Thursday, March 9, 2017

News, facts, and opinions

There has been a lot of talk recently about the integrity of the news media.  While this is nothing new, it seems that the focus has been intensified with the rise in popularity and election of Donald Trump. Regardless of your opinion concerning the delivery of real news or fake news by the media, it is important to remember the importance of an independent media in our democracy.

Notwithstanding the Watergate investigation that led to President Nixon's resignation, an independent media is a critical watchdog for the citizens of any country who wish transparency in the policies and activities of their elected officials.  Without such independence, the free flow of information to the citizenry is blocked, transmuted, and recreated so as to inform the public only that news which is complimentary to the government.  Propaganda is one of the main tools of a government that wishes to control its people, which explains why seizing control of media outlets is one of the first maneuvers undertaken by dictators and autocrats.

When talking about the news media with friends and acquaintances, I often hear wistful reminiscence of the golden age of broadcast news.  They just gave us the facts, it is said, without opinion, allowing us to make our own judgments.  Just the facts.  Yet, with the recent creation of the phrase "alternate facts", is it possible that it is only our naivete that leads us to believe that Murrow, Cronkite, Facenda, etc, did not present the news to us in a slightly biased fashion?

Certainly, the Big 3 of news broadcasting, ABC, CBS, and NBC were run by wealthy people who were most likely more conservative in their perspectives.  And, of course, we have all read stories of how serious the censors took their jobs in making sure that the American public was not exposed to anything that even hinted of non-conformity.  But it is also true that the majority of the journalists who investigated the stories, the editors who decided content and tone, and the icons who delivered the news to us at 6:00 were much more liberal in their thinking.   One might believe that facts are facts, indisputable, provable, but WHICH facts are pursued, printed and passed along on the nightly news can certainly paint a purposeful picture, and influence the audience towards a specific viewpoint.

Take a simple fact, unemployment.  As of this moment, a case could be made that there are more unemployed people than ever before in our history.  The numbers can be verified from many different sources, and the information can be passed along multiple times on various news and opinion shows in order to make the audience believe that the job market is horrible and that our elected officials, through burdensome regulations, are holding back the economy and the job creators.

In the meantime, on a different channel, facts can be displayed and repeated that demonstrate that more people in America are working than ever before, and that more people have multiple jobs than ever in American history.  Surely, that must mean that our economy is strong, and jobs prevalent.

How can this be, you ask?  Well, first of all, there are more people in America than ever before so just through the use of aggregate numbers it is true to say that there is more of practically anything than ever before if the statistic is related to people.  Also, the average age of an American has been slowly increasing as the baby boomer generation ages plus we are living longer than before, both which equate to people spending many more years of their lives retired (not working) than in the past.

So, news outlets that report both sets of facts are correct.  And both are misleading their audiences by not explaining those facts.  They report information to an audience already predisposed to a conclusion, unemployment is or is not high, with no other salient facts to explain how meaningless the original fact is without complementary information.

(It is easy to see this bias is action if one is to look at how those who chose to report that the unemployment rate was not a true measurement since it didn't account for those that were not looking for work.  Now, with a different administration in charge, are they still reporting in that manner?)

Which brings us to opinions.  Despite what I said above, that the news of yesteryear was still influenced by perspective, I do believe that the line between news shows and opinion shows has been blurred significantly in the past decade.   While fair and balanced might sound nice, it is very difficult to find either.  Part of the problem is that while past news organizations may have been owned by conservative, rich people, they did not openly dictate the tone or direction of the news.  There seemed to have been a respect for the news itself, as if no one was above the accepted vision of news as fact driven, and the belief in a separation of news and entertainment.  Now, billionaires and huge corporations own most of the news outlets, and it is clear that the news is being used to frame discourse, drive agendas and, of course, make a profit.  When news content and presentation is being driven by ideology and profit margin, the most salacious and headline grabbing stories will dominate, while facts, if used, will be noted sparingly, in isolation of the information needed to understand the significance of those facts.

So, where are we to turn for news, and unbiased facts?  One solution is to watch news from both radical sides.  It will be tough, at first, as you might find yourself tempted to throw your shoes at the TV when you hear ridiculous statements, but by hearing both sides of a story, over and over again, it may become clear that the truth is somewhere in between.  You could also do your own research, but again, when you Google a topic, there will be returns that represent all angles and all viewpoints.  At that point you must look for fact based returns which can be corroborated by other fact based outlets.
This will help you differentiate between a fact that is viral but has just one undocumented source, and a fact that lists a real source.

There is also the smell test.  If it sounds fishy, and so far-fetched that only those drinking the kool-aid of that particular viewpoint would believe it, then it probably is dubious in its fact or interpretation.

Finally, there is what I like to think of as the half empty, half filled theory.  For whatever reason, we seem to be enmeshed in a time where people are far less positive, especially when compared to the giddy days of the 50's and 60's when the future was a place where nothing seemed impossible. Perhaps it is part and parcel to our aging population; the elderly see far less promise in a future in which death is imminent.  Perhaps it is because the promises we were made when anything seemed possible did not all come true, or at least not enough of them did.  In any case, we seem more willing to assume the bad than the good, that our kids are lazy and uninspired, our politicians are all on the take, our business leaders are all greedy, and our culture light on values, heavy on material possessions.  We now look at everything through opaque glasses, roses be damned.

We seek news, opinions and facts which confirm our half empty philosophy, not realizing there are just as many that might point us in a half filled direction.

So, take heart.  There are medical breakthroughs on the horizon that will revolutionize disease detection and cure.  There is technology to come which will continue to enhance our ability to communicate with our fellow humans so as to better understand them, and find common ground.
There is a social evolution at work which, despite any backward pendulum swing we might be in, will move us forward to labeling others as Earthlings, all part of one big blue planet.  And there is a spiritual renaissance just around the corner, one driven not by religious ideology and its present institutions that prefer an us versus them mentality, but one inspired by the thought that within every person is the capacity for good and bad, and our goal, the point of the life that has been granted to us by the Creator, is to raise up the good and diminish the bad.

Of course, that is only my opinion.      

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