When I was a growing up as a child of the 70’s and 80’s, the news was a fairly straightforward thing. There were only a handful of channels on TV, none of them ran for 24 hours, and each of the major networks offered a non-biased, factual evening news program. It didn’t matter too much whether you watched Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw, the news was still the news. They didn’t waste time trying to interpret the news for you or telling you what to think about the news, they simply reported it and left interpretation up to the viewer.
Now, some 40 years later and borrowing a trite phrase, I long for those simpler times.
When Rupert Murdock founded FOX News in October of 1996, his goal was to generate a level of anger that would keep people glued to his channel and keep the advertising revenue streaming in. What he could not have predicted, but certainly did nothing to mitigate, is that his brand of entertainment would become gospel truth to a large segment of Americans, primarily those with extreme Republican political sympathies. It does not pretend to present unbiased news, but primarily serves as the propaganda network for the unsophisticated and incurious, essentially preaching to the choir all day every day.
MSNBC is currently viewed as the anti-FOX network for liberals, but it didn’t start out that way. Founded in July of 1996, it was more of a magazine type of show, with longer segments digging into the news of the day. It wasn’t until 2007 (by which time FOX had become particularly odious) that the network transformed itself into the bastion of liberal values that it is today. They preach to their own choir of intellectual, educated voters who revel in laughing at the stupidity of the FOX News crowd and their representative politicians.
Neither network is doing real service to the national discussion, much less America’s national identity.
Never has this been more clear than during the COVID-19 pandemic which has entirely derailed the American way of life. If your favorite flavor of News is FOX, you are liable to believe the virus is a hoax perpetrated by liberals, the media, or some other straw man. You probably feel that everyone should just go back to life as usual and take off those damn freedom-limiting masks (and buy another gun, just in case). If MSNBC is your preferred flavor, you probably believe COVID-19 is a harbinger of the End of the World and you should hoard as many packages of ramen noodles and toilet paper as you can and prepare for the apocalypse.
Are these really the only two options?
What about those of us who recognize the manipulation from both sides and are looking for a rational response to COVID-19?
America has faced many existential challenges since its founding in 1776. We had to confront our treatment of the indigenous people who lived on this land before we decided to discover it. Epic fail. We had to confront slavery, and it took a civil war, but we did manage to get that one right . . .at least on paper. Women had to fight for the right to vote, which they won, though they’ve struggled to gain equal footing with men in many ways.
We have fought a number of foreign wars, essentially winning World War I and II, losing in Vietnam, more or less winning in Korea, and playing Russia to a stalemate (at the expense of our own economic health) in the Cold War. In more recent years we have attempted to fight terrorism in the Middle East, with limited success. People with alternative lifestyles and sexual preferences have made strong gains in the area of equal rights, again, at least on paper. Yet what’s on the horizon for America promises to be the greatest threat to the identity of our country that has ever come along.
No, I’m not talking about COVID-19, but rather the underlying problem that the deadly virus has exposed.
America no longer has a genuine, universally trusted source of information.
Gone are the days where the news was a public service, required by the government as payment for using the public infrastructure that allowed TV channels to be on the air. Now the news is nothing more than entertainment, and like selecting a genre of music on Spotify, we can select what we want to hear from what passes as news. This has created a division in America far worse than any other existential crisis of the past – worse than racism, sexism, nationalism or terrorism. We can now no longer even communicate with people who disagree with our own worldview.
My bold prediction? This information war is going to cost America MILLIONS of lives before the COVID-19 epidemic has ended.
(Of course, FOX News will claim any lives lost were due to something other than fictional COVID-19, MSNBC will claim everyone died except their news anchors and President Trump will Tweet that he’s planning to conquer the moon with his Space Force.)