News used to be a simple reporting of facts. People who wanted to know what was happening in places like Korea, India, Cleveland or Bosnia tuned in to the news and listened to the facts. Yes, believe it or not, people used to listen to the news so that they could get all the facts. Nowadays, it seems like news stories are rapidly becoming less news and more stories. No one listens to Glenn Beck because they want to hear unbiased facts. In fact, according to Pew Research’s News Coverage Index from December 2012, 46 percent of CNN’s broadcasts are “opinion/commentary” rather than actual reporting. You have to wonder how an organization that only shows news half the time can call itself a news network.
Even more shocking is the fact that, out of the three big news channels, CNN airs the least amount of opinion. Fox News fills up 55 percent of its airtime with opinion, and MSNBC airs commentary and opinion a whopping 85 percent of the time it’s supposedly reporting news. In fact, these networks make segments dedicated entirely to opinions, like “Hannity” or “The Rachel Maddow Show.” Still, they pretend to be real news networks. They have news scrolls at the bottom of the screen, nice backgrounds with a globe or an American flag, and a nicely dressed and vaguely attractive person in the foreground talking about something that sounds like current events. Don’t be fooled, however; these shows are news shows no more.
If you look at these networks carefully, you find that they are actually entertainment networks rather than news networks. They no longer serve the purpose of informing the public any more than Jimmy Kimmel or Stephen Colbert. The trouble is, these networks look so much like news that they end up confusing the general public, some of whom believe that Bill O’Reilly is a source of news equal to The New York Times. Another problem is how seriously these big networks seem to take themselves. No one is going to accuse “The Daily Show” of feigning impartiality, but Fox’s slogan is “Fair and Balanced,” for crying out loud! These networks are trying to pass off their content as news, and they’re doing a pretty good job. Their viewers are convinced that their channel’s content and their channel’s opinions are all true. Essentially, these networks are painting skewed realities for millions of Americans — the same Americans who vote for our politicians.
We wonder why Congress is so deadlocked, yet we ignore the fact that the people who voted them in are equally deadlocked in the worst way — neither side is wrong, because to each side, their respective viewpoints are the truth. When opinion becomes fact and those synthetic facts begin to contradict (as opinions tend to), then the resulting discussion is no longer about how to compromise on opinion to find common ground and reach a solution. No, these opinions are now treated as fact, and you can’t compromise on a fact. The thing is, these fake facts don’t agree with each other like real facts do, so the whole human decision-making system grinds to a halt. When networks begin planting ideas into people’s minds, we get a misinformed populace, and there is no greater threat to a democracy than that.
So, why do so many people allow the media to polarize them so much in the first place? Well, to answer that, we have to think about why people would watch MSNBC or Fox News. People used to watch the news for the sake of forming their own opinion based on the information handed to them. Nowadays, people still want opinions, but making opinions is really hard. You have to gather as much information as you can, make conclusions based on that information, figure out where you need more research and where you’re fine just making assumptions, and form a complex and dynamic argument. That’s a lot of work. What’s more is that when you present that argument to someone with a different opinion, there is a very real chance of that person having information you don’t, which invalidates your opinion partially or entirely. If that happens, not only have you wasted time creating and defending your position, but you’ve also lost a battle and your confidence that anything you think is correct. It becomes very stressful to make opinion after opinion only to have each one torn down. It’s so much easier, so much more relieving, to just listen to Bill O’Reilly and repeat whatever he says whenever you meet someone with an opinion that differs from his. When all is said and done, the reason we watch such terrible “news” networks is that the news they give us has been pre-chewed, with each new event accompanied by commentary that lets us understand what we ought to think of things and why we ought to think that. Everything’s just easier to swallow.
The world is getting smaller. More and more people are getting closer and closer to us in our previously isolated little corner of the world. As more and more people are being forced closer and closer together, we begin to get scared. All of a sudden, all of these different people and religions and cultures and morals and values and ideas are flowing in and crowding us all at once, and it’s getting really noisy and confusing. We aren’t sure how to act or what to do. We’re nervous, uncertain and even a little embarrassed. In the midst of this fear, many people, for whom this new world is changing too fast, panic and look for some assuring voice in the dark, some group to support them, some level of constancy in this chaotic and ever-changing world that is the 21st century. This solution, however, simply can’t work. It was Benjamin Franklin who once said, “Those who would lose their liberty to gain a little security deserve neither and lose both.” For the sake of security, we, the American populace, are sacrificing the very foundation of liberty: We are sacrificing choice. We are giving up our ability to choose what we want to believe, and we are losing the ability to make decisions based on information given to us. We are giving up our individuality, and we are giving up our reason. In short, in order to preserve our security from the hustle and bustle of the world around us, we are giving up the things that make us human, all while our stubbornness continues to destroy our nation and, as Franklin asserted, threatens to take away our security once and for all.
Talha Mukhtar is a freshman legal studies major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].