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Pure Onsense

Kicking the Habit

Scott Zuke

Is it time we give up on the 24/7 cable news experiment? As a society or as consumers, can we come to a consensus that this invention, rather than elevating the citizenry, has instead led us into vice? By the time this reaches print, the story of Shirley Sherrod’s unjust and overly hasty firing in response to a doctored and misleading video will seem stale at best, and more likely will be mostly forgotten (Such is the speed of our media cycle), but bear with me. Some called the Sherrod affair a "teachable moment." I call it an intervention. I don’t know if we have hit rock bottom, but we’re close enough to warrant some serious reflection of how we ended up here.

Bob Dylan wrote a song titled "Who Killed Davey Moore," based on the true story of the American boxer by the same name who sustained fatal injuries during a match in 1963, sparking a controversy over the morality of the sport of boxing (See the lyrics at the link below). In each verse someone involved directly or indirectly in the match--the referee, the "angry crowd," the manager, gamblers, sports writers, and his opponent--explains why they shouldn’t be held culpable for Moore’s death, leading to the ultimate argument that all of them, by supporting the industry in their various ways, share the blame.

The same conclusion seems to apply to the Shirley Sherrod story, in which blame could fairly be put on every party involved: The unscrupulous blogger, Andrew Breitbart, who posted the videos; FOX News, which ran with the story without doing even preliminary fact-checking; the NAACP for condemning her without hearing her side of the story; Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for firing her out of pure cowardice, etc.

Based on the finger-pointing that dominated media coverage of the snafu, one could probably draw an elaborate analogy between all of these principal players and those mentioned in Dylan’s song, except for one: the angry crowd. That’s us. More and more it seems time that we give up this illusion that we are passive spectators when we watch the news. We’re often worse than enablers. As consumers we are active participants, and the choices we are making when it comes to tuning into the news each night are poisoning journalism.

Over the last few years a dubious partnership has emerged between the blogosphere and questionably more reputable outlets of the mainstream media. In short, it goes like this: a handful of blogs post a sensational, frequently fictitious story and spread it amongst themselves until a mainstream outlet runs with it (without fact-checking of course). Then the blogs link to those outlets as verification of their original post (because responsible media outlets fact check, of course), and so on. The story gets widespread coverage until responsible journalists debunk it, at which point the story is dropped from the news cycle never to be heard from again. No follow-up, no retraction, no accountability. It is a symbiotic relationship that benefits everyone involved, in a sickly sort of way. The blogs get a jump in hits, the mainstream outlets boost their ratings without ever having to expend resources on actual investigation, and we, the consumers, get exactly what we want: intrigue, controversy, and validation of our unshakable prejudices.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of CNN, which was founded with the noble intention of educating and empowering the masses by making news more immediately available. Today we are probably the most news saturated country on the planet, but the benefits of that status, if any, are unclear. One Pew Research poll indicated that the average citizen’s knowledge of national and international news remained basically unchanged between 1989 and 2007, the period of greatest growth for cable and online news consumption.

The ultimate problem, though, is not just that many of us are ignoring or misinterpreting the news, but really more about the attitude we have toward it. I see two significant shifts occurring on a wide scale: 1) We are increasingly conflating news with entertainment, and 2) using alternative news media to selectively verify our prejudices rather than to illuminate complex stories in search of the truth or more honest and informed opinion. The first shift explains the meteoric rise of FOX News, which has trounced CNN and MSNBC in ratings by solidifying its target audience, selectively covering and sensationalizing stories, and constructing an ongoing conservative narrative that sets up a typical good vs. evil dichotomy at the expense of objective and nuanced coverage.

The second shift explains the rise of the blogosphere. FOX has done such a good job of playing off of its viewers' confirmation bias and lumping together all of their rival networks as the "liberal mainstream media" that many consumers rebel against the supposedly corrupt and biased news media by turning ironically to blogs, the most biased and unaccountable sources of information possible. In the blogosphere there is usually no editorial oversight, no time or concern for fact-checking, not even time to do the journalist’s most simple task of asking questions.

Bloggers like Michelle Malkin, Andrew Breitbart, and innumerable others are responsible for a growing number of crimes against good journalism, from highly publicized stories like the supposed racism of Shirley Sherrod to last year’s assault on ACORN, to the lesser known but still harmful stories that have no credence, but are left to linger in the hazy memories of lazy and impressionable readers.

We as a society are bringing this corrupt and debased journalism upon ourselves. Biased, unaccountable media is the new cigarettes and alcohol: we know it's bad for us, but we’re hooked and it just feels so good. It will take an intervention, a moment of clarity, and a lot of personal responsibility to break the habit. Start right away by taking a cable news and blog vacation and see how good it feels after a week. Then keep going.

Read other article by Scott Zuke