As a child of the ‘60s and growing up during the rapid expansion of worldwide television news coverage, I have always relied on broadcast news to keep me informed. I religiously watched the NBC Evening News with Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings at ABC or whomever was the Big Anchor at the time. I tuned into Sixty Minutes on Sunday nights and ESPN for ongoing sports coverage. For several decades the medium was credible and I could go about my business feeling reasonably sure I knew what was going on in society and I could make decisions about my life with a sense of confidence.
But in recent years with the proliferation of available news and information sources across media platforms, the product has been diluted and much of it isn’t very reliable. In my recent book “The Illusion of Knowledge: Why so many educated Americans embrace Marxism” I explore the reason most news sources are no longer reliable.
The news industry is like any other business, it has to turn a profit. It didn’t always work that way. For most of the early years, TV news broadcasts were subsidized. The cost to produce them was covered by products that brought in advertising revenue during Prime Time hours. Putting on a live in-studio daily one-hour news program was pretty expensive. It required a lot of resources, expert personnel, and remote equipment. If they didn’t have to, most stations would not have bothered.
But the TV industry was under a legal mandate by the Federal Communications Commission to provide a certain amount of “public service” product because the airwaves were considered public property and the TV broadcasts were making money while using a taxpayer-owned resource.
Fast forward 50 years and now the business is entirely different as is the method of delivery. Since it is now a digital signal and no longer requires ‘airwaves’ so the government has lost its leverage. The internet changed everything and now the news is in constant demand by media-hungry users of electronic devices.
The news media business is once again a Wild Wild West Gold Rush and profit is paramount. Mostly because news programming provides a great lead-in for cheaper- to-produce content that raises profit margins. The competition for viewers is immense since they can find content from a million internet sources.
The majority of financial support comes from advertising which requires viewers to justify revenue demands. So the driving force behind any form of news media is … wait for it! Ta da … audience share! And how do the programmers attract that?
Ever noticed how people slow down to gawk at auto accidents? They can’t resist gruesome scenes of violent wreckage. Television news is no different. In the business, they have a saying, “If it bleeds, it leads!”
As I have gotten older I can’t help but notice how the news media has become preoccupied with negative, profane and outrageous stories. Everyone races to be the first to cover Monica Lewinski or Jeffrey Epstein. And what makes it so demoralizing is that the truth doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Whether it is because of ratings pressures, sloppy processes, or just ignorance, the news is bloated with misrepresentations, malapropisms, and unsupported claims. We’ve grown accustomed to accepting mediocrity in news journalism.
Clearly they are all trying to out-dramatize each other. CNN is the worst. Chairman Jeff Zucker bragged that he directed the entire staff at CNN to devote every segment to undermining Donald Trump’s administration. So they hurled one giant fabricated slander after another at the President, then when the audience would become jaded and fade, they came up with another drama designed to astonish the audience! They were, like so many in the major media, putting on a politically inspired three-ring circus.
But as a result, they have suffered serious collateral damage. CNN and MSNBC have seen their ratings tank. Across the spectrum, the Mainstream Media has forfeited their credibility. They have squandered their trustworthiness. You can only scream “The sky is falling!” so many times. People don’t want to see the same car wreck over and over again.
So here we are, facing a worldwide pandemic that threatens the stability of civilization, and I have a hard time believing anything they say. They claim that we need to listen to them to be diligent in taking proper actions to protect ourselves and our families from the Coronavirus, but no matter which station I tune to, I find myself questioning their competency.
As the world confronts a truly scary and humbling pandemic, and our nation’s news organizations are forced to focus on serious events, some are complaining that the public is not respecting the reality of the threat.
The media doth complain too much, methinks.
Rick Elkin is a cultural and media observer, author and columnist. His most recent book, The Illusion of Knowledge: Why so many educated Americans embrace Marxism, is available through most online booksellers. He resides in Escondido, California. You can follow him at RickElkin.com or on Twitter @Rick_Elkin.