News as Political Agenda: Whatever Happened to Cronkite?
Our news programs have become promoters of a political agenda, no longer a broadcast of both sides of a position. But isn’t that what Walter Cronkite did–present both sides? Instead we watch Fox News or MSNBC, Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow, hardly ever both. When did our news become so one-sided? When did we start choosing which news to watch based on our predilections?
It seems to date back to the landmark repeal by both Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush of the Fairness Doctrine, first in 1987 and then again in 1991. The 1949 Fairness Doctrine had required all TV news coverage to present opposing viewpoints. Once it was repealed, newscasters could push a political agenda. Websites who cover current events often follow suit, with video clips to support their views. The media lesson was straightforward: News is not about the truth. It is about viewership aka advertising dollars.
News coverage is indeed evolving…and rapidly. All we need is a smart phone. With the iPhone we become our own broadcasters. Think of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The photos and video may not have the polish of a professional news organization, but they capture the uncensored immediacy of the event. Live, instantaneous news feels truthful even though it precludes previewing the content to verify its authenticity .
We’re now able to take people quickly where they couldn’t go before. Take the Arab Spring, for example. Or Mitt Romney’s muffled comments. It’s changing news one smart phone at a time. This is a milestone. But is it journalism? In some ways, it is the best of times and the worst of times.
Social media increasingly shapes what constitutes newsworthiness. Competition for viewers’ interest has never been more intense. Viewers have always voted with their eyeballs. While the Fairness Doctrine was in effect we voted on whether to watch Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley. We chose who delivered the news not which news to deliver. Now it is in the media’s commercial interest to try to match active social media participants’ desires. It is not so difficult to see how an issue which is a major story to one television station or one major blog can be ignored by others: if the story doesn’t match the participants’ desires. And it is not so difficult to see how the same set of facts can be reported on so differently: “facts” are aligned with the beliefs of the viewers.
And with top priority placed on news events that affect Americans, some foreign news is completely absent. Compare BBC America or Al Jazeera with CNN or Fox and you will wonder if you are on the same planet.
What has happened to our news? Opinion dominates, but not necessarily in a transparent way. Should news seek to be objective or skewed to appeal to a targeted audience? How are we to be informed about the world-at-large if our news is one-sided?