How the News Distorts Reality ...
And Why It Matters
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Being a pundit means never having to say you’re sorry. Pundits get things wrong all the time, but try to find one who admits he got it wrong.
As the midterm elections approached, a conservative contributor on Fox News Channel said, without the slightest hint of doubt, that Democrats would suffer a “bloodbath” in the elections. They didn’t. In fact, they did surprisingly well. When that same contributor was on Fox a day or two later, there was no mea culpa, no acknowledgement that he made an honest mistake. He just continued — as confidently as before — giving his latest opinions, which he might get wrong again.
As for my friends on the left, this just in: Democracy didn’t die in 2022, despite how many times they told us that the end was near. Donald Trump, their bogeyman of choice, may say things a prudent grownup would never say, and he may have too much power within the Republican Party, but he doesn’t have nearly enough clout to kill off democracy, as hard as he may try. Two world wars and the Great Depression couldn’t bring America down — and neither can the Ego from Mar-a-Lago.
I bring this up because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my profession. I always knew that journalism was fundamentally a pursuit of the negative, that we mainly report about bad things that happen, but I never gave much thought to how all that negativity affects us — how it affects the way we see things, especially how we see the country we live in.
We don’t report about banks that don’t get robbed or planes that don’t crash. We all know that. To the extent that that distorts reality, it’s no big deal. But there was a time when we were exposed to bad news only for a short time during the day. Now local TV news programs in many cities around the country begin before dawn and return to bring us more bad news in the afternoon, shows that run straight through for hours. If you want to hear about how many people got shot in your city, local news is the place to go. “If it bleeds, it leads” isn't simply a catchy phrase. It’s an accurate description of what you’re likely to see on-air. And, of course, there’s cable news, which bombards us with bad news all day long.
Add to all that, the cable news commentary, which wants nothing to do with moderate points of view. Those on the fringes — right and left — get airtime. That’s where the money is. No one (or hardly anyone) tunes in to cable news at night to hear some expert say, “Well, I can see both sides of the argument.” In the world of cable news, extremism in defense of high ratings is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of an intelligent discussion is no virtue.
Apologies to Barry Goldwater.
Holman Jenkins, the Wall Street Journal columnist, got it right when he kicked off the new year with a column that begins, “Exaggeration is the universal media bias. Hysteria sells … .”
That’s why we heard so much about Republicans who were “fascists” and about how climate change will “end life as we know it” and about how Trump supposedly was working for the Kremlin.
Back in the 1970s, when I was a correspondent at CBS News, I interviewed Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford University biologist who had written a book called “The Population Bomb,” which laid out what he said was the coming apocalypse.
Ehrlich believed that “the battle to feed all humanity is over.” How could I, or any other reporter, pass on a story like that? It didn’t matter if someday, way down the line, it would turn out to be true or not. The story was provocative, the kind of thing that catches our attention.
Doomsday never arrived, of course; we humans came up with all sorts of innovative ways to feed a growing population. But that didn’t stop CBS’s “60 Minutes” from putting him on recently to preach more gloom and doom — that “humanity is very busily sitting on a limb that we’re sawing off.”
He was “good television” way back when, and doomsday scenarios make for good television all these years later. Who cares if his predictions have been wrong. “Exaggeration is the universal media bias. Hysteria sells ….”
And as Holman Jenkins writes, “Before we can expect better from voters and the leaders they pick, we might have to expect better from the media and social media from which our common, non-hysterical understandings are made.”
There’s the real world and the one we’re told we live in — the one where the clock is ticking on our planet’s very existence, where Republicans are a bunch of bigots and Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats are out to intentionally destroy the United States of America.
How do I know all this hysterical stuff? I heard it on the news.