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The Problem with News

December 4, 2012

News was once about keeping people informed about issues of substance and fact, about giving the public access to enough facts that they would be able to draw their own conclusions. At some point in the past twenty or thirty years, however, that grandiose notion fell by the wayside with the rise of a more conglomerated, profit-driven form of media. Special interests have spent decades gradually depriving the news of its objectivity; much of what is now called news is no longer focused on letting the public know what they need to know about what is going on in the world, but rather it is either about giving the people a fixed narrative through which they are expected to view the world, or just pandering to the public’s inattention to things that matter.

We have a system that promotes media conglomerates as for-profit organizations, organizations where the primary objective is making a dollar. One would think that to be incredibly counter-intuitive for a democratic political system, where the control of the flow of information has such a direct impact on government and governance. With the growth of these massive media conglomerates, the media has garnered incredible sway over public sentiment.

The problem with news is quite simple: it is now easier for the media to manipulate the facts to fit the narrative than it is for them to manipulate the narrative to fit the facts, and there does not seem to be any coherent effort, political or otherwise, to change that. In 2003 a Florida Court of Appeals went so far as to unanimously affirm in court that FOX News had the right to intentionally lie, distort, and obfuscate in their broadcasts. FOX is certainly not the only news that has been guilty of stretching the truth, but it does seem to be their forte. To be fair, this is perfectly in line with the right to free speech.

A recent poll of 600 New Jersey citizens by Fairleigh Dickinson University actually found that FOX News viewers in the state were actually significantly less well informed on a number of foreign policy issues than people who actually avoid watching and reading the news altogether. This is somewhat unsurprising give that many contemporary news sources care more about viewership than accuracy.

This is, however, an incredibly troubling precedent for a society. Shouldn’t we want our news to have an obligation to tell the truth?

News as we know it has come to be as much about the selective omission of inconvenient facts as it is about keeping the public informed. While some organizations, such as NPR and PBS, manage to maintain their journalistic integrity through public funding, the public can no longer rationally expect the media as a whole to provide unbiased perspectives on practically anything. The interests of these huge media conglomerates that have come to control the flow of information in the US are now so extensively intertwined with the vested interests of big business that it would be almost foolhardy for us to even expect objectivity. I’m not trying to say that objectivity has entirely left the corporate media, simply that subjectivity has become the new norm. The success of contemporary news sources is measured not by how well-informed the audiences of the different programs are, but rather by how many people are watching.

Roger Ailes, President of FOX News Corp, went on television a couple years ago and stated “I’m not in politics. I’m in ratings. We’re winning.”

As a nation, we should be saddened and disturbed by the fact that he is right.

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