.

The same applies to adults. And during this political odyssey in which we have recently traveled, we have either ignored or failed to value the importance of how information is presented.

American adults are being failed. Miserably. By their own institution of learning. Only 6% rate the news media as “very trustworthy.” A closer look at how news is presented, whether it be on television or online, shows how it is a dangerously unhealthy concoction of opinions, advertisements and half-truths, absent of any objectivity.

What once was our most reliable source of news has become the least. The blatant disregard for any sense of journalistic dignity on television is apparent. Recently, during CNN’s coverage of the anti-Trump protests, a reporter interviewed a “random” protester who, as it turns out, was actually a former colleague and CNN cameraman. Such behavior not only discredits the specific interview but calls into question the veracity of the entire program.

Historically, stories were vetted and fact checked before disseminating to the public for consumption. In today’s impatient culture, not so much. Weeks before the election, Fox’s Sean Hannity informed his listeners, falsely, that President Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren had unfollowed Secretary Clinton on Twitter and had scrubbed their timelines of any references to her. The story, which had started on fake news websites, gathered momentum through right-wing news channels before being broadcasted through mainstream media without verification. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated event.

Former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is credited with stating: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.” The media’s miscarriage of information is precipitated by their inability to decipher one from the other. Either inability or apathy. Probably the latter.

Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, Wolf Blitzer and others who host their personal segments are a large part of this. Building off of any credibility established by hosting a news hour, pundits create spin-offs in which they can inject opinions into stories — so much that it becomes difficult for the public to distinguish the two. Or mistake one for the other. These talk show news hours become merely a megaphone used to broadcast and masquerade their personal views, or those of their network, as actual news.

The reasonable solution is to change the channel. Unfortunately, and due to media consolidation, we only get more of the same.

In 1983, there were fifty companies who enjoyed virtually all — 90% — of the media’s market share. By 2011, that number had consolidated to six companies. Those six companies, ran by 232 media executives, force-feed low-level journalism spiced with advertisements, opinions, and sometimes falsehoods, to 277 million Americans.

How did we get to this point?

Back in the 1950s, news was placed on television as more of an act of charity or public service. By all modern standards, it was not considered profitable. But on September 2, 1963, CBS news anchor, Walter Cronkite, expanded his nightly news segment from fifteen minutes to thirty. One week later, competing news channel, NBC, lengthened their flagship news program, The Huntley-Brinkley Report, to match. What seemed, at the time, to be an insignificant shift in broadcasting was actually the beginning of the industrial news complex — the undertaking to fill two dozen hours a day with some form of news programming.

Advancements in technology during the 1960s and 1970s made nightly news programming more attractive. An increasing number of homes had the ability to watch television in color. Interviews or footage that had been taped in a foreign land and flown to the United States to be aired on a nightly broadcast made for great entertainment. It captivated viewers by arresting foreign scenery and bringing it straight into their living rooms. News became dramatized through graphics and animations. With increasing viewership, advertisements and, as a result, increasing profits, major network stations began to expand their broadcasting to capitalize on this newfound revenue stream. What began as nightly news bled into morning shows and, subsequently, daytime news. By the time war had broken out in the Persian Gulf, CNN had positioned journalists on the ground to provide live coverage 24 hours a day.

The uninterrupted coverage of events did not terminate after the Gulf War; the camera was simply turned elsewhere. It became more difficult to unpeel your eyes from the coverage of a car chase, a Labrador being rescued from Missouri’s floodwaters or a celebrity’s (or quasi-celebrity’s) murder trial. Other news organizations emerged, adopted, or improved upon, the same technology and, soon after, were attempting to out-sensationalize its competition to steal their viewers.

By the 1990s, news media had made the complete and critical shift from information to entertainment. And the sacred separation of the “church” of news and the “state” of entertainment had been fully dissolved. Those in this industry had once claimed “Good journalism is good business.” Nowadays? Vice versa.

Round the clock reporting and breaking news stories as early as possible have become the key components of acquiring viewership. But doing anything as much as you can and as fast as you can, ultimately, can cause you to stumble. That is what has happened. Stories are reported before their sources are confirmed and then are walked back with a half-hearted apology. By then, the damage is already done. Publishing a retraction is like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. As this happens more and more, the public’s trust is lost. Yet, that is not the only feeling — or lack thereof — we experience from the television news.

Truth be told, none of it is good for us. British psychologist, Dr. Graham Davey, surmised that the constant exposure to these sensationalized, negative, and often-violent stories can contribute to causing anxiety, stress and depression. Despite the fact that our country’s crime rate has steadily declined, we can’t help to feel that this country — and this world — is a very dangerous place. Upon being grounded in a state of fear, the continuous coverage of tragedy simply reinforces that strongly held doomsday belief and it becomes more difficult to shake.

However, our problems with information consumption are not confined to television.

The online portals of mainstream media are a mishmash of click bait and advertising with a few news stories. Opinions and editorials are jumbled in with breaking news.

“Sponsored content” is the crafty term used to describe advertisements that are dressed like and placed beside news stories to mislead readers. And it works. A Stanford University study found that 82 percent of middle school students were unable to distinguish sponsored content from real news. Equally misleading and rampant is clickbait — headlines crafted with the primary goal to generate clicks and revenue at the expense of accuracy and quality. All are marketing techniques endorsed by the mainstream media, which places advertisement revenue in front of responsible journalism.

Instead of bouncing from one news site to another, a large portion of Americans, 44%, receive their news via Facebook, which possesses its own set of unique problems. Controlling the spread of false stories on this platform has proved to be next to impossible. Users select headlines that appeal to their biases or emotions and are able to fan the flames of public deceit with just a click. Recognizing the issue — or perhaps validating it — Facebook and Google recently announced they will ban fake news sites from using their advertising networks. This bears repeating because of its impact. Nearly half of Americans receive their news through Facebook and Google processes about 40,000 search queries each second. Facebook and Google accepting money from false news outlets to disseminate their garbage is akin to McDonald’s paying a cardiologist to distribute its coupons out of his office. They may not be pulling the trigger but they are certainly placing a bullet in the chamber.

The press is the sole profession protected by our constitution. Our founding fathers, without doubt, realized the magnificent responsibility in correctly reporting the dealings of the government so the public could hold them responsible. Thomas Jefferson made this clear when he stated: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Yet, this freedom bestowed upon the press is not unconditional.

Along with it comes a duty to its consumers. A duty to provide something that resembles objective news coverage. A duty to not sacrifice true journalism for ratings and revenue. A duty to separate opinions from facts so that one is not mistaken for the other. But mainstream media has failed to hold up its end of the bargain.

At every turn, whether on television or online, we encounter a constant and endless stream of half-truths, subjective reporting or flat-out lies. An industry once known for integrity and accuracy now shows neither. As the recipients of information, we should demand better. We should value our own education more, as much as we value that of our children.

Imagine a school district that consolidated fifty schools into six and only one principal oversees the education of 1.2 million students. The pupils are not told which teachers have been hired by the school district and which ones have been planted there by corporations or special interest groups. And instead of presenting lesson plans based upon facts, the teachers spew personal opinions, advertisements and read tweets aloud. Each day after school, parents receive their children back home more stressed, depressed and anxiety-ridden.

Such a school would not have its doors open for more than a day before parents stormed the buildings demanding reform. At the school and its administration — not at the children — is where the anger would be directed. The public outcry would be deafening. If it existed, we would do everything in our power to overhaul this institution of learning.

Unless, of course, it was our own.

-Joe Cunningham