That is the “wisdom” voiced by a number of political reporters when discussing the latest GOP accusations that Social Democracy and Socialism are one in the same…a perfect example of the flaws with today’s headline-driven, sensation-seeking journalism. Those reporters and their editors seem to believe that the American people are incapable of understanding complexity and context. But how would they know? They have seldom tried.
Certainly, local radio and TV newsrooms lack the time, resources and will to analyze complex issues and report them objectively. But the same can’t be said of cable TV networks.
Cable TV networks like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have both the resources and the time to provide insight and details for complex issues – to help viewers understand social democracy, climate change, immigration, federal deficits, racial disparity and most other issues of our time. Instead, it seems they would rather focus on headlines and details. (One notable exception is Rachel Maddow who often uses her entire hour-long show to accurately explore the details of a single story. At the other extreme is Fox News, which like many talk radio shows, prefers to serve as a cheerleader and propagandist for the Republican Party.)
Want to know the difference between social democracy and socialism? You’d have better success asking a political science professor than watching a newscast. In reality, the only people who are likely to be asked to define social democracy on television or radio are its Republican opponents who will confuse it with communism. They will want to scare the bejeezus out of you to prevent you from voting for programs that might actually benefit you as opposed to their tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations. For the record, most of the nations in the advanced world are successful social democracies. They have universal health care, free education, free daycare and pensions, all paid for by taxes. Instead, the US has gone in another direction. Thanks to sustained GOP tax cuts, the US is now recognized as an oligarchy – a government dominated by the very rich and powerful. But have you seen or heard any broadcast news organization question that? Have you seen GOP politicians and strategists asked to explain and defend the policies that led to oligarchy?
That should tell you everything you need to know about cable TV’s journalistic bias.
Want to know the details and consequences of the two parties’ budget proposals? You’ll have to sort through dozens and dozens of newspaper, magazine and online articles in order to piece together a scant understanding. Want to know the true consequences of unabated carbon emissions on our planet? You’ll need to read detailed reports and studies from the world’s climate scientists. Want to really understand the Green New Deal? You’ll have to wait for an interview with its sponsor. And you’re more likely to find that on a late night TV talk show than in a newscast.
What passes for fairness in television journalism these days is this: The news host presents a news headline or encapsulated story. Then the host brings on pundits or officials from each party to provide their viewpoints on the story. The viewer is then expected to reach their own conclusions. There is no attempt to drill down to the truth. The hosts are more interested in providing equal time.
That’s not journalism! It’s infotainment.
When I attended journalism school, we were taught to search for the facts and truth. Opinions needed to be labeled as such. Equal time was only considered in terms of political campaigns. We were taught that there are not two sides to the truth. There is only the truth. That’s why network news reporters were once ranked as some of the most credible people in the world. They reported the truth without concern for providing time for opposing viewpoints. As Walter Cronkite famously said, “My job is not to tell you what you want to know. My job is to tell you what you need to know.”
No one understands the reality of today’s journalism standards better than reality TV star, Donald J. Trump. During the 2016 election, as Hillary and other Democrats proposed detailed solutions for our nation’s most pressing problems, Trump offered simplistic proposals (“Mexico will pay for the wall”) and sensational attacks against his opponent (“Lock her up”). Not surprisingly, the television news shows ignored substance and, instead, fawned over Trump, giving him endless hours of coverage. Even when he was exposed as a sexual assaulter, racist, fraud and liar, the media continued to host him at every opportunity. In industry parlance, Trump was “good copy.”
Even today, Trump dominates the airwaves. Whether it’s news of the Russia investigation, the corruption of his administration, the criminality of his family and his associates, or his avalanche of lies, the cable TV news channels are virtually all Trump all the time. As a result, the reality of his crimes and corruption are diminished – lost in a sea of stories and commentary by politicians and pundits on both sides.
Of course, there are still many diligent, hardworking reporters writing in newspapers, magazines and online outlets. And, in fairness, there are also many working for television news organizations. But their work is often overshadowed by the TV hosts, the pundits, the political strategists, the fear-mongers and the conspiracy theorists.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” We all need to work at educating ourselves. We can’t rely on TV news hosts, radio instigators, and social media platforms populated by Russian trolls to do the job for us. We need to do our own research; to seek out serious journalists; to read academic and scientific studies; to find the purveyors of truth.
It requires effort. But that’s what the nation’s founders would have expected of us.