Should Consumers Believe the News?

fake news - largeThis blog does not claim to have an answer to this difficult question.  But it is a question that should be repeatedly asked by any person who believes that what they read on the Internet (or watch on TV) is credible or should be relied upon as meaningful information.   There is little dispute that the Internet has caused substantial disruption in the mass media economic model that had developed from the 1920s through the early 2000’s.  What is sold as “news” today is heavy on manufactured conflict and light on fact.  In many cases, it is outright fraud — the known nemesis of the consumer.  What is less obvious is that the seeds of “big media’s” demise were sewn in the 1950’s and have been growing slowly since then to undermine news quality.   Towards this end, we offer four compelling exhibits to support this contention.

Exhibit 1 –  Edward R. Murrow’s Denunciation of Network News

On October 15, 1958, in a speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention in Chicago, CBS News correspondent Edward R. Murrow challenged the broadcast industry to live up to its potential and responsibilities.   In his speech to the industry that he sought to change, he referenced the Egypt and Israel conflict, the dangers of smoking, radioactive fallout from nuclear tests; all were issues that he knew he was going to cause a lot of discomfort. He scolded network executives for losing their nerve. He suggested that big sponsors give up their highly viewed entertainment shows once in a while in favor of an occasional program that would serve the public. And he spoke directly to the news directors, urging them to stiffen their spines and have confidence that if they covered stories of significance, the public would listen and watch.”    ( A full transcript of that speech has been posted on the Net)   Or, you can watch it excerpted in the movie Good Night and Good Luck below:

Or better yet, rent the movie and watch it, as it gives the full context behind what Murrow was experiencing and why his words proved to presage the dysfunction in “big media” news that we now “consume” daily.

Exhibit 2 –   Walter Cronkite on why “Real Time” Media Cannot be Accurate.

Another icon in the mass media world was Walter Cronkite.    This “Most Trusted Man in America,” shared his concerns about pitfalls of instantaneous, live broadcasting during a “Integrity and the Media” panel discussion.  Beyond just being an excellent newsman,  Cronkite was a man of deep conscience, a conscience that was tested when he resolved to publicly denounce the Vietnam War, while on the air.     He did not take this action light, nor his concerns about the future of news, as summarized by this observation in this panel discussion:

Cronkite shared Murrow’s concerns about the corporatization of the news, but he also witnessed the diaspora of news outlets, including those on the Internet.   He observed that “Our evening news broadcasts are just a half hour and there are commercials in that half hour, so that the news period is really about 17 minutes. I have a great complaint, that with the complicated nation that we have and with a complicated world which we play a role, that is not nearly enough time to handle just the basic news of the day.”  He went on to state that “It is part of the whole degeneration of society in my mind…….We’ve always known you can gain circulation or viewers by cheapening the product, and now you’re finding the bad driving out the good.”

Cronkite was similarly concerned about Internet-based news.    He is quoted as having said:  “In the case of presidential elections, Cronkite said the TV industry should be forced to give away air time to candidates to avoid multimillion dollar TV ad campaigns and keep offices from being up-for-sale to the candidate who raised the most money.  The newsman said he values the Internet as a research tool, but he finds some stories published on the Web — scandals especially — play too fast and loose with the facts…….I am dumbfounded that there hasn’t been a crackdown with the libel and slander laws on some of these would-be writers and reporters on the Internet.”

Exhibit 3 –  Jon Stewart’s Denunciation of Media Addiction to Conflict

Jon Stewart has been beating the drum of media dysfunction for most of his career on television.  In 2006 he appeared on Crossfire and not only condemned what he viewed as irresponsible journalism but, in so doing, he effectively caused that show to be cancelled.   In a 2016 appearance at the University of Chicago, Stewart summarized his concerns: “Right now, the system is incentivized in the way a crack dealer is incentivized, which is it can do tremendous damage, but as long as people are buying crack, everything is good on his block.” Stewart said news media and political campaigns were working in mutual benefit, given the push for clicks and ratings and feed upon creating and maintaining conflicts — at the expense of verifiable facts.  You can watch his very compelling post-Daily Show observations below:

Exhibit 4 –  Neil Postman’s ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman was a relatively obscure professor at NYU.   One of his books is called Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), a historical narrative which warns of a decline in the ability of our mass communications media to share serious ideas. Since television images replace the written word, Postman argued that television confounds serious issues by demeaning and undermining political discourse and by turning real, complex issues into superficial images, less about ideas and thoughts and more about entertainment. He also argued that television is not an effective way of providing education, as it provides only top-down information transfer, rather than the interaction that he believes is necessary to maximize learning. He relied heavily upon the ideas of media theorist Marshall McLuhan to conclude that different media are appropriate for different kinds of knowledge, and describes how cultures value and transfer oral, literate, and televisual information in different ways. He states that 19th century America was the pinnacle of rational argument, an Age of Reason, in which the dominant communication medium was the printed word. During this period, complicated arguments could be transmitted without oversimplification.  However, with the advent of radio and then TV, accuracy in communication declined despite the fact that available information increased.    Ne noted in a 1990 speech:  “…… what started out as a liberating stream has turned into a deluge of chaos. If I may take my own country as an example, here is what we are faced with: In America, there are 260,000 billboards; 11,520 newspapers; 11,556 periodicals …” “… Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.”    (Note:  later in his career,  Postman wrote the remarkably prescient Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology.  In a 1996 interview regarding this book, Postman re-emphasized his solution for technopoly, which was to give students an education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, so they may become adults who “use technology rather than being used by it”.  In 1992,  Postman offered up an essay (co-authored by Steve Powers) called “How to Watch TV News”.   It posits 8 recommendations for what to do when watching TV news.  More than ever, his recommendations warrant consideration:

  • “In encountering a news show, you must come with a firm idea of what is important.” That’s because, as they put it, “even an open mind has to have boundaries” and one opens oneself up to manipulation without a preliminary set of priorities in mind, a set that may not match at all what journalists and corporations think is important.
  • “In preparing to watch a TV news show, keep in mind that it is called a ‘show.’”
  • “Never underestimate the power of commercials.”
  • “Learn something about the economic and political interests of those who run TV stations.” Ah, this isn’t easy, but the information is out there, if one really wants it. A good place to start is the Media Reform Information Center, a site that lists links to a variety of media watch groups. Then again, who’s to say that these groups are themselves trustworthy?…
  • “Pay special attention to the language of newscasts.” This actually is a really good exercise, which can be turned into a fun game for the whole family, apt to sharpen your kids’ critical thinking skills, and perhaps your own.
  • “Reduce by at least one-third the amount of TV news you watch.”
  • “Reduce by one third the number of opinions you feel obligated to have.” What they mean here is that it is better to have fewer, but better informed, opinions, and that it is simply ridiculous to expect to have an informed opinion on every major political or social issue. Just don’t use this as an excuse for more video games.
  • “Do whatever you can to get schools interested in teaching children how to watch a TV news show.”

These four exhibits are not offered to condemn the news reporting industry as much as illuminate for consumers of that news, that the industry is currently experiencing great dysfunction.  Conflict has replaced credibility and the 24-hour news cycle has crowded out thoughtful analysis.   These two esteemed journalists and one very prominent “faux journalist” have warned consumers to be aware of the’ farce masquerading as facts’ in the news world.  Farce is a theatrical term for use of ludicrously improbable situations bordering upon absurd, for entertainment.   The information industry has become an infotainment industry and what is disseminates should not be assumed to be thoughtful fact.  As warned by these three highly reputable observers, today’s news too often borders upon fraud that, absent significant structural changes, will continue unabated into the future.

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