News You Can Use

On this Independence Day, I think it’s necessary to acknowledge the increased polarization of our political discourse, both in our bodies of government and in our media. It’s an obvious phenomenon that has been commented on frequently (even on this blog. But I think more needs to be said. )

What’s less discussed is the role our news sources play in this ever-widening division.

The role of news organizations–newspapers, magazines, television, and digital media–is to provide information for citizens to digest in order to make informed decisions in a democracy. The role of a news organization is not to continuously promote a political agenda that makes its viewers and readers feel validated and comfortable.

There is an editorial page in newspapers for opinion, which is usually informed, brief, and often times moderate in its tone. Sadly, it seems that every hour of television news is five minutes of information and fifty five minutes of opinion masquerading as news. Except for the websites of established television and print news organizations and one or two digital-only investigative journalism websites, the internet seems to be the worst. While I have my issues with the mainstream media–which is overwhelmingly corporate owned–I have more issues with half-baked and often completely false content being promoted as news and accepted by many as fact.

To look at this problem objectively, we must first, ironically, disregard the notion of objectivity. Newspapers and television stations are run by humans, who are not entirely objective, as much as they may try to be. It is easy to label Fox News television conservative. It is easy to label the Guardian newspaper liberal. It is easy to see RT as a propaganda arm for Vladimir Putin. (Fully disclosure: my grandfather once owned a newspaper, The Stroud Democrat.)

What is more important than labels, or the reality that some publications or networks are biased, is the quality and consistency of information (facts, not opinions, and not propaganda) we receive from a news source. The quality of this information can affect the quality of our judgment when we decide to support a particular issue or a particular candidate. Emotions are fine and good, but they are, when it comes to decision making, poor tools most of the time.

As participants in democracy, we need information, and we need reliable information. We also need to put ourselves on a diet with regards to information. A 24 hour news cycle is wonderful: we get the news the moment it happens. The problem is that investigative journalism and hard news (as opposed to entertainment news and opinion) is expensive and time-consuming to produce. It can take months or years for a journalist to complete a story if importance.  Editors, publishers, and lawyers may then clash over the article with concerns. Revisions are typical. Hard news, reporting a bombing in London, consists of a set of facts, which may expand over time. But the facts can often be presented in a very short period of time: this is the ‘who, what, where, when’ of a breaking story. But it requires journalists on the ground, where the story is happening, to report it and report it accurately. Again, not cheap.

So what happens to a cable news channel with 24 hours of programming time to fill? They turn to opinion: panels of experts, hours of speculation, and enough hot air to power a balloon and float me over and around the French countryside for a year. They also turn a cat getting stranded in a tree into ‘breaking news.’ Sensationalism doesn’t help us, folks.

What’s more, when we watch or read ‘news’ that only confirms or promotes our existing worldview, we aren’t receiving challenging and uncomfortable information that helps us exercise our critical thinking muscles.  Like an athlete who never exercises, our body politic gets lethargic, out of shape, and irritable. This leads to us lashing out, making some bad decisions, and not making progress as individuals or as a country.

We must separate fact from opinion, and certainly from ‘alternative facts’ and outright lies. We must limit our exposure to commentary. We must use a variety of news sources as a way to draw informed, circumspect conclusions to the complex problems we face today. We must see more than two sides to every story in this multifaceted world. Only manipulators simplify issues and vilify those who hold a different opinion. They do this to acquire or maintain power, not to solve problems. Sometimes they do it to simply keep us as a nation divided while they quietly pursue their own agenda.

Yes, we need passion and decisiveness and even bold action at certain moments. But what we need more and more often is informed and moderated protocols for gathering information and making decisions, both in our public and private lives.

I’ve found over the years that the most intelligent person in the room (often an Old Money Guy or Old Money Gal) is the one with some reservations about a given issue. Not that they’re hesitant; they’ve simply looked at all the angles with as little emotion as possible, weighed the pros and cons, empathized with the parties involved, and run the options around the track mentally once or twice and tried to predict some possible outcomes and long term effects.

That kind of rigor will make you a little fatigued some of the time, but it will also make you much more wise most of the time. It will save you the exhausting exercise of hating the opposition. It will be a kind of crowbar that cranks open dogma and makes way for enlightenment. It will require you to change your mind, thoughtfully and over time, as you entertain new ideas. It may reveal to you that you were wrong. It moderates our opinions and steadies our choices. It leaves less room for ‘hangovers.’

If this is the kind of measured, thoughtful approach you’d suggest to your children when they consider buying a house or a car, wouldn’t it make sense to use the same approach with public policy issues and political candidates?

That’s a question we each must ask and answer individually. Having the television, newspaper, or internet confirm our existing opinions is comforting. It just isn’t healthy.

Happy 4th of July.

  • BGT





16 thoughts on “News You Can Use

  1. In the words of the immortal Walter Cronkite “objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine.” Sadly, it appears that opinion is more profitable than objective journalism.

  2. “If I’d written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people – including me – would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.”
    Hunter S. Thompson

    “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
    Mark Twain

    “Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”
    Frédéric Bastiat

    What happened on Ash Wednesday, 17 February 1600 and why?! (not easy to find out the truth)

    Great post!

  3. Thank you for such a thoughtful post for July 4th! I have enjoyed reading your blog for some months now, and your post moves me to comment.

    It brings to mind Ben Franklin’s reply to Mrs. Powell’s question as to what form of government came out of the Constitutional Convention of 1787–“a republic, if you can keep it.” Quality unbiased media, respectful dialogue across party lines, and well-measured opinions are essential to doing so. Unfortunately, media bias and an increasing focus on shock/entertainment value has been a long time coming. While this seems to have accelerated in the last decade or so, erosion of quality media was an issue at least as early as the 1970’s film Network, in which news-anchor Howard Beale raves, “Television is not the truth! Television is a **ed amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business!” Alas, triangulating between BBC, WSJ, and other (hopefully less-biased) news sources to attempt a relatively informed opinion requires a degree of effort many are often unwilling to invest in.

    1. That is a great quote from Benjamin Franklin, and a prescient film. Hopefully the desire to be informed will override the temptation of distraction. Thank you for the comment, M. Bailey. – BGT

  4. We became so tired of the panel/opinion approach to news and saw the kind of behavior as gossip and non-productive we decided to do the following to protect our little boy:
    1. We discontinued our cable subscription and just use a TV antennae.
    2. Subscribed to a good news paper.
    3. Limited the internet to one hour a week at the local library.
    4. Purchased a really good radio.

    As for movies we now go to the movie theatre and after dinner we listen to NPR while our son reads or plays with his toys. We call this plan Experiencing Life.

    1. We disconnected cable and free-to-air TV 10 years ago. At the risk of my children not knowing popular culture, for instance Rachel Bloom’s ‘Sex Junk’ song on Bill Nye Saves The World, we instead built out bookcases everywhere. We have 6,000 volumes and family reading nights. JM Barrie: wow, what an author! In my experience, you can leave the news for 1 week and not miss anything. I’m going to do a 30 Day News Free Challenge and report back here with my findings.

      1. Oh. Speaking of JM Barrie, Byron, Captain Hook would make a great Old Money exemplar. An Old Etonian, he was obsessed by “good form” and “was never more sinister than when he was at his most polite, which is probably the truest test of breeding.” *smile*

      2. Have you done your news free challenge? How did it go? I went off social media and ‘news’ and have never felt better. Hardly any feelings of frustration or anxiety. I had always felt manipulated by the news. My husband still reads the news and tries to read it to me but I often shut it down, asking him to change the subject. So much of the ‘news’ these days is commentary trying to manipulate me into feeling a certain way or I’m not a ‘good citizen’. I prefer to be independent in my thoughts including ‘news’ stories.

  5. OK MelissaBishop … Day 1 is today. No news for 30 days. Hold me accountable please. *smile*

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