Saturday, November 8, 2014

Giving people what they "want" to hear is today's news media mantra

In the film Anchorman 2, recently fired news reader Ron Burgundy (Will Farrell) tells a producer recruiting him for a new position that a 24-hour news program is the “stupidest” idea he’s ever heard. Of course, money talks and he takes a job with “GNN” anyways. The film parodies this programing with sensationalistic video of non-stories (a car chase), “talking heads” shouting over each other, and screens plastered with graphics that offer scraps of information but no real illumination of their significance. Just give people what they "want to hear," not what they "need to hear."

The reality of course is that the “parody” is the reality—and sometimes much worse. Half the content of Fox News is extreme-right “opinion,” and the other half is the right-wing interpretation for what passes for “news.” Everything that can be associated with “liberals” is exaggerated or a “failure” of epic magnitude. Anything “good” apparently bores people into sleep mode. Even positive news is not immune from the partisan mendacity of oppositional politics. When right-wing provincials scream and yelp bloody murder because their version of the world is not 100 percent supported, the media and politicians cower, and suddenly the country is falling apart. Only their views seem to matter.

I’ve been politically and socially “conscious” for the past 40 years, and it never ceases to amaze me how some people act as if they were born yesterday. I recall back in the 1970s during the midst of the “energy crisis” that there was plenty of “apocalyptic” paranoia abounding—especially during the Carter administration. Carter was viciously attacked by the right for so-called “malaise in America” television address, although what he actually said was “The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”

But suddenly the “crisis” ended and it was “Morning in America”—at least according to Ronald Reagan. Just lie to people and it all goes away—or it stays, depending upon who is in power; that is Republican doublespeak. It didn’t matter that the nation’s industrial manufacturing base was moving away, and the business-friendly and labor-unfriendly Reagan administration did nothing about it. It was also in the process of gutting environmental and business regulations, accumulating a huge budget deficit, and oversaw the process of accelerated income disparity between the rich and everyone else—meaning the weakening of the middle class. It was “class war” that Reagan was waging, not just against “liberals.” 

When Republicans were in “charge,” everything was “great.” Reagan the actor certainly knew how to “charm” the media, even though once the teleprompter was off, he tended to wander incomprehensibly. Interior Secretary James Watt was a barrel of “laughs” with his non-stop verbal gaffes and theory that protecting the environment and conserving resources was “unnecessary” because the world was going to end soon anyways. And who could forget the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Oliver North operated a “shadow government” in which constitutional principles and law were swept aside in order to sell weapons to a country supporting terrorist operations against the U.S., in order to arm a group of right-thugs who spent most of their time pillaging and raping? Well, apparently the media and most people who depended upon it for its “education” on matters of importance.

And this was the “golden age” of conservatism, the administration that the right-wing regards as the “template” of proper governance. The odd thing, of course, is that Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (a Democrat) and Reagan did attempt to “work together” in good faith. On the other hand, there has never been any “good faith” effort on the part of Republicans to work with Bill Clinton (or at least until Newt Gingrich saw that it was in the interest of his own survival to do so) or Barack Obama. The Republican lawmakers are calling last Tuesday’s vote a “rejection” of Obama’s policies, when the reality is that Democratic voters, as usual, could not motivate themselves to vote in a mid-term election. 

The reason for this lack of motivation is that people quite often vote “against” something rather than “for” something in mid-term elections. It is hard for people to vote “for” something—especially Democrats—when they are not properly informed about what they are voting “against.” People see insanity on the news shows with no insightful analysis, just egotistical blowhards with superstars-in-their-own-minds complexes who have no more “insight” that your typical beer-chugging couch potato whining about their sad, mundane lives. Both CNN and Fox News are driven by “personalities” whose focus is advancing their own “stardom” rather than the issues. They discuss what they “think” rather than exhibit any understanding of the complexities of an issue and the effects of supporting or opposing a policy to address it.

But however one may describe the “people,” they don’t deserve to be treated with the level of contempt much of the broadcast media (including CNN) shows them. They still deserve the unvarnished truth. If Republicans think that affordable health care for all people and regulating the kind of financial skullduggery that was allowed to run wild during the Bush administration is “bad,” then force them to explain themselves—and if they can’t, expose them as obstructing and destructive hypocrites. Tell the public the polices against the long-term welfare of this country that Republicans caused during the Reagan and Bush administration. But 24-hour news programming does not have the “time” to do this.

Back in the day, Edward R. Murrow hosted the CBS News expose Harvest of Shame, in which the working conditions of farmworkers was revealed for all to see, where little had changed since the Dust Bowl years. The problem with the program today is that it ignored the people who largely make up the migrant worker population now; instead of eliciting anger and empathy about near-slave conditions, the media and politicians now demonize these people, using them to spread fear and paranoia for contemptible propaganda purposes. This is hardly a “shock” anyways, since on network and cable news programming you will far more likely see conditions of impoverishment in the foreign countries than right here in this country. In fact, you will far more likely be served the conceits of white women claiming “victimhood”—who also by landslide margins vote Republican—than people who have less “status” and “privileges” than they do in this country. The result of this is that we don’t really learn the problems of the most vulnerable to the predations of right-wing—or white privilege—policies.

Despite the fact that 24/7 news programing would seem to have the time to properly inform the public, they certainly do not. “Fair and balanced” means explaining both the virtues and disadvantages of particular policy agendas by both parties. Does Fox News do this? Of course it doesn’t it. Does CNN do this? They allow hypocrites on the right to expectorate endlessly without having to explain themselves. Partisan sound bites are all even 24-hour broadcast news has time for. Viewers apparently are only “entertained” by people shouting at each other. While a picture may “speak a thousand words,” it says nothing if no one sees it, or it is not explained why it is occurring. 

Since people are only fed a “visual” version of the news and not a true explications of facts and detail, where are they to find it? One would assume that newspapers provide a fuller accounting of needful facts in order to properly stay informed. But then again, that requires them to take the time to read, and apparently a growing proportion of the public prefers not to read. Well, you might say, browsing the Internet requires reading, doesn’t it? Well, yes, but it depends on what one chooses to read. Some people see some inflammatory statement on Newsmax link and they are a mouse click away from some outrageous conspiracy or apocalyptic-themed story from your typical right-wing paranoid. This isn’t “news,” but this is likely the kind of incendiary rhetoric whose sole purpose is to set a tone of outrage. No actual information is provided—unless, of course, you fork over some money first.

In this new age we live in, information can be accessed almost instantly if the consumer is equipped with a “smart” phone or has a computer with Internet access. But information is now a disposable commodity. There is no reason to learn its meaning or significance. We learn what one side or the other says about a certain event or policy proposal, but we don’t “understand” why something is being proposed or its intended benefits to the public. We don’t read about how a policy can be improved, only how someone or some political party wants to stop it, particularly if the oppositional party can’t take credit for a policy of positive benefit for all people that they opposed for partisan obstructionist reason. At best news “consumers” assume someone else knows what is “best,” and if the consumer doesn’t—or chooses not to—understand a policy, then it is “best” to oppose it (or vote for those who do) even if it is in their best interest (like financial regulation and affordable health care). 

Of course, the truly informed reader must examine multiple sources that contain differing aspects of a problem or facts not fully explicated by another source. They must examine their own lives and see if there is any potential benefit for either themselves (in other words, in their own interest to support) or anyone else they know. If someone lost their life savings because of some financial gangster or they lost their job and health insurance—or potentially could do so—why allow oneself to led astray by bigotry, hatred or simple contrariness? Have we not been led astray enough by the “mainstream” broadcast news media? Perhaps the only thing it is good for is providing surface detail, but for what lies beneath, that is for the informed voter to find elsewhere for themselves.

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