Let me hear both sides
With more choices, consumers of media are left more cynical and less satisfied
This past week, a survey conducted by Gallup found that 60 percent of Americans have little or no trust in the media’s capacity to report news accurately, fairly and objectively. The survey went on to conclude that in comparison to previous years, election or otherwise, the amount of distrust in the mass media has hit a record high.
For most people, this does not come as a surprise. The portrait of the Midwestern family gathering around the television to watch Walter Cronkite’s coverage of Apollo 11 is almost as outdated as the TVs they were watching them on. And yet, there remains the question of just what happened between 1969 and now that drove the number of Americans with faith in news media from 72 percent to a mere 40 percent in 2012.
Money is the most obvious factor. New York Times columnist David Carr pointed out that today’s news business is so lucrative, cable networks make as much as $1 billion a year in profits. More than straight reporting, however, these profits make their way into the networks’ pockets as a result of the dozens of “commentary” and “debate” shows today’s news programming has to offer.
So how does this compare to the days of Cronkite? For one, money adds variety. Back in the 70s, there were only three major networks, and the evening anchors on each had one job: to tell you what was important. Forty years ago, watching the news with one’s family was what David Carr cited as a “shared national experience,” and had a unifying effect on the viewership.
But the more individualistic American society becomes, the less we are willing to adhere to that unification. It’s hard to pinpoint when and why, but the increased sense of skepticism of the Vietnam generation and those who followed has facilitated a type of hatred toward any large structure, whether it is government, media or religion. Some attribute this shift to the effect of the hippie movement, while others would argue that inevitable technological shifts promoted pre-existing tendencies to act in self-interest. Whichever the reason is, the result is that today’s news production directly reflects new individualistic values.
So with new ways of thinking comes choice, with choice comes variety, and with variety skepticism against universals. In other words, the three-network days gave us less of a choice to be skeptical of what was “fact” and what wasn’t. Today, we choose our news, so we choose how to define what is fact.
And while we’re on the topic of definitions, there is the question of what still counts as “news.” Political commentary shows like those of Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly include content that is handpicked by producers to agree with the politics of the network on which it airs. Debate shows like “Hannity and Colmes” don’t run as much debate as they do theatrical bickering. Political comedian Jon Stewart famously called out the correspondents on CNN’s “Crossfire” for “hurting America” with slanderous debates whose only functions were to gain ratings, and the show was promptly pulled off the air. And although “Crossfire” was put out early, the popularity of similar programs has been enough to burn the old news media to the ground.
While it’s unlikely that the news will go back to being the “shared national experience” it once was, Americans are a lot less willing to hear the truth than they were 40 years ago. The paradox of being dissatisfied with one’s news while still watching it will only feed the distrust until networks have virtually no reason to broadcast hard news at all. The more people define their individualism by the news they watch, the more it will cause an even more drastic shift to theatrical programming. According to the Gallup study, it’s not that we don’t watch the news, or even that we don’t like the news. We just don’t trust it.
Denise Taylor’s column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org