I remember a time, not long ago, when there was an hour of news every night. Thirty minutes of local news, followed by thirty minutes of world news. Need to know more? Read the newspaper. And, from what I recall, we were all perfectly fine with that.
But, apparently, that was simply not enough news. And so, 24-hour news networks flourished. With their on-the-ground reporting in the first Iraq war and in-depth election coverage, they did offer a valuable service. In the past decade, however, they have crossed over into the ridiculous, and I genuinely believe they are damaging this country – from the level of our political discourse to our ability to be taken seriously overseas. But more importantly, they’re making us all into a bunch of turds. And here’s how.
5. They encourage us to believe that our opinions are facts.
Everyone has the right to an opinion. No matter how uninformed you are, how simplistic your world view, or whether you are completely insane, it is your opinion and you can have it. You could tell me that global warming is not manmade and is, in your humble opinion, caused by a massive, invisible Dennis the Menace-type alien being holding a magnifying glass over different parts of the earth to fry it like an ant. Whatever. I ride the bus to work, I’ve heard crazier.
But just because you believe that to be true, it doesn’t make it real. And it doesn’t mean that it should be reported as a valid alternative to actual scientific theories. In their efforts to appeal to viewers and fill up what is clearly too much time for real news, MSNBC, CNN and Fox News often reach out to viewers and invite them to share their opinions, which leads to a lot of this: http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/2010032500.
You may think the part that concerns me most about that clip is where the guy from Kentucky threatens revolution, but it’s not. After all, it’s been a year and from what I hear that state is still very much a part of the union, so I think he got over it. No, what concerns me most is the part where Gretchen Carlson says, “All right, so the most important thing is what you think about all of this, because you are the ones who are going to go to the polls eventually.”
I do believe that, in the end, people’s opinions in political matters are important. But I don’t think that’s the most important thing for the news to tell us. The news should tell us facts. And then people should make up their own minds. When news reports opinions, including opinion polls and the always elusive “Many people believe…” or “Some are asking the question…” they place anonymous opinions on the same level as actual facts and make us believe that if a large number of people believe something then it must, at least in part, be true. And, in my personal opinion, that’s bullshit.
4. They’re not actually making us any more informed.
With round-the-clock access to news, both on television and online, one would think that Americans are more aware of what’s going on around them. But a survey by the Pew Research Center found that Americans are roughly as informed as we were in 1989.
The survey asked people where they got their news, and then asked nine questions about current events. It found that, in general, today’s Americans scored about the same as those who took a similar survey before 24-hour news was entertaining and scaring the crap out of us.
What’s most alarming about this is that the survey broke down the different knowledge levels by news source. 41% of CNN’s audience was in the highly knowledgeable category, while the news source with 54% in that category, the highest of any network or program, was The Daily Show/Colbert Report. That suggests that watching an hour of fake, comedy news is likely to make you more informed than watching 24 hours of any other news.
3. They make us think the world is a scarier place than it used to be.
It seems that every time a natural disaster of some sort happens, it leads to a weird and predictable news cycle.
A. Factual coverage and genuine concern over individuals affected.
B.Finger pointing over why this wasn’t prevented and who was responsible.
C. Bat-shit crazy people invited on TV to explain who God is punishing and why.
D. A look at similar past events and how this one is part of a trend that will lead to our imminent doom.
E. A celebrity loses his mind and posts a bunch of Youtube videos that distract us all.
You know why current tsunamis, earthquakes, tornados and floods seem far worse than the ones in the past? Because we’re hearing about them. Five hundred years ago, the deadliest earthquake on record wouldn’t scare the crap out of you (even though it should have) because you would never know about it.
So it’s not that the world’s getting more dangerous, or natural disasters more severe, it’s just that people are now able to experience that danger 24-hours per day.
2. They make us think we’re helping by watching.
Initially proposed by two sociologists, the narcotizing dysfunction is the effect that mass media has on people that causes people to believe that by staying informed about events, they are actually helping. (May 13, 2011: Mass communication degree pays off.)
Of course, watching people rebuild from terrible tornados and expressing your concern to others doesn’t actually help them rebuild anymore than reposting Facebook statuses cures breast cancer. That’s why you may have noticed none of the people being interviewed look into the camera and say, “Thanks for watching. It really makes a difference.”
But that logic doesn’t change what we feel, and we feel that knowing a lot is the same as doing a lot. And 24 hour news networks exacerbate that effect by covering major disasters from every angle. Enabling viewers at home to feel super smug about all they’ve done, from helping those protestors in Libya to stopping that nuclear meltdown in Japan.
1. They’re erasing the middle ground.
Remember moderates? Technically, I think they still exist. Actually, technically, they’re the majority, with 47% of people identifying as such (more than identify as liberals or conservatives) but you’d never know it to watch cable news networks.
In their quest for ratings, these channels often present us with caricatures of the American people, whose extreme opinions make for exciting television. Which means that if you’re at a rally or protest, the best way to get on T.V. is to hold a sign that compares a political figure to Hitler. Or Chavez. Or multiple different dictators if you’re not too worried about making sense.
And quite frankly, if you think that anything in today’s political climate is at all similar to the Holocaust, then you gave up “making sense” a long time ago.
This is one thing when it’s limited to man-on-the-street interviews because the interviews are brief and the people are usually dressed up like Paul Revere or Captain America, which diminishes their credibility. But this has spread to every level of political discussion. Public figures, authors and especially the pundits themselves are moving farther and farther away from any kind of middle ground. And when people hear Michael Moore or Anne Coulter say something insane, they assume everyone on the other side agrees. And that’s how we end up having conversations about how Republicans want to rape the planet and Democrats want to murder your grandmother.
But that isn’t true. It’s just good TV. You know what’s not good TV? C-SPAN. But it’s good news. So maybe it’s time Americans stop trying to make our news entertaining and our entertainment news, and accept the fact that in order to be truly informed, we’re going to have to be a little bit bored sometimes.
On second thought, screw that. I’m voting for this guy. The news coverage of his presidency is gonna be hilarious.