Truthiness and lies
By Lacey Benns-Owens
Journal Guest Writer
Oct 20, 2006, 01:07
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.
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
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
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 (journalism.org) 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
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.
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
Rauch, Jonathan. �Bipolar
Disorder.� The Atlantic Monthly Jan/Feb2005
Articles by Jonathan Rauch 31 Aug
of the News Media 2006: Cable TV News Roundtable." Journalism.org. 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.
Benns-Owens is Assistant Professor of Speech, Columbia State Community
College, Columbia, Tenn.
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