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Opinion Television news: Are we amusing ourselves to death?

Anyone who relies exclusively on television/cable news hosts and political commentators for actual knowledge of the world today is making a serious mistake. Unfortunately, as Americans have devolved into non-readers with woefully short attention spans, newspapers providing even semianalytical content have found themselves struggling to stay afloat while television, which delivers little more than news sound bites sandwiched between superficial chitchat and entertainment buzz, has become the prime source of so-called “news.”

There can be little hope for objective reporting in an environment where propaganda and advertisements are delivered in the guise of entertainment and news. Yet short of tuning out altogether, there is no way to completely ignore the mass media, but the following truths may help to refocus one’s media lens in order to better view the news through the eyes of an informed citizen.

TV news is not what happened. Rather, it is what someone thinks is worth reporting. The old art of investigative reporting has largely been lost as television news requires fast-paced transitions. Any hard-hitting investigative report is drowned out by flavor of the week sound bites. It is the viewer’ responsibility to judge and analyze what is reported and uncover what goes unreported.

TV news is entertainment. It is important to distinguish between TV news that portrays itself as news but is actually entertainment, such as many of the morning news shows, as opposed to programming that may be informative but casts itself primarily as entertainment, such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. These programs you watch are called news “shows”— a signal that the so-called news is being delivered as a form of entertainment. Often, stories of some significance are sandwiched between banal pieces about celebrities and fictitious news events.

Never underestimate the power of commercials, especially to news audiences. Television news media exists because of corporate sponsorship, a.k.a. advertising, the power of which should not be underestimated. The glitz and glamour of the present- day news show is intended to keep you glued to the set so that a product can be sold to you. (Even the TV news hosts get in on the action by peddling their own products, everything from their latest books to mugs and bathrobes.) Although the news items spoon-fed to you may have some value, they are primarily a commodity to gather an audience, which will in turn be sold to advertisers.

It is vitally important to learn about the economic and political interests of those who own the “corporate” media. There are few independent news sources anymore. The major news outlets are owned by corporate empires, which in turn have a vested interest in politics. To this end, the two major political parties in this country are heavily bankrolled by corporate dollars. This begs the question: How can a corporate news network present objective news on any issue if it is financially supporting a political candidate or promoting a message to a specific audience? The answer is simple: it can’t. In the quest to turn a profit, truth suffers. This is why it is so vitally important to get various views on news stories and from sources that present a different view than what is seen on the corporate news networks.

Pay special attention to the language of newscasts and what is not being reported. More often than not, pundits and reporters tend to focus more on political games of one-upmanship rather than the real issues affecting the nation such as the multitude of wars America is embroiled in, the continued dismantling of civil liberties in this country, and the widening gap in wealth between the top 1% of Americans and the working and middle classes. The wool is being pulled over our eyes as the country continues to plunge into darkness. TV by its very nature manipulates viewers.

Greatly reduce the amount of TV news you watch. TV news generally consists of “bad” news—wars, torture, murders, scandals and so forth. Studies indicate that a heavy viewing of TV news makes people think the world is much more dangerous than it actually is. Feelings of depression and alarm ignited during the newscast are juxtaposed with advertisements offering stress relieving and distracting products, such as prescription medications, alcohol, food, and consumer products.

One of the reasons many people are addicted to watching TV news is that they feel they must have an opinion on almost everything, which gives the illusion of participation in American life. Yet we often don’t have enough information from the “news” source to form a true opinion. How can that be accomplished?

First of all, books are a great source of information that are often overlooked. Major newspapers are still a decent source of information despite their falling profits and their selective discussion of certain issues. Local papers are most important because all political involvement begins at the local level. Understanding the issues facing your town and responding to them via letters to the editor is an effective way to start participating in society. It's certainly more effective than sitting on your couch and watching TV.

Finally, there is the internet, which as The Economist recently acknowledged in its special report on the news industry, “has also made possible entirely new kinds of specialist news organisations ... All these new inhabitants of the news ecosystem have brought an unprecedented breadth and diversity of news and opinion to the business.”

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute.


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