On the Side| Brad Hicks
As a collegian, I didn’t work for the Iowa State Daily. I had a nice little job over in the sports information department instead, which gave me some great perks and a lot fewer hassles.
The benefit was I didn’t have to investigate the dearth of options at the dorm cafeterias compared to other Big 8 schools, write a feature on the computer science students who created a new theory that only they could understand, or cover the same old group of protesters and their issue of the week.
The detriment was I didn’t get one of the greatest t-shirts ever designed for a college news team. That shirt carried the Daily’s logo and a simple statement: Fiction is Fun!
Nevermoreso than now is that statement true. I get on my Facebook page now and then to see what my friends are doing. Invariably I run into some post by a friend who has copied something that looks really official. For instance, last year, there was a deal that said it was from ABC News and President Obama had just outlawed something “with the swipe of a pen.” Well, a quick check of Snopes.com and truthorfiction.com yielded what I suspected – the item wasn’t true. And, of course, it wasn’t done by ABC News. However, when I looked at ABC News’ website, the headline fonts, the copy fonts, and even the photo style looked just like ABC’s.
So when this whole discussion of “fake news” came up during the campaign, I was more concerned about the ability of people to post just about anything they want to the internet and, worse, the unwillingness of modern-day adults to question what they are reading and perhaps their inability to use the internet to question what the facts may be. It’s the great irony of the internet – the facts are often out there, but they are buried in untruths, many of them fabricated to twist people.
It’s at this point that I am sure you are saying, “Yes, those Republicans...” or “Yes, those Democrats...” And that leads me to the topic at hand.
It’s and unfortunate reality that the large-scale news business once defended mightily by the nation’s press and universities has disintegrated to the opinion business.
First, because that’s what people want – the ratings prove it. Second, because it’s far less expensive.
Real investigative news costs lots of money, and the networks, cable companies, and large newspapers aren’t interested in spending that kind of money, in part because money is tight. It’s tight because people pay far less attention to traditional news sources than ever. The internet is changing retailing – and the advertising dollars that drove print, television and radio as the big three for decades has been drying up because of those changes. The big newspapers in this country have fewer retail advertiers and fewer subscribers. The networks have fewer viewers and can’t sell ads at the premiums they once did. Network radio is about talk shows. So, subscriber revenue to big papers and cable companies is now becoming more valuable because growingly, it’s what’s left. And to serve subscribers, you have to meet their wants.
For all of them, it’s more cost-effective to take a report, get a couple of people to disagree, call that news, and wind up with a report that’s distorted it into coulda-shoulda-woulda-mighta-beens or manipulated to suit one’s own argument, facts-be-damned, whatever they might be, because no one actually looked for any. And, it’s OK, because most viewers and readers don’t want to be bored with the facts anymore – they want entertainment and, most importantly, affirmation of their own beliefs.
This is the point where I throw out Woodward and Bernstein and their Watergate investigation. What people don’t understand is, they were two beat reporters covering public affairs day-in and day-out, so they had lots of sources they had vetted for years. Likewise, people trusted them as reporters. The bureaucracy at the time was about half the size it is now, so the Washington Post, New York Times and other media organizations had money to put feet on the ground throughout the government agencies and perform their watchdog duties. And advertising dollars poured into TV, print and radio at a seemingly unending rate.
Today, there is very little of that getting-feet-dirty-with-the-mundane journalism being done, because the American public’s hunger for what’s happening has turned to an appetite that’s only fed by their rage and their search for affirming what they know.
Plus, journalism schools aren’t turning out those types of reporters anymore. The name-brand journalism schools are teaching the young ones to reach conclusions for the reader, listener or viewer; and, to not only become an expert on a particular issue, but advocate for a particular stance on that issue through reporting.
Rupert Murdoch figured out all of this before Ted Turner – so FOX News has been the leader in telling its viewers what they wanted to hear. NBC turned MSNBC into the same thing on the other side of the aisle, but failed to go all the way – it tried to still pretend to be news, which, made the organization liars on the surface. Now CNN, whose ratings have fallen drastically the last few years, is faced with a difficult decision given President Trump’s declaration that it offeres so-called “fake news.” Does it try to take the high road, or does it turn that label into dollars by telling the Left exactly what it wants to hear? I read CNN’s site, and it has drastically changed its tenor in the past 30 days. CNN is trying to monetize the president’s label.
There was a time when Americans recognized the difference between news and opinion, or news and entertainment. Frankly, I don’t think people are as sophisticated these days. People watch The Daily Show and think it’s a legitimate source of news.
The truth is a great many Americans are bored and lazy, and their goal in life is to be entertained on their own terms. They don’t want to hear the truth, they want to hear what they want to hear, and even perhaps, hear themselves. And why not? Fiction is Fun.
Brad Hicks is publisher of The Express. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.