After four years of news reporting that seemed more animated than ever, the change in the U.S. presidency carried one hope: a change of tone that would make it a bit easier to go through the our day-to-day lives. Sure, the pandemic still rages, but is politics not something now that has gotten much more palatable?
Think again. In fairness, the craziness that is American news predated Trump; in fact, he was able to plug in to an existing culture of media dysfunction.
What I mean by dysfunction consists of several elements:
- The amplification of conflict by restyling news as a courtroom. Typically, there are advocates for two sides, and two sides only, and both have to be depicted as somehow equally believable, no matter which alleged position is more true than the other, or not true at all.
- The opinion bias in ANY news source – in whatever news medium – is hurting the news. Some are worse than others, but all have some bias. It is good if you know the bias and you can discern any possible distortion due to your being educated about these issues, but how do you know? And why should we accept this? Can’t we have a clear and neutral agreement on what is news, and can’t we have balanced commentary sections that are true to the issues, not true to the division?
- News-only channels are a problem in themselves. The over-hyped news cycle in its relentlessness is contributing to an already out-of-control entertainmentification of news. Additionally, for any 24-hour-news channel, there is frighteningly little news actually being reported. It’s a big planet. But the provinciality of all-day news channels is puzzling. The problem becomes even more confusing when comparing, for instance, CNN International with CNN USA. The former seems to be an actual news station, the latter – allegedly suited to its domestic American audience – is fishing in much shallower waters. The increasing partisan focus has also hurt the channel. We already have FOX News and MSNBC for those on either side of the political aisle, why pick up bad habits when you obviously could be able to run a serious news station instead. Dumbing it down for your audience is not a good idea. You’ll always lose to the station that is already doing a more efficient job in that respect.
- Within commentary, there needs to be critical distance to the issue. We need complex, competent people sharing their genuine analysis (not just opinion) on matters of importance with us. The denigration of experts as somehow being too much of an expert is a saddening phenomenon.
- Partisan politics invade not just commentary but also the selection of news. The problem goes beyond one channel. One or two (or three, or four? who knows) may be more over-the-top partisan than others, but it is certainly a matter of degree. At this point, every single American News Channel – with the possible exception of PBS – deserves at least some scorn by an audience with a legitimate demand to be given that which is true and balanced in analysis. Is it any wonder that – given this failure – the feeling about news in the country seems to go in the direction of “a pox on both your houses”?
- Money in news channels is a further bad idea. Corporate ties seem to influence what gets reported and how. If you look at which corporations own which channel or which paper, and then if you look what these corporations also do abroad, any reporting about some foreign country in which the parent company of the news corporation may be heavily investing, will always have to be suspect to reporting bias.
There are alternatives. This post has focused on the American market, but the difference to other news markets can be striking. The British, French, German, Canadian, and Australian markets, for instance, have a strong presence of public broadcasting. Privatization may create opportunities for more diverse content, but when it comes to the news, its effect has not been a benign one. The profit motive is not easily compatible with the search for truth.
There is much more to say on the subject, but let’s leave it here for now, to be revisited later.