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News Media Last Updated: Jan 4th, 2007 - 01:08:31

Truthiness and lies
By Lacey Benns-Owens
Online Journal Guest Writer

Oct 20, 2006, 01:07

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It�s no wonder that �truthiness� was chosen as Word of the Year for 2005. This term, created by fake journalist Stephen Colbert, seems more and more appropriate these days. Colbert states, �we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.� Truth no longer seems to exist. Replacing logic and facts with feelings and heart has become all too common. Part of this shift may stem from the very genre spoofed by Colbert. Cable news media has taken a dramatic shift away from the original concepts and ethics surrounding journalism.

This change became even more prominent in the months, or even years, after 9/11. Suddenly, no one was allowed to say anything negative about the president, the war or the countries� policies. To do so was unpatriotic or un-American. It seemed as though cable news was so fearful of accusations of liberal bias they tended to lean the other way. Questions were never put forward, either to the president or to Republican or Democrat congressmen, about the reasons for going to war. Antiwar demonstrations were held by the hundreds, with hundreds of thousands of participants. And yet all we ever saw were short clips in the news roundup, if we saw anything at all. This isn�t to say that the news media should have been attacking the president or the war, but they should have been more focused on analysis and viewing the issue from all sides. Instead, they failed. The trivialization of the news seemed to grow.

While not a full-fledged news junkie, I do find myself spending a lot more time watching Wolf Blitzer, Chris Matthews and Bill O�Reilly than does the average American. While others watch in anticipation to see who will be kicked off Dancing with the Stars or Survivor, I watch to see what the weekly Democrat and Republican talking points will be. I�d like to think that tuning in to cable news is a higher level of mental stimulation than are sitcoms or reality TV shows. But the more I watch CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, the more I realize the world of cable news may not be so different from Cops or The West Wing.

It all started back in 1980 when CNN began the 24-hour news cycle. Fox and MSNBC followed in 1996. The concept seems to be a good one. A 24-hour news network will allow the opportunity for in-depth reporting that is impossible in 30-minute evening news shows on the major networks. Important stories that might be overlooked otherwise can now be covered. American citizens can become more informed about world news. This might lead to enlightenment; there would be less ethnocentric thinking and higher awareness of others. This would promote foreign policies that would benefit American and world interests. We could unite, work together, create peace! Or not.

The grand ideas of cable news devolved pretty quickly. Deregulation led to mega-conglomerates. As Bonnie Anderson describes in her book, News Flash, pre-cable news programs consistently lost money for the major networks. The networks viewed their news programming as a source of pride, providing an important service to their audience. Cable news was different though. They had to rely on the news to make money. Through the mergers creating the Viacom giant and AOL Time-Warner, money became the bottom line. They had to find a way to increase viewership and beat the competition. Rather than this resulting in a �who can provide the most and best news� mentality, it went, as it too often does, to the �how can we be fun and entertaining� mentality. The goal was not to be the best reporters but to be the most exciting. In order to compete, cable news now had to be first, closest, most exciting and sensational. If there is any doubt of this, wait until the next hurricane. What resulted was not the idealist possibilities but instead a newsworld where entertainment and information seemed to merge into something that�s not quite the news.

Bizarro World Coverage

To have the opportunity to talk for 24 hours only about important social, economic and political events, changes and theories should provide a great chance to inform a country. Cable news could, theoretically, choose one major topic a day and spend the entire day reporting on the specifics, offering various viewpoints, possible influences, pros and cons, theories, and impacts of that topic. This wouldn�t have to be the only thing they cover of course, they could still have time to cover the �headline news.� Sadly, this was not the way they chose to go. If you�ve ever spent a day watching one of the three big cable networks, CNN, Fox or MSNBC, you�ll start feeling a bit of deja vu. Rather than in-depth stories and analysis, we see one attractive anchor after the next giving us the same stories again and again. Usually, the actual reporting is done once and the tape is simply rerun throughout the day. Rarely are new developments or even additional coherent thoughts added. This all changes, sort of, during prime time. Then we will see one semi-attractive anchor after another inciting �debates� over the same news.

Another problem you will notice are the stories that are covered. Of course you will have reports over major business dealings, political headlines and war coverage (although these days, even that�s pretty slim). But mixed in, and addressed with the same seriousness, are stories of celebrities and sensationalized crimes. I don�t read People or US Weekly and I don�t watch Entertainment Tonight. And yet, I still seem to know as much about who is dating whom or who is having whose baby as well as someone who does. We seem to have lost the line that separates news from gossip.

On the night Katie Couric debuted as the new anchor on CBS�s Evening News, the big draw wasn�t the war on terrorism or the economy; it was the first pictures of Suri Cruise. Yes, TomKat did indeed reproduce and here�s the proof! While I didn�t watch the show, I did watch some of the cable news discussion over Katie�s opener. The two most common topics: Katie�s legs and Suri pics. Sure, there were a couple of discussions concerning whether it is appropriate for someone who was long-considered to be a �fluff� reporter to now anchor a major network�s nightly news. But most focused on how well she looked in her suit and Suri�s oddly full head of hair.

This focus on making news about entertainment comes in many forms. It may be the latest celebrity breakup that grabs the headline. Sometimes it focuses on crime as the draw. While the disappearance of Natalie Holloway is a terrible event and certainly tragic, do we need 24-hour coverage? The crimes that are covered, pretty girls missing, (almost always white), rich guys missing (it always helps when there�s a pretty white girl involved here, too -- think the honeymoon couple or Olivia Newton John�s boyfriend) and celebrity DUIs, are sensationalized. Hundreds go missing everyday, why aren�t these stories picked up? The topics seem to be chosen solely on how it can be exploited.

While cable news leads the coverage in this type of reporting, they are not the only ones. One only has to look at Dateline�s �To Catch a Predator� to see this in action. The original show did manage to convey, albeit in a somewhat melodramatic way, the dangers of predators lurking online. Watching pedophile men show up hoping to have sex with a 13-year-old boy or girl grabbed attention. Now, on their seventh installment, it is no longer about information, it is about entertainment. We get to be voyeurs into the sick lives of these men. We get to watch them squirm. We get to laugh at their pathetic tears and ruined lives. �To Catch a Predator� is a perfect example of the extreme lengths to which �news� will go to get audiences.

On the other hand, there is �serious� news that is covered. Just recently, former President Bill Clinton was interviewed by Fox�s Chris Wallace. An animated and angry Clinton responded to Wallace�s question concerning why he, Clinton, didn�t do more to stop bin Laden after the attack on the USS Cole. As Jon Stewart pointed out on The Daily Show (9/25/06), there were two sides to the response, the angry one and the informational one. In the angry one, President Clinton accuses Wallace of doing Fox�s bidding and accuses Fox of having a conservative agenda. In the informational response, Clinton lays out the actions taken by his administration and why. But what clips did we see over and over again on each of the cable news channels? The same type of coverage can be said of President Bush�s recent interview with Matt Lauer. One begins to wonder at what point does selective reporting turn into lying and manipulation?

Journalism ethics is a much debated area but one of the most basic tenets of journalism is objectivity. The most credible news sources were those who could report the facts of the story without editorializing. With cable news, the importance of objectivity seems to be disappearing completely. There are those whose entire show is based on opining: Nancy Grace, Tucker Carlson, Keith Olbermann, Sean Hannity and Bill O�Reilly chief among them. However, the main draw of these shows is often the guests. Rather than presenting the facts of a story and allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions, we now have two extremist blowhards �debating.� Of course this debating often spirals down into simple name-calling. Rarely is there a calm and logical debate devoid of fallacies.

Since 9/11, news programs have strayed even further from objectivity. In News Flash, Anderson points out that reporters based their reporting not on being objective but on being patriotic. Flag pins were worn on lapels, references to �our troops� were made, American symbols were seen almost constantly. Reporters still followed the tactic of referencing �terrorists� or �freedom fighters� depending on whose side they supported. A Pew research poll showed that more Americans believe that the news media should �stand up for America.� What we see, then, is ethnocentrism. If we hear only pro-America reporting then we may, and have, overlooked the importance of world opinions and the impact our actions have on others. We run the risk of becoming an anti-socialist nation that does what we want without concern for others. The news media have been helping to promote this phenomenon.

It�s a Mad World

I once saw a bumper sticker citing Richard Nixon as saying �television is to news what bumper stickers are to philosophy.� What effect, then, is this new news having? While it is true that cable news channels provide us with important stories from around the world, they could certainly be doing a better job. Just watching CNN International, one hour of which we are able to view here, you can see all of the information we are missing out on. Daily political and economic occurrences, which affect all of us around the world, are overlooked in our news. This can often lead to Americans overlooking incidents such as Darfur in which we could have the power to help and should be concerned. It might also lead us to ignore the rest of the world, or at least trivialize it. This can be the first step to reasoning that the rest of the world doesn�t matter. Some even trivialize others for us. In one show, Tucker Carlson, discussing �today�s stories,� mentioned actor Sean Penn�s fine by Canadian authorities for smoking inside a hotel. Carlson�s response was, �Is this the biggest thing going on in Canada in 2006? Sean Penn lighting a cigarette in a hotel? That�s the worst thing [that] happened in the province of Ontario, if it is fact a province? Come on! Get your priorities right, lighten up Canada, please.� Of course it�s not the biggest thing going on in Canada, but it seems to be the only thing we�ll cover simply because an American movie star is involved.

The extent to which �Shout TV� has impacted society has been debated. But one problem I can see is that when I no longer hear an objective opinion, I might not get the real story. If all I hear are two people maintaining their position and supporting their politics, the only education I am receiving is biased. What we see is that people are listening only the side they support and ignoring the other. I might miss the real truth that lies somewhere in the middle. Some studies have supported this idea, questioning whether we as a nation are more divided than in the past.

In a report for ABC news, George Stephanopoulos cites Bill Bishop�s three-year investigation in our political views. The study shows that we are pulling away from one another in our political views. Jonathan Rauch�s article in The Atlantic Monthly, �Bipolar Disorder,� denies that average Americans are more divided but supports the idea that politics are further apart. In other words, we are not more extreme, but the people we elect are. The debate continues as to whether or not we are more divided or more bitter than in previous years. In either case, cable news certainly isn�t working to bring us together. Instead, it gives us the ability to listen to only one extreme viewpoint which can, in turn, create more extreme views. Watching a cable news �debate� can often make us feel as though the other side is attacking us (and sometimes they really are) and could lead to built-up resentment. In my experience, there, at the very least, seems to be a resistance to the middle ground or cooperation between left and right. There are many factors that have contributed: Clinton�s indiscretion and subsequent impeachment and two closely decided elections, but our news seems to add to the growing separation.

Another problem with �Shout TV� may be the focus on black-and-white thinking, ignoring the gray areas. When we have only two extreme viewpoints presented, and we feel we must take sides, we often take a left or right position. There then becomes a �with us or against us� mentality. Black and white thinking can save us time, a valuable commodity in our culture. It can save us the trouble of having to actually look at the issue from all sides and think critically. Politicians have learned to speak in five-second sound bites that might not address the real issues but has a ring that grabs attention. In fact, many have speculated that John Kerry�s inability to speak in sound bites may have cost him votes. This all makes things much more simple. It can also mean that we�ll accept simple, clear answers or policies, when sometimes they�re not the best solution. We don�t live in a simple, clear world and attempting to view it in that manner can lead to incorrect judgments and heavy-handed policies.

The Blame Game

As I write about this topic, I find myself angry at cable news. I�m often frustrated with the stories they choose to cover. It seems to me that they have the power to influence the knowledge and, therefore, influence the issues we believe are important. If the tragedy of Darfur were broadcast as Hurricane Katrina or the tsunami were, perhaps we would be doing more to help. Maybe we would be insisting our senators and president provide funding for aid. Perhaps a more objective view of the Iraq war could be considered, showing the opinions and impacts around the world. Maybe we could understand this war more completely. For that matter, we could take a more objective view on issues such as of terrorism or immigration. We might gain more understanding of the complexities on a variety of topics. Then, rather than acting in a reactionary manner, we could actually take steps to prevent these things from occurring.

But I must keep a bigger picture in mind. As mentioned previously, cable news is a for-profit business in a capitalist system. They�re competing for viewers. So what gets us pulled in? Am I to blame the news for their incessant focus on inane entertainment gossip and shout-fests or should I look to the viewers? The channels are only doing what works. Fox News Channel, considered to be the leader in the invention of shout TV, has the highest ratings of the three major networks ( and the others are trying to follow their lead. So perhaps the blame lies with us. It seems we prefer entertainment over information. We�re glued to the television to hear the theories when an attractive young woman goes missing or to see what a creepy child molester eats for dinner. Perhaps it�s not the media but our own fault. The truthiness hurts.

It seems to go back to the questions: does the media shape our lives or do our lives shape the media? Maybe we�ll never know. Maybe CNN will do a story on it.

Works Cited

Anderson, Bonnie. News Flash: Journalism, Infotainment and the Bottom-Line Business of Broadcast News. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.

The Daily Show. Jon Stewart. Comedy Central, 25 Sep 2006.

Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. Chris Wallace, Pres. Bill Clinton. Fox News Channel, 24 Sep 2006.

Rauch, Jonathan. �Bipolar Disorder.� The Atlantic Monthly Jan/Feb2005 Articles by Jonathan Rauch 31 Aug 2006

"State of the News Media 2006: Cable TV News Roundtable." 31 Aug 2006.

Stephanopoulos, George. "ABC News. A Country Divided: Examining the State of Our Union," 30 June 2006. ABC News. 21 Aug 2006

"Today's News." Tucker. Tucker Carlson. MSNBC, 14 Sep 2006.

�The Word.� The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert. Comedy Central, 17 Oct 2005.

Lacey Benns-Owens is Assistant Professor of Speech, Columbia State Community College, Columbia, Tenn.

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