Discretionary News Reporting
Being stuck in one spot for awhile has exposed me to the occasional TV news broadcast, which I normally do not subject myself to. They devoutly preach disaster, calamity and fear in order to get attention and, when possible, ghoulishly feed off the misery of others before flying off to circle over the next newsworthy carcass. At least they no longer, as in the 1960s, stick microphones into faces and ask, “How does it feel to know that your daughter was just murdered?”
Once I hit the road in 2012, I found that an enforced ignorance on my part was far more blessing than curse – most of what the media conveys today equates far more to sensationalist or anecdotal party gossip than to news which an informed person needs to be aware of. I do not count myself as worse off. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.” In other words, this is not a new issue.
My own impression of the nightly news is that after a protracted effort to be unbiased in the 20th century, it long ago descended a couple of rungs below Infotainment, where the question becomes how much trivia you can abide before you push away from the table. The closest thing to investigative journalism that can be found now is in the pages of the National Inquirer. The average TV viewer is left in the dark about virtually any event in any country of the world – unless perhaps it involves intervention by either our own military or covert services. Even then, there is no background information or explanation behind the announced activity, other than “national interests” or “combating tyranny”. The idea that there is nothing of note going on elsewhere in the world seems to be matched only by the perception that if there were, it wouldn’t matter anyway – nobody matters but us, and nobody’s interests count but ours. Then we are left to assume that people who wish to do us harm must be jealous of our freedoms. Seriously? Any exposure to a foreign TV station quickly makes that “local only” news approach seem awfully myopic. Narcissistic, even.
Edward R. Murrow, gutsy broadcast journalist during a healthy chunk of the last century, took news reporting seriously and in his later years became increasingly concerned about broadcast television becoming less informative and more insulative. In a speech before the Radio-Television News Directors Association in 1958, Murrow said, “I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.” In regard to the exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation, he said, “To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”
It is unfortunate that, over time, Murrow’s intended weapon to inform became something else entirely. The later Point/Counterpoint segment of the famed Sixty Minutes news show which followed became simply a couple of predictable 1.5-minute worldview mini-recitals week after week, highlighting opaque bickering more than any topic. Several similar shows surfaced later, a representative sample of which was Crossfire. That show and others did even less to aid public discourse on important issues, serving merely as a public platform for partisan potshots between opposite extremes. It was to “informational” as current scripted and prepped reality shows are to “reality”. No linkage. If you think about it, there’s precious little difference between “debates” on any topic these days and the theatrical bluster preceding any contest staged by the World Wrestling Federation. Conflict and name-calling sells tickets, not ideas, and it’s all fake. It’s entertainment based on rage, with the same level of discussion and idea exploration as the old Jerry Springer show. The goal to have a viewpoint be understood, or even to identify any common ground, is entirely absent.
In August of 2015, longtime but sometimes discredited news anchorman Dan Rather urged journalists to step back off the curb of unbiased news reporting, and to erase the distinction between journalism and activism for what they consider to be just causes, or in other words to goad the political process into action. This is neither news reporting, nor informing the public with both sides of an issue so that they can make up their own minds and take action if they feel that it is warranted. Activists rarely seek to be understood and to attain a popular acceptance. Civil rights was one exception, mainly because of the gulf between the protections guaranteed within the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the practices within some states – written and unwritten. More recently, activists seek merely to have their vision become legally enforceable. Sometimes, this calls for the use of truth. Sometimes, this calls for the manipulation, misrepresentation or suppression of the truth. And sometimes, as in the case of extremism, it calls for circumvention of the Balance of Power, outright lies, or violence.
While watching “news” coverage of the approaching disaster which is the 2016 Presidential Election, I noticed a consistent trend over several weeks on a major TV channel. Candidate Trump was never shown speaking, his voice making a point in context. He was never shown speaking at all. In fact, I can barely recall him ever being shown on screen, apart from an occasional stock photo over the reporter’s own voice. If he was lucky, only a phrase was quoted. Much more often, a reporter’s talking head gave their own impression of a phrase used (without quoting), along with their own interpretation of what Trump meant by it, and how outrageous and offensive it was to everyone – complete with statements by those who considered it offensive, usually people linked with the Democratic Party. What did he actually say? And in what context? What was the issue, and in response to what? Everything was offensive. Everything was a shameful scandal. Probably, but I’d kinda like to hear/see it for myself and make up my own mind, thanks. Surely there’s enough there to dislike without having to be spoon-fed nothing but filtered, hostile third-party interpretations.
Candidate Clinton was shown on screen and actually speaking, or escorted this way or that to meet & greet. Though relegated to a few full sentences, she was shown strutting her stuff and motivating her audience for much more airtime. Scandals were mentioned, but the party line of dismissal was accepted hook, line, and sinker, such as, “yes, but those emails might have been dug up by Russian hackers,” as if that fixes the content problem. Flip-flopping and contradictory campaign statements, using disaster relief funds to make self and “friends” rich, the prearranged outcome of the Democratic Primaries, doublespeak, coverups, denials in the face of hard evidence, and those deep and pervasive character flaws that would normally let one take odds on calls for future impeachment, the only question being which year in office. Yet, not if the press protects her. The press only mentions things here and there, and it’s hands off the rest of the way, except to advance various points of the Democratic platform, and in its own words. Misstatements and distortions of facts are conveyed as-is. Sometimes, they are created afresh to help convince viewers.
I find it alarming that the press methodically ignores events which contradict the party mantras, and in fact denies that they ever take place. That’s seeking after ideology, not fact or truth. Watch the news for yourself and, regardless of which way you lean, take a stout swig of Pepto Bismol and observe cooly. Pretend that you don’t have a preference, no matter how hard that may be. Is one candidate carefully advanced, with the other being ridiculed and dismissed? How are supporters being portrayed? Is this news reporting? Not really. It hardly matters whether you agree with what’s being presented – the question is: are you seeing unbiased news broadcasting, or propaganda? Can you trust that what you are seeing is the unvarnished truth?
Leonard W. Doob, an American expert in propaganda who wrote Goebbels’ Principles of Propaganda in 1950, considered propaganda to be a form of social control. He wrote, “The best form of newspaper propaganda was not ‘propaganda’ (i.e. editorials and exhortations) but slanted news which appeared to be straight.” As you recall, Joseph Goebbels was Reich German Propaganda Minister during WWII. Like unto it, Goebbels also said, “This is the secret of propaganda: Those who are to be persuaded by it should be completely immersed in the ideas of the propaganda, without ever noticing that they are being immersed in it.” More to the point, he preached, “Not every item of news should be published. Rather must those who control news policies endeavor to make every item of news serve a certain purpose.”
What I’m perceiving as I watch TV news coverage of this election cycle is that I’m watching carefully crafted propaganda. I find this alarming in that, when the self-proclaimed watchdog of government instead becomes an eager conspirator with one side or the other of it, we are going to be in for a pantload of trouble as time goes on. With the press acting as co-conspirator in an effort to rebuild the nation outside the principles of democracy and citizen representation, outside the checks and balances of the three branches of power, then the dirty deals and corruption will all be kept out of sight as long as possible, and any mechanism for honest redress will have long since been quietly disconnected. The corrupt will be doing their thing, while the media will be manipulating public perception in order to assure the outcome. I have read that the constitutions of Mexico and the Soviet Union are based closely on that of the United States. The only real difference is that politicians in those countries have put in the effort over the years to make those documents mean something other than what they plainly state. As a legal reference to the defense of the rights of citizens, they have been stripped clean of protections. As Samuel Adams observed in 1776, “How strangely will the Tools of a Tyrant pervert the plain meaning of words.”
I’d like to see if anyone else has noticed a difference in television coverage. I don’t doubt what I’m seeing, but just like to think that I’m not alone in sensing a manipulation of what is being presented to us as unbiased reporting. By the way, don’t bother commenting on the candidates themselves. I get enough of that every day and will be only too happy to adjust the response. This post concerns news coverage today. Any opinions or insights on election coverage?
In the meantime, here are a few pertinent quotes I’ve found which I feel may apply:
“The media want to maintain their intimate relation to state power. They want to get leaks, they want to get invited to the press conferences. They want to rub shoulders with the Secretary of State, all that kind of business. To do that, you’ve got to play the game, and playing the game means telling their lies, serving as their disinformation apparatus.” – Noam Chomsky
“Perhaps the most obvious political effect of controlled news is the advantage it gives powerful people in getting their issues on the political agenda and defining those issues in ways likely to influence their resolution.” ~ W. Lance Bennett – Author, professor at University of Washington Source: News: The Politics of Illusion, 1983
“The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders of the Western world. No First World country has ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity – much less dissent. “Of course, it is possible for any citizen with time to spare, and a canny eye, to work out what is actually going on, but for the many there is not time, and the network news is the only news even though it may not be news at all but only a series of flashing fictions…” ~ Gore Vidal
“Following the same course that virtually every other major industry has in the last two decades, a relentless series of mergers and corporate takeovers has consolidated control of the media into the hands of a few corporate behemoths. “The result has been that an increasingly authoritarian agenda has been sold to the American people by a massive, multi-tentacled media machine that has become, for all intents and purposes, a propaganda organ of the state.” ~ David McGowan