My bias when I write stories for this column is, of course, that I care too much. Sometimes when I sit down at my desk at home by the light of my lamp and with a nice hot cup of coffee (two sugars and a splash of cream), I end up having so much to say that I end up with nothing having been said. Often I do not know where to start or how to finish. Sometimes I allow myself to just write, ignoring and continuously spiting the word limit set up by my superiors at the paper. Sometimes they will publish my ramblings in full, and I am ever so appreciative, if not heartened by the act on their part. This is one of those times where I wish I had the time to make my words shorter.
What could possibly make me evoke such a pathetical manner? It is news, of course. Not news as in journalistic stories about this and that. No, I mean — the news — the critical institution that plays a part in making our democracy work.
How does a democracy function? It functions through citizens voting on their elected officials, or legislative ballots, or referenda or propositions. Yet, to do that accurately and in their best interest, citizens need to be informed about what it is they are voting on so they can make the best choice. That is the role of news, to serve as an intermediary between the people and the elected officials who work on their behalf. Expanding on this, media serves three functions in its role as a linkage institution. One, as I said before, is to provide information to people about what is happening in their government. The second role is to provide a forum for public discussion. The third is to convey the interests of the people back up to the people whom they have elected. By using these three basic functions, I will attempt to explain why I feel our current media landscape has failed us and is hurting the country in unbelievable ways.
Political scientists who study media and politics generally consider how these functions are implemented through five different models. The first model contains what we often feel is the ideal of the media, the reporters of objective fact. In this model, the media serves almost purely as a pipe for information to flow to the electorate about their government. They are not active participants and they especially do not take a stand about what they are reporting. I like to think of C-SPAN when I think of this model because C-SPAN almost exclusively airs congressional sessions live as they happen with little to no commentary. They act merely as a channel for objective facts to flow.
The second model is the neutral adversary model. This model, while reporting objective fact, serves as a check on the government by monitoring it and pressing it to discover the truth. This model assumes that elected officials are motivated to some degree by self-interest, and by pressing those officials and digging for the truth, the media can inform the public more accurately whether their representatives are doing what they should be.
The next three start to take a departure from these nicer models. The third model, the public advocate, starts this departure. In this model, journalists no longer see themselves as the dutiful servers of objective fact, but rather see themselves as having the social responsibility to engage government officials and the public into debates about the issues. Journalists take an active role in initiating and structuring debate.
Model four, the profit-seeker model, is the dominant model in the U.S. News is not defined as that which is important for citizens to know, but rather, news is simply that which will turn a profit. This is the dominant model, because U.S. mass media is composed of privately owned businesses, and as such will run as a business will. That means, whatever story is more entertaining, more sensational, more eye-catching is what becomes news.
The final model, the propagandist model, has the goal of, in the words of political scientist Jan Leighley, “support[ing] and advanc[ing] the interests of those in positions of power.” She further states that propagandist media serves the state to manipulate the citizenry so as to “legitimize the social, political and economic status quo” thereby keeping the political and/or business class in power. One could argue this is actually the model we live in, but MSNBC or FOX tends to only propagandize when their ideologue is in the White House, otherwise, they degrade and defame whoever is in there. From here on I will focus purely on the profit-seeker model since that is closest to the one we live in.
Because the media is run as a business, there are foretold consequences that come with that, viz. cutting cost to maximize profit. This cutting does not come from the executive or board of directors, rather, it is made on the ground personnel, the resources they use and especially their paychecks. The effect of this is a decline in the quality of news, since what is considered news is not necessarily what people need to know and journalists do not have the resources to do good in-depth storytelling. Media, therefore, relies more heavily on graphics to convey information, shorter stories to catch and quickly hold readers’ attention and a larger emphasis on things that do not really matter to the running of the country (travel, entertainment, weather stories). In the same vein, media will also cater to and court advertisers so as to ensure the money continues to flow. Negative stories that make the viewer feel bad right before an ad comes on make the viewer less interested in getting that product, whereas a happy story might put them in the right mind frame to make the purchase. Media, then, has a vested interest in making sure the news makes their viewers happy. And if that means not reporting on the real issues, then so be it.
It is important to know, then, how the media works to influence how you perceive a news story. The media does this through agenda-setting, priming and framing. Agenda-setting is the influence of the media telling you what to think about. This is importantly distinct from them telling you — how — to think. When the media decides what issue or event to cover, they are making those issues salient in their viewers’ minds — they are choosing what people think about. After they set what their viewers think about, they prime certain traits for people to evaluate those issues or events; they might stress certain characteristics that lead people to understand what is happening through a certain lens. Finally, the media frames issues. When a new story is broken to the public, the media can decide whether to give background information about the event, assign blame (is it this person’s fault, or society’s fault?), emphasize certain aspects about the individuals involved and a host of others. Framing makes information more accessible for people because they can easily connect similar stories to each other if they are presented in the same frame. For example, the media might cover a bank robbery. They could frame the woman involved as purely someone who wanted to rob a bank, but if, say, she was situated in abject poverty for most of her life and recently lost her job due to a recession, then the media could frame her differently: someone intensely down on her luck with no other recourse but to commit a crime so that she might have something to eat. A similar story, but with different framing might have totally different perceptions from the audience.
The emergence of 24-hour news channels and social media has no doubt twisted our perceptions of what news is and how to process it. Fox and CNN, coupled with Facebook and Twitter, are prime examples of the poison some media has been to our political institutions. Social media platforms and media outlets alike are driven not by a desire for people to be informed, but to turn their viewers into consumers for ads. It has been terrible for our democracy and is, I would say, the single biggest reason we are so polarized today.
News programs from before this shift to consumerism typically made an attempt to inform viewers as to what was happening in the world. The news was not a commodity that served to sell other products or to be sold as one. In stark contrast to what we see today, news programs of the 60s, 70s and 80s came on once or twice during the day and were only about 30 minutes long.
To quote comedian Norm Macdonald, “a guy would come on, and he’d have a tie, you know, and he would say the news. And it was half-an-hour. Now, it’s 24 hours long. Now, it turns out that back in the old days when it was only half-an-hour ... they had it about right, that’s about all the news there is. And even at the end, there was always some story about a caribou or something, so it wasn’t even enough to fill up the half-an-hour.”
This is not to say Fox and CNN have completely eschewed their journalistic responsibilities, but what is true is that they have propped up opinion shows masquerading as news as the main act. Ted Koppel, while reporting for CBS Sunday Morning news, attempted to understand some of what I am saying here now. In that program, he did an interview with Sean Hannity, the bombastic character who hosts the purely opinion-based show “Hannity” on Fox. Hannity described what he does in terms of needing to “defeat” liberalism and socialism. He is driven by a desire not to work out the differences between his views and another, but hatred of others’ views, which must be destroyed in order for his views to win.
Hannity claims that his viewers will know the difference between an opinion show and a news show. It may very well be that folks understand the difference at a conscious level, but that does not mean they will process the information they are receiving as strictly opinion versus news. That internal confusion is compounded by the fact that Hannity presents himself as if he were presenting the nightly news. He purports to bring up “basic facts” that the “other side” does not believe or ignores, he brings in other commentators to help clarify and expound upon his view (often not an expert, just another ideologue cut from the same cloth) and he often challenges others to on air debates under some guise of good political commentary. In reality, Hannity will use logical fallacies in an attempt to make his guest look stupid and illogical, thereby allowing him to look smart and correct.
In the interview, as Hannity explained his reasoning for his opinion show, Koppel was cynical that Hannity’s viewers would strictly know they were viewing an opinion. Hannity even asked Koppel if he thought his show was bad for America, to which Koppel said yes. His reasoning being, “In the long haul, I think you and all these opinion shows [are bad], because you are very good at what you do and because you have attracted people who are determined that ideology is more important than facts.” Talking heads like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes exist for their respective news networks as if the editorial pages of the paper were the front-page story. They each attract more attention to their show than the news that precedes them, they give opinion on events and people not hardline facts with consequences and nuance and they attract an audience hungry to see the other side destroyed.
The internet is no escape either and actually may be worse in these regards. The rise of the internet has led to the most person-to-person connectivity humans have ever seen. A single post can be seen by thousands of people across the globe practically instantaneously. Perspectives around the world can be viewed, evaluated and considered by anyone with access to the Internet. While this can be considered a great accomplishment of human development, it can also be one of the most detrimental innovations to information transfer yet seen.
The internet, and social media in particular, allows information to be spread without regard for its authenticity or original creator causing the dissemination of false or biased information and leading to politically divided peoples and polarized political systems. A clear example of this was the circulation of fake news on Facebook during the 2016 election. These stories garnered more views and engagement than mainstream media sources such as FOX, MSNBC, and CNN with the fake news stories tending to favor Donald Trump — something we now know to be due to Russian trolling — than Hillary Clinton. Whether or not these stories influenced or swayed the election is an ongoing debate, but it is within the bounds of reason to suggest an undecided voter may lean pro Trump due to their exposure of the larger amount of anti-Clinton headlines (the top five fake news stories three months before the election had anti-Clinton headlines, while the top five mainstream news stories had anti-Trump headlines).
Political discussion via the internet is a widely used method to engage in debate over one’s ideas. The appeal of the internet as a deliberation space is due in part to its anonymity. This lack of personal identification makes it easy for some to talk about their beliefs without having to offend or confront opposers upfront, boosting debate. For this reason, the internet is often mentioned as a positive for social media and politics. However, a consequence of coupling increased social media usage with the ease to avoid opinions by filtering out one’s feed to only produce information already agreed with is that it leads to the creation of echo chambers, thus, ironically, a lack of political debate and a reinforcement of ideas already believed. In sum, those who receive their news from social media tend to naturally separate themselves into groups based on ideology, and that within these groups, the news received is more likely to be believed or accepted as true if it confirms beliefs already held by those receiving it. As a consequence of this segregation into partisan political groups, individuals are less likely to hear views different than their own on the same subject and views that would counter an ideologically aligned but false story.
Many still support political discussion via the internet, because of their lack of confidence in media companies to do their linkage function jobs. Donald Trump himself is a major supporter of Twitter-dictated policy, because, in the words of Sean Spicer, Trump’s first White House Press Secretary, “[Trump] understands that he has a direct voice to the American people. He’s got over 100 million plus people that follow him on different social media channels.” The president is able to circumvent traditional media to communicate directly with the people.
But the issue when the president side-steps the media (whose job it is to inform the public, even if they do so poorly due to their profit motivations) is they cannot act in their role as gatekeepers — fact-checking and agenda-setting what the president says and does to add background, context and implications he otherwise would not say or want the people to know. And oftentimes, perhaps that is the goal of the president. His reliance on Twitter (with its 240-character limit, upped from 140 at the start of Trump’s presidency) is that he can almost never (at least with any nuance) create and guide public policy in a clear and informed manner. Sean Spicer even recognizes this. In an interview with Koppel, Koppel asked if we are at a point where we are to take the president seriously in what he says, but not literally. To which Spicer responded, “No, I think you should take him literally. The president … wants to be taken literally. You know, and also, you have to understand when you have 140 characters that somebody trying to look at that and say, ‘this means the following!’ is a little bit too much.” After Koppel pointed out that that ambiguity and subjectivity is a good reason not to use Twitter as a means of making policy, Spicer stated, “I feel a lot of times folks in the media feel threatened by the fact that he has a direct pipeline to the American people,” which is in no form a response to why the president should continue to use twitter.
The combined danger of opinionated 24-hour news channels and unmoderated, echo-chamber inducing social media platforms has led to the hatred each political ideology feels for the other. The only ways I could conceive of fixing the situation we are in is to require news sites to present more than one side of an issue, so viewers are not entrenched in only one view point and to perhaps limit who can be classified as “news.” News outlets, websites and social media pages alike would have to meet certain requirements in order to be classified as informative programming. Realistically, however instead of trying to alleviate the problem by slowing down the spread of fake news, it would be more effective to have the public engage in critical thinking to check whether the news they read has bias or is even true. The problems of fake news started because the general population did not do their own research into stories’ claims allowing the problem to run rampant, but with the recent discussion about fake news online, particularly during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, more attention is being dedicated to what is being put online. I think we are in a period of awakening to the sad situation our information resources are in. And though I think we are waking up, I do not think it is getting better. We need to be collectively cognizant of what we read and watch and listen to. It is the only way our democracy will work. Really, it is the only way it will survive.