Tag Archives: cable news

A Theory of the Flourishing of Ignorance

“When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!”            –Alice in Wonderland

Any thoughtful person looking at our peculiar times can’t help but wonder why the willful acceptance of misinformation is so pervasive. In an era when the ease of researching anything is easy, and credible news sources are just a click away, it is a puzzle to understand why so many are flying blind with their own preferred fantasies.  Most of us know the common markers of self deception heard all around us: covid vaccines are very dangerous; “the government” is using them to take away our freedoms; progressives are Nazis or “communists;” there is a concerted “war on Christmas;” voter fraud is widespread; university teachers indoctrinate their students; and that was just a “party” in the Capitol on January 6, not an insurrection.  These kinds of fictions keep surfacing. Nearly all of these claims are provably false, using accepted means for verifying facts and applying common tests of source credibility.  How do people stay in their own bubble?

It’s Now Easy to Live in an Information Desert 

An admittedly oversimplified but compelling explanation hints at part of the cause.  In a nutshell, we no longer give sufficient time to comprehensive news sources that were common even fifteen years ago. Instead, we cherry-pick news about just a few stories, choosing sources more for conformation than information.  A result is that we are poorly informed or unaware of what the best evidence shows in a given instance.

The reason this is so easily was made clear to me on a recent trip where, for days, my only source of news was television. None of the three hotels where I stayed had a newspaper available.  And their WI-FI access was predictably spotty. Typically, even good television news shows cover only a few stories.  Frequently, as with the collapse of the condominium on Collins Avenue in South Florida, one story dominates. Cable news especially has a hard time juggling a complex news agenda, even though they have capable reporters that are ready for calls from producers that often never come. A single story formula tagged as “breaking news” seems to be a ratings winner.

A good newspaper forces closed minds to open, at least a little.

This matters, because cable and internet news has largely replaced much more diverse city newspapers that still existed until a few years ago. Newspapers carried various stories from the AP, perhaps Reuters or and AFP, as well as the paper’s local reporters and other specialized news services.  Even a middling city paper offered a daily window on the world.  And a very good one, like the New York Times, forces closed minds to open.  For example, on the day I started writing this, just the first page of the Times featured 18 different news items, including a photo story of an ICU staff trying out a new treatment to save a dying covid patient. The image of medical staff hovering over a patient suggested a valiant effort to find a medical off-ramp just short of death. True, readers still chose what they wanted to read. But its hard to miss conclusive and myth-busing headlines.  What would that front-page picture say to an anti-vaxxer?

In addition, news consumers are not tied to the linear and and narrower stories of cable and broadcast news outlets. Video edits for the viewer, one story doled out at a time at the pathetic oral rate of about 200 words a minute. By contrast, print lets the reader decide from a much broader palette of stories. In addition, Americans were once better informed partly because news services and many newspapers had a financial interest in doing straight news.  Commentary may work for the increasing tribal cable networks, but not for a news service like the Associated Press, which needs neutrality to satisfy its very different subscribers.

Misinformation by the Truckload

It’s now an old and sad story that news readership is on life support.  Some papers have survived, but with far fewer reporters.  Whether it is the Allentown Daily Call or the New York Daily News, staffs that remain now sit in a sea of empty desks.  The rationale of the earnings-driven owners is that younger Americans aren’t newspaper readers, which is sadly true. But it is a mistake to assume that younger Americans have thrown in the towel on credible news stories.  And yet the major internet giants like Google aren’t much help. They aren’t journalists, and they aren’t very good at aggregating stories for the collective good. Their selections are mostly governed by algorithms rather than solid reporting.  In truth, neither CNN’s Jeff Zucker or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg would cut it in the journalistic worlds once occupied by Fred Friendly, David Halberstam, Janet Malcolm, David Carr or Ben Bradlee.  These latter-day giants would have seen through the charade of one-note news, as well as the price it exacts from an increasingly distracted public.

How Much Media Oxygen Will He Get?

All of the news media must ask whether it serves their readers or viewers to keep feeding them news from the swamplands of insurgency politics.

Donald Trump is right to note that most in the mainstream press disliked his administration and him personally. After all, he did make a habit of calling the ‘fourth estate’ the “enemy of the people.”  So they eventually repaid the favor after slowly shedding their regard for his version of the Office of the Presidency.  They rarely took their eyes off the unfolding train wreck of his years in office. Now, as his administration stumbles to its last days, a looming question remains about how much coverage the publicity-craving Trump will receive. My fear is that an odd symbiosis will remain. Trump will be suitably outlandish and stoke more coverage, especially from the cable news networks. There is no way President-elect Biden or Vice President-elect Harris can compete with the arrogance and excess that whets news appetites.

CNN is one significant reason why Trump got so much “free media” traction in 2016.

In 2016 CNN especially treated even minor Trump primary successes as deserving lavish coverage. Jeff Zuckerman’s network at times simply turned over their air to garish displays of  stunning excess: jaw-dropping expressions of self-regard combined with pitches for Trump Steaks and Wine. I remember commenting to my wife after one of these lavish shows that I hoped there where a few fist fights in the New York control room.  At least some producers should have been furious with their network’s apparent inability to cut away to cover anything else.

CNN is one significant reason why Trump got so much “free media” traction in 2016.  Zuckerman has heard the criticism before and offered the strange, inverted view that “We wanted access and Donald Trump gave it to us.”  It would be more accurate to note that Trump wanted access and CNN fully obliged. All candidates want free media coverage.

This is old news, but also a cautionary tale. All of the news media must ask whether it serves their readers, viewers or the nation to keep feeding them stories from the marginal swampland of insurgency politics. Reporters never want to be told what to cover. But I am sure Trump believes he can continue to create spectacular attacks that trigger coverage.  Conflict is a positive news value.

To be sure, Trump was also good for ratings. But there was a time when networks ran their news operations as “loss leaders,” providing a civic service without necessarily expecting a high return from their news divisions. Now, the cable networks live for high numbers. It’s too bad because the parent companies of Fox (Fox Corp.), CNN (AT & T) and MSNBC (Comcast) have deep pockets. The cable news networks would do better journalism without always trying to pack the circus tent.

There is a difference to providing essential information in a civil society and falling for public relations stunts. CNN might check its impulses against more the sober and balanced editing of other mainstream sources like The Associated Press or Vox News. Cable News needs to begin to act on the premise that they can cover more than one or two stories at a time, some even about public policies that actually matter.