08 August 2013

Zombie News Nation

In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) enacted the Fairness Doctrine.  This policy did two things.  First it required broadcasters to commit a portion of their air time to presenting controversial issues considered in the public interest.  Second it required these presentations to allow for contrasting viewpoints.  They didn’t need to have equal time.  The counterpoints just needed to exist.

In 1985 FCC then-chairman Mark Fowler, a former Reagan Administration attorney and campaign staffer, released a report stating that the Doctrine violated free speech and hurt the public interest.  In 1987 under then-chairman Dennis Patrick, another former Reagan Administration official, the FCC voted 4-0 to abolish the Fairness Doctrine.[1]  According to the Commission, enforcement by the government to require contrasting viewpoints was an intrusion and violated the free speech rights of the press.[2]

Congress, at the time controlled by Democrats, protested.  A couple months before the 1987 FCC decision, Congress tried to make the Doctrine law of the land, but Reagan vetoed the legislation.  A Democratic Congress tried again in 1991, but Bush I killed that as well.  (Years later in 2005, Democrats again tried to restore the Doctrine, but a Republican controlled Congress killed that.)

By the mid-1980s, say 1985, you had the Big Three: ABC, NBC, CBS (as well as PBS).  In cable, there was just CNN.  Aside from the Big Three anchor news broadcasts, the major investigative journalism programs then were CBS’s 60 Minutes (launched 1968), PBS’s The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (1975), ABC’s 20/20 (1978) and Nightline with Ted Koppel (1980).  The anchors reported the news under the stricture of the Fairness Doctrine, and the investigative programs generally steered away from politics.

The only political news commentary programs in 1985 were NBC’s Meet the Press (launched 1947), ABC’s This Week with David Brinkley (1981) and CNN’s Crossfire (1982).  I should note, not a year after the Republican FCC chairman publicly stated that the Fairness Doctrine should go away, Fox Broadcasting launched, becoming the fourth commercial broadcast network in the US.

In time, with the Fairness Doctrine now gone, things started to change.  In 1992, Reliable Sources launched on CNN.[3]  In 1994 Politics with Chris Matthews launched on America’s Talking.[4]  Two years after Matthews was up and running, in 1996, the Fox News Channel launched with its headliners, The O’Reilly Report with Bill O’Reilly and Hannity & Colmes.  And in 1998, Fox News launched Fox & Friends.[5] 

Somewhere around here going forward, politics started to become increasingly disagreeable.  Around ~1992-94 several controversies surrounding President Clinton had come into the mainstream.  House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich made a “Contract with America” committing to several initiatives if they achieved a majority of the House at the 1994 mid-term elections.  Which they did and, in 1995, Republicans took both houses of Congress away from Democrats for the first time since 1956.

We ended the 1990s with the embarrassing sex scandals involving Clinton.  And started the 2000s with a Presidential election whose result a large portion of the nation felt was illegitimate at the time. Going forward we grew angrier with a prolonged prosecution on the “War on Terror”, which included invading and occupying a nation that we maybe never should have.

So with this 1990s-forward backdrop of politics growing uglier and the most personal since maybe the 1960s, enter the 21st Century of political news commentary.  Adding to the 1990s-launched stalwarts, in 2003, MSNBC launched Countdown with Keith Olbermann and HBO launched Real Time with Bill Maher.  The Glenn Beck Program on HLN launched 2006[6].  MSNBC launched Morning Joe with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski in 2007.  In 2008 we got The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC and Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN.  In 2009 we got The Ed Show with Ed Shultz on MSNBC; State of the Union on CNN[7].  In 2010, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell debuted on MSNBC.  In 2011, MSNBC launched PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton, Up with Chris Hayes, Martin Bashir, Now with Alex Wagner; and Fox News launched The Five.  In 2012, MSNBC launched The Cycle.  In 2013, MSNBC launched All In with Chris Hayes.[8]  And if that isn’t enough for us, CNN is bringing back Crossfire this year with Newt Gingrich and others.[9] 

None of that includes various daytime (e.g. The View) or late night Leno, Letterman, Stewart, Colbert, et al often chiming in on politics with various degrees of “not-so-subtlety”. And I haven’t even mentioned talk-radio.

When our Founding Fathers crafted our Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms, they were dealing with mostly a mix of flintlock, smoothbore muzzle-loaded muskets.  They certainly were aware of the notion of radical technological advances in weapon lethality.[10]  But did they have fully-automatic weapons or perhaps the RPG in mind?[11] 

Consequences, intended or not, can sometimes get out of hand, and not be in the public’s best interest.  Like the murkiness of firearm availability for the few insane who seek to harm us. Like repealing the Glass-Steagal Act.[12]  Like eliminating the line-item veto.[13]  Like Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission.[14] 

And like abrogating the Fairness Doctrine.  Now I know that I’m starting to sound like I support a nanny-state, Big Brother puppet-mastering the media.  I don’t. I want it free.  But anyone who’s ever read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, understands that an unbound lack of guidance can lead to some horrific circumstances.  Thus our monster, the present state of news media commentary.

In 1985, we had a mere three news commentary programs whose primary or major focus was politics.  Two of those only aired once a week, on weekends.  Today by my count, we have almost 21 mostly daily, fully committed political oriented news commentary programs bathing us all week long in a 24-hour cycle.[15]  That sounds like – great, variety is good, right?  But it’s not really variety.  Nearly all these programs are the focus of just two or three sources.  Just two or three editorial departments, where I posit at least two have clear political agendas.

Five of the commentary programs were launched in the 1990s.  Three by right-leaning Fox News.  One by left-leaning MSNBC, one by CNN.[16]  Sixteen were launched in the 2000s+ (including the three cancelled).  Two by right-leaning Fox News (one of which cancelled).  Two by CNN.  And twelve launched by left-leaning MSNBC (albeit two cancelled).

Fox News programming consistently draws larger audiences than MSNBC or CNN (combined).  My guess about that is, people with conservative points of view only really have one place to go, whereas much of the rest of news media offers either a rather left-leaning perspective, like MSNBC, or at least let’s just call it a non-right, neutral perspective like CNN, et al.  Therefore the various shades of liberal-leaning viewership are diffused across a small handful of options, whereas all shades of conservative-leaning viewership are concentrated toward only one.

And that’s kind of the point.  These programs have just become go-to places to be told how to think. They don’t exist to provide information about controversial issues considered in the public interest.  They exist to sell advertising.  They do that by attracting eyeballs.  They attract eyeballs by appealing to our preformed ideological biases.  Unchained now from having to present any credible opposing voice in their content, aside from the occasional weak-handed one, to create enough of an appearance of balance (or perhaps attempt to discredit someone that might suggest what  I am) without ever undermining their narratives.

Their only consequence is losing eyeballs by appearing blatantly disingenuous.  But would their audience ever really see it that way if they are only really there to receive the narrative that supports their world view, which sustains their ego?  To disavow the source of your world view of its credibility, is to admit your own world view lacks credibility.  Is to threaten your ego. And that, according to Eckhard Tolle, for the unconscious mind, is equivalent to threatening death. 

So it's a seductive, and thus lucrative, draw.  These certainly more askew news commentary programs have become nothing more than mills that provide talking points for two opposing tribes that either don’t really want to use their minds and think for themselves, or at least have become lost trying to.  They feed a citizenry that now “informs” itself by steering toward the program that best affirms its beliefs – the co-called “confirmation bias” theory (as pointed out to me by a friend the other day).

What we have now is a society whose people don't really have much interest in understanding a point of view that differs from their own.  We are becoming a self-radicalizing nation.  And for those younger than me by perhaps just a decade, the only thing they’ve been exposed to regarding public political discourse is often intellectually dishonest, loud, sometimes nasty or off-putting, and presented for the most part in only one each of two directions.  We are building a generation that understands politics to be the art of being disagreeable, rather than the art of compromise.[17] 

This will either indoctrinate us in, or repel us from, all form of political discourse.   And reasonable discourse is important to have, if we would still like to be a representative democracy.  It weakens our foundations if we all become programmed to either go to our corners and have a tantrum, or instead simply tune-out in disgust.

We’re always going to have our politics, and our sometimes strong beliefs with them.  That should be OK.  But I would hope that we all strive to understand the issues, using a diversity of credible ideological sources, to arrive at conclusions then that we can truly call our own.

Because nowadays, I can’t remember the last time I had a discussion with friends on pressing issues, where it was not abundantly clear to me that they were simply parroting the spin of their favored pundit (read, party).  And if you don’t sound like their favored pundit, either their ears clog up and they start talking louder, or they just move on because they think you are the one who is intractable.

It’s like trying to talk to a zombie.  And all zombies really want to do is eat your brains.

[1] The FCC typically has five commissioners.  There was one vacancy at the time.  By law, no more than three can be from one political party.  At this vote, two were Republicans, two Democrats. 
[2] Such opinion was later affirmed in the courts. 
[3] It is supposed to be commentary about the press, but it really goes all over politics too. 
[4] A cable news channel spun from NBC.  It failed two years later, and Matthews took his show to CNBC.  By 1999, he was on MSNBC as Hardball with… 
[5] I don’t think too many would argue with me that it’s basically a news opinion show, thinly dressed up as a digest. 
[6] It moved to Fox News in 2009. 
[7] At first with John King, but by next year with Candy Crowley. 
[8] Steve Kornacki took over Up with… 
[9] It was ended in 2005.  With him on the right is S.E. Cupp who left MSNBC’s The Cycle.  On the left will be Stephanie Cutter and Van Jones. 
[10] The breech-loading rifle was just coming out in the 1770s, and it dramatically increased rate of fire; rifling its accuracy.  They just weren’t abundant at the time because they were too expensive to mass-produce. 
[11] Fully automatic features on light assault firearms and rocket propelled grenades are illegal. So are nuclear bombs, and privately-marketed weaponized drones (however I think sharks with laser beams attached to their heads are still available).  But I hope you get my point. 
[12] In 1999, which allowed commercial banks to combine with investment banks.  This allowed the riskier investment taking investment banks to source cheaper commercial bank deposits as funds that did not appropriately price risk.  Thank you, Clinton, and a Republican controlled Congress. 
[13] In 1998, which requires that Bills must be signed into law in their entirety, regardless of how jam-packed it is with completely unrelated fetid, pork-barrel earmarks.  Thank you, a Supreme Court dominated by Republicans. 
[14] Of 2010. Which eliminated restrictions on independent expenditure endorsing political candidates, made by corporations, associations or labor unions. 
[15] This excludes Beck, Olbermann and Dylan Ratigan which have since been cancelled.  It also excludes Rick Sanchez’s Rick’s List, which didn’t last a year after he was canned for racist remarks. 
[16] No one leans more right than Fox News.  But CNN, if left-leaning, isn’t nearly as bad as most of MSNBC programming.  So I’ll call them “non-right” neutral.  And I think Morning Joe is the only MSNBC programming that is actually even-handed. 
[17] German economist and sociologist Max Weber coined “the art of compromise” in a 1919 essay.  But I think he was just channeling Germany’s first chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who said politics is “the art of the possible” sometime in the 1870-80s I guess.

1 comment:

  1. Good to see you writing again. We need someone with good sense and intelligence to tell us what we are missing!

    To add to your point in a way, I think our society is so overloaded with information, screens, games and just technology in general that no one has time to read about and discuss the various political subjects. Or at least that's our excuse. So it's accepted that you can just turn on your "favorite" news channel and get the scoop on what people like you are thinking. And if you want to shake your head and wag your finger you watch the "other" news network for a few minutes.

    Honestly, I think most people feel like having a multiple-sourced, developed, well thought out opinion doesn't even matter anymore, because the most you ever get to do with it is vote once every 4 years (or once a year for people who care a little more). And all it would do anyway is take away from our time trying to listen to and live like rap stars. Or rock stars. Or actors. Sex, Drugs, Music, Movies...FUN.

    I could go on and on about this subject and the state of our society in general today. But I promised my brolo we would go make it rain on some hoes.