News as entertainment is sadly becoming the norm
“We report, you decide.”
That’s the slogan of Fox News. It’s baloney, of course. Fox is probably the most biased of all mainstream news outlets. But Fox has been successful -- at least in part, I’m convinced -- because more and more people want biased news, no matter how much they protest to the contrary.
Actually, let me rephrase that slightly. I think a growing number of people -- still a minority, thank God, but a growing number nonetheless -- don’t really want unbiased, straightforward news reporting. When they complain about bias, what they’re really complaining about, whether they’re on the left or the right, is that the news isn’t biased in favor of their side of the argument.
Too many people these days are intellectually lazy. They don’t want to sort through conflicting reports, often presented in a relatively dry, factual fashion, to figure out what’s important and who’s right in any news-making scenario.
They want pre-packaged news -- news presented in small, entertaining bites and delivered with edge, with attitude (which, for much of the day’s news, means a particular viewpoint, a partisan or ideological bias).
That helps explain why television offerings as different as Fox News and “The Daily Show” on the Comedy Channel are so popular. Granted, there are significant differences in the two beyond their right/left split -- only “The Daily Show” is intentionally funny, for example -- but you can watch either and come away feeling informed, entertained and confirmed in your world view, all with a minimum of intellectual effort.
“Everybody wants to be entertained by the news,” says Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology and journalism in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. “Most people want no-problem news, goes-down-easy news, Yahoo! headlines, news that evokes feelings, even if those feelings are feelings of fear.”
I think young people -- those in their late teens and 20s -- are particularly susceptible to these one-sided, half-baked news mcnuggets. Thanks to MTV, and instant messaging and other rapid-fire features of the Internet, most young people today want everything in quick, small bites. They get their news -- to the extent that they get any -- inadvertently, almost by osmosis, absorbing bits of it on various websites or between the radio play of their favorite songs or while clicking the television remote control.
“In a communications-saturated society like ours, it’s hard to avoid news entirely,” says Thomas Patterson, a professor in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and director of the Vanishing Voter Project. “But about half of young adults aged 18 to 30 don’t have anything that even looks like a news habit, if by that term you mean someone who regularly seeks out and consumes news.”
Enrons in the making
Patterson thinks the decline in newspaper circulation and the rise of cable TV have played a major role in weakening what he calls “the generational transfer of the news habit.
“Young people are increasingly growing up in homes where they don’t see their parents reading newspapers every day, so they don’t associate that act with being a worthwhile activity, with being an adult,” he says.
Moreover, he says, far more families watched the evening network news before the advent of cable, and even younger people who weren’t interested were “accidentally exposed” to it then and, over time, developed an awareness that it was “worth spending time on when they began to sort out issues and institutions on their own.
“But the number of families that watch the network evening news has declined by about 50% over the past 20 years or so,” he says, “and that diminished exposure has undermined the resultant habit-development.”
The growing wealth in some segments of our society may also militate against an interest in the larger world -- especially among the college students and recent college graduates who traditionally were the most likely young people to be regular news consumers.
“The wealthier a society is, the more self-consciously individualistic it is and the less an individual feels obligated to consider things outside oneself and one’s immediate interests,” says Robert Calvert, a political science professor at DePauw University. “The last thing kids want out of a college education today is to learn how to be a better citizen. All they’re concerned with is career preparation.”
Calvert thinks this mind-set leads to more -- worse -- than mere civic ignorance.
“You wind up with people working for, and maybe at the top of, major industries who have no interest in institutions or in our cultural and moral environment, and that’s a real national problem,” he says. “That’s how you wind up with Enron.”
To be fair, young people have never been big consumers of news. They’ve certainly never been big newspaper readers. Historically, most people don’t become really interested in the news until they have a stake in it -- or, more precisely, a stake in the world that news organizations cover.
For newspapers, that’s generally meant that people didn’t subscribe until they started voting, getting married, having kids and paying taxes. Voter turnout has been declining steadily, though. Marriage often occurs later today than it did in earlier generations. Parenthood is delayed or avoided. Taxes? Apparently paying taxes is not enough incentive by itself to encourage newspaper readership. After all, look at President Bush; he cuts taxes and says he doesn’t read newspapers.
Newspapers have been trying ever more desperately of late to hook young readers with a variety of alternative publications. But we already live in a culture more saturated with news, with more news more available from more different kinds of sources, than ever before. So young people can get the news. Or what passes for news.
Patterson has surveyed folks who say they get their news from the Internet or “The Daily Show,” “and when you ask them specific questions about issues and people in the news, they don’t know anything.”
Clearly, what Jon Stewart or Matt Drudge calls news is very different from what, say, Walter Cronkite called news. One difference is the difference between fact and opinion.
Agreeing to agree
Editors have long known that most readers of op-ed pages read those columnists with whom they agree politically. They’re seeking reinforcement and validation, not information. But most newspaper columnists at least mount an argument on behalf of their point of view, and a few -- Bill Safire of the New York Times comes readily to mind -- are not always predictable and do occasionally give readers opinions that depart from their normal ideological position. That’s not true of most blogs and many other websites, not to mention talk radio and some cable offerings, so the options for reinforcement and validation are greater today than ever before, much as the solipsistic appetite for reinforcement and validation are greater than ever before.
Too bad. I like the unexpected. I don’t like the predictable and the obvious. I’d rather have my beliefs challenged than validated. How else does one learn?
That’s one reason I was somewhat disappointed in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.” It’s blatant propaganda. Sure, it’s propaganda on my side of the ideological battlefield. That’s why it appeals to so many who, like me, think George W. Bush has been an appallingly bad president. That’s why it’s done so well at the box office.
You don’t have to think or analyze to appreciate the movie, though. You can just nod and cheer, as audiences did when I saw it.
Although “Fahrenheit 9/11" doesn’t pretend to be news, I’ve been stunned by how many people who’ve seen the movie have then said, in tones of astonishment, “I didn’t know that” -- almost invariably about matters long since covered by the mainstream news media.
“Fahrenheit 9/11" doesn’t pretend to be a documentary either. Not really. It’s a polemic. An entertaining polemic. That’s exactly what the audiences lining up at theaters around the country seem to want. And I fear that’s what many Americans -- especially younger Americans -- want in their news as well.
David Shaw can be reached at email@example.com. To read his previous “Media Matters” columns, please go to la times.com/shaw-media.