Does anyone else remember the days when you had to watch the news at 6 pm because dad was home and you only had one TV? I am old enough to remember Walter Cronkite concluding his nightly newscast with the number of US soldiers killed in Vietnam that day. I learned about the world from Harry Reasoner, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley. Reporting the news was a sober responsibility, entrusted only to the most credible and respected journalists. At least it sure seemed that way to me. During the Watergate era, we watched as our federal government, driven by the press, held the President of the United States accountable for his transgressions, strengthening our belief that the system could not be gamed. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
I don’t remember liking the news very much, but watching it was something we did as a family because it was good for us, like going to church. Never once during my youth or young adulthood did it ever occur to me that the news was anything less than triple-validated, impeccable truth. Because if it was a lie, somebody would find out, report it, and the liar would be publicly humiliated, never to be believed again. There were plenty of other acceptable venues out there for the purveyors of misinformation. Nobody really believed 4 out of 5 dentists recommended chewing gum. We didn’t take the X-Ray Specs in the backs of comic books seriously. But if we heard words coming out of Tom Brokaw’s mouth, we could be reasonably assured they were factual.
Then, in 1996, Rupert Murdoch established the Fox News Channel. Fox News, along with left-leaning MSNBC which debuted the same year, was created to compete with CNN, the country’s first 24-hour news network. According to Murdoch at the time,
“The appetite for news – particularly news that explains to people how it affects them – is expanding enormously.”
Murdoch, who has been described as the “inventor of the modern tabloid,” capitalized on an emerging market of consumers who wanted their news “explained.”
Explanatory journalism is defined as news that helps people make sense of their world, but the question is – “What kind of world makes sense to you?”
Today, we can receive our news in whatever package is most attractive to us. I can watch Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow, and have the same story explained to me in two very different ways. In this context, news no longer informs – it conforms. Our perspective is narrowed, not expanded. When we only listen to the people who agree with us, we stop learning. And the deeper we retreat into our respective echo chambers, the more radicalized our thinking can become.
Truth has become relative, rather than absolute. We heard the President’s advisor Kellyanne Conway refer to information coming from the White House as “alternative facts,” as if such a commodity existed. Any information that doesn’t reflect one’s personal ideology can be dismissed as “fake news.” Alternatively, any patently ridiculous claim can gain traction if it adheres to a political agenda.
There have always been conspiracy theorists and knuckleheads who believe the National Enquirer, but this is no longer a laughing matter. When the President calls journalists “enemies of the state” for questioning his veracity, we all need to be on alert.
And this is what concerns me the most right now – Trump fatigue. We were mildly amused when the size of the inauguration crowd was flagrantly exaggerated. We watched with fascination as political insiders uttered the word “unprecedented” daily. One writer described Trump news as “that leftover holiday pie we know we don’t need, but we just keep cutting ourselves another slice.” It’s difficult to remember a day that didn’t introduce yet another jaw-dropping revelation. But our addiction may have reached the point of satiety. Outrageous comments from the Commander-in-Tweet have stopped being remarkable. This frightens me.
A year ago, I thought, “Maybe this is what the Democrats needed to get re-energized.” The 2018 election would certainly be a referendum on the state of American politics. Now I’m not so sure. I sense a prevailing ennui among my fellow liberals. We have become so inured to indignation that any debacle seems predictable. I’m sick and tired of watching policy experts shake their heads in ineffectual disbelief. There are days I would prefer to watch Sports Center, or the food channel, or really anything other than the news. But if we stop paying attention, we resign ourselves to “whatever.”
History does not favor the passive.
The contention that “something like that could never happen here” is now open for debate. Because this is exactly how something like that happens.
For breakfast, I had black coffee and a Kind bar.