Truth is often lost when we fail to distinguish between opinion and fact, and that is the danger we now face as a society. Anyone who relies exclusively on television/cable news hosts and political commentators for actual knowledge of the world is making a serious mistake. Unfortunately, since Americans have by and large become non-readers, television has become their prime source of so-called “news.”
This reliance on TV news has given rise to such popular news personalities such as Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Wolf Blitzer and Lou Dobbs, among others, who draw in vast audiences that virtually hang on their every word. In our media age, these are the new powers-that-be. Yet while these personalities often dispense the news like preachers used to dispense religion, with power and certainty, do they really deliver up objective reporting about the news?
Sadly, in the short term, there is not much that the average viewer can do to change the nature of television news. Yet while television news cannot — and should not — be completely avoided, the following suggestions will help you better understand the nature of TV news and minimize its impact on you.
1. TV news is not what happened. Rather, it is what someone thinks is worth reporting. Although there are some good TV reporters, the old art of investigative reporting has largely been lost.
2. TV news is entertainment. There is a reason why the programs you watch are called news “shows.” It’s a signal that the so-called news is being delivered as a form of entertainment. “In the case of most news shows,” write Neil Postman and Steve Powers in their insightful book, How to Watch TV News (1992), “the package includes attractive anchors, an exciting musical theme, comic relief, stories placed to hold the audience, the creation of the illusion of intimacy, and so on.”
3. Never underestimate the power of commercials, especially to news audiences. In an average household, the television set is on over seven hours a day. Most people, believing themselves to be in control of their media consumption, are not really bothered by this. But TV is a two-way attack: it not only delivers programming to your home, it also delivers you (the consumer) to a sponsor.
4. 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. For example, General Electric owns the entire stable of NBC shows, including MSNBC, which it co-owns with Microsoft (the “MS” in MSNBC stands for Microsoft). Both GE and Microsoft poured millions of dollars into the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush. CBS is owned by Westinghouse, while Disney owns ABC. CNN is owned by the multi-corporation Time-Warner, while Fox News Channel is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
5. Pay special attention to the language of newscasts. Because film footage and other visual imagery are so engaging on TV news shows, viewers are apt to allow language — what the reporter is saying about the images — to go unexamined. A TV news host’s language frames the pictures, and, therefore, the meaning we derive from the picture is often determined by the host’s commentary.
6. Reduce by at least one-half the amount of TV news you watch. TV news generally consists of “bad” news — wars, torture, murders, scandals and so forth. It cannot possibly do you any harm to excuse yourself each week from much of the mayhem projected at you on the news. Do not form your concept of reality based on television. TV news, it must be remembered, does not reflect normal everyday life. Studies indicate that a heavy viewing of TV news makes people think the world is much more dangerous than it actually is.
7. 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. But an “opinion” is all that we can gain from TV news because it only presents the most rudimentary and fragmented information on anything.
The bottom line is simply this: Americans should beware of letting others — whether they be television news hosts, political commentators or media corporations — do their thinking for them. If not, then I fear for the future of this country.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.