From shaping the news to slanting it: the culture of ‘Narratives’ in America now

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By Shivaji Sengupta

At first there was the Word.
Genesis I, i.
Seems madam! Nay, it is. I know not seems.
Shakespeare. Hamlet. I, ii.

Why is it that the American Revolution succeeded in getting rid of the British in 1776, but the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 failed? One simple reason is that the American revolutionaries had printing press at their disposal. The Hindus and the Muslims fighting the British didn’t. In the latter case, it was the British East India Company which controlled a very meager press. Also, many more Indians (92%) were illiterate in 1857 compared to the Americans (63%) eighty years before. The sepoys could only hear the news by word-of-mouth, not read them.
News makes more news, and shapes history. Media multiply. And consumers – you and I – are saturated by them everywhere. For almost three hundred years printing was the media. Words were written, printed, multiplied and traveled the far corners of the world. Rodger Streitmatter has argued – through discussions of sixteen news events – how “the media has shaped American history.”
The question is if, as Marshal McLuhan used to say, if the medium is the message, what is the message. Is the message opinion or news?
News obviously makes a difference. Indeed, in the early twentieth-century journalism came to be called the Fourth Estate, the other three being the clergy, nobility and the common people. Radio and Television came in the last hundred years, exponentially increasing the impact of the media. Finally, in the last decade of the twentieth century, came the Internet.
With the proliferation of the media, with more people producing news and consuming them, partisanship became inevitable. The global literacy rate for people over fifteen years of age is 86%. People being naturally curious, information came to be of primary importance. From the cave-men’s warning signs for other cave people, to NBC Nightly News, news became paramount.
Thus, by the first half of the twentieth century the press prided itself for being impartial and objective. Even before that, Lawrence Gobright, the chief of Associated Press (AP) in Washington in 1856, explained the philosophy of objectivity to Congress:
“My business is to communicate facts, not to make any comments upon them. My dispatches are sent to papers of all manner of politics, and the editors make their own comments upon the facts which are sent to them. I, therefore confine myself to what I consider legitimate news. I do not act as a politician belonging to any school, but try to be truthful and impartial. My dispatches are a merely dry matter of fact and detail.”
Notice the date of Gobright, one year before the Mutiny, when Indians were still struggling with basic literacy. Americans were already dividing up the Fourth Estate. There were newsmen, and there were the news editors who wrote commentaries on the news. News reporters did not comment. Editors depended completely upon them. Consumers knew to which media organization to go to for news, and to which for opinions. Objectivity was cardinal.
I would venture to say that it was more or less like this when I arrived here in 1968. We used to listen to the Huntley-Brinkley News, to Walter Cronkite and to the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour. Having come from India, I was astonished at the courage of these news organizations to give the news as they were, without fear of repercussions. One incident comes to mind. It was during the Vietnam War. Walter Cronkite ended the news by conveying the communist government’s best wishes to Americans on the fourth of July. “This day,” said Walter Cronkite, “North Vietnam wishes America a happy birthday, and expresses its gratitude to all those Americans who have supported their struggle against South Vietnam and the United States!” I was stunned.
Now, it seems that American journalism has lost objectivity.
There has been a major shift between 1989 and 2017 as journalism expanded beyond traditional media, such as newspapers and broadcast networks, to newer media, including 24-hour cable news channels and digital outlets. Almost imperceptibly, the major television channels, NBC, Fox News, New York Times, Washington Post, began to turn more and more partisan. Until the 1980s, these organizations were bound by law not to broadcast or publish any news without checking them for facts. Then during the Reagan presidency, the Supreme Court declared this law to be against free speech. News agency finding new freedom began to alloy news with opinion, first, only slightly but then forever began increasing the opinion part until they are the way they are now: opinions, front and center.
Notably, these changes vary in extent and nature for different news platforms. I still find, like most Americans, PBS nightly news more dependable than Fox; find CNN’s commentaries of Don Lemmon and Chris Cuomo irritatingly self-righteous. They should remember that the corruption they criticize the Republicans for can come back and haunt them. Witness, Chris Cuomo being preferentially inoculated for being the brother of the governor of New York. Witness the governor himself, a Democrat, with all the accusations of him regarding sexual harrassment! Then there are the opposites: Rachel Madow and Sean Hannity. The former is obsessed with Trump, slinging at him at every opportunity. Hannity is nauseating.
Jennifer Kavanaugh, a political scientist with RAND finds “quantitative evidence for what we all can see in the “Truth Decay,” in media. She records the diminishing role of facts in news in all the media, print, television and cyber. “There is a declining role of facts, and therefore faulty analysis, in civil discourse and on American life. She writes, “Journalism in the U.S. has become more subjective and consists less of the detailed event- or context-based reporting that used to characterize news coverage.”
This gradual shift from the old to the new media toward a more subjective form of journalism has changed America. Proliferation of cable TV news has us parroting whichever stations we regularly view. I am taken aback by how many of my friends, both sexes, from all walks of life, uncritically – worse, hypnotically – mouth what they hear ad verbatim.
Some 63% of people say that there are no longer any objective news sources they can trust, and 66% say internet news and content is dividing people rather than uniting them. What’s more, more than 50% agree that political and social issues around the world have gotten worse over the past year. In this worsening, for the first time, an American president has been directly involved. President Trump has labeled media outlets that have reported critically on his administration as “fake news,” and has described CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS and the New York Times as “the enemy of the people.” In a tweet he wrote, “Most news media won’t cover us fairly & hence the term Fake News!
Two things are of moment here. One is presidential involvement in tarnishing the news media; the other is public gullibility. Let us take up the first one.
It is not that Donald Trump is the first American president to have an adversary relationship with the media. No president has been exempt from it. But Trump was the first to cast aspersions on the news media as a whole. The closest to Trump was probably Richard Nixon who, not coincidentally, was forced to resign his presidency. The others bore the tension in varying degrees, with stoicism (George Herbert Bush) to occasional outburst. (Harry Truman). But I know of no president, other than Trump, who have viciously condemned the entire Fourth Estate. Not even Nixon.
To do so, is to attack one of the hallowed American institutions – free speech. We have seen this happen in countries like Russia, North Korea, China, many African countries, even – to a lesser extent – in India; but never here. Even as the former president threatens not to remain ” former” come 2024, one of my main worries is that a prolonged era of Donald Trump might fundamentally change American news media.
Secondly, the people. Again, it’s not that Americans have been far above the media consumers in other countries who blindly believe what they see and read; but in the last century, people mostly read the news, or heard it on the radio. Print and sound effect the mind differently, especially tabloid print like in New York Post and their counterparts in other big cities in the world. Memory traces of what we read and hear do not last as long as what we see on television and the internet because we read a piece of news only once, but see news visually many times over. Given the lack of critical thinking even the functionally literate suffer from in America, news shapes news. It always did, but never to this extent.
According to Gallup, college educated Americans believe that 62% of the news they consume on TV, in newspapers, and on the radio is biased,; 44% of news reporting and 64% of news on social media is inaccurate. And they’re upset about it — more than 80% said they were angered or bothered by seeing biased information, and slightly more felt similarly about seeing inaccurate information. In evaluating news outlets, respondents closely associated bias with inaccuracy. In their view, outlets they feel are biased are also inaccurate. But perceptions of bias and inaccuracy differed based on the respondents’ political persuasions, particularly with regard to Fox News, Breitbart News, CNN, and MSNBC. Overall, the only two media organizations Republicans surveyed said weren’t biased were Fox News and The Wall Street Journal. Survey respondents with different political views had different perceptions of the pervasiveness of bias in the news. For example, Democrats said they believe that just 44% of news on TV, in newspapers, and on the radio is biased, while Republicans said they believe 77% of it is biased.
Presented with a host of major news outlets, respondents ranked PBS News and The Associated Press as the least biased outlets, while Fox News and Breitbart News tied for being perceived as most biased. PBS came out as the least biased, but its 31% favorable rating does not even constitute a third of the readership. Associated Press and National Public Radio follow with 12 and 10 percent. USA Today, just 5%. Not surprisingly, The New York Times and The Washington Post lag way behind in people’s confidence of getting unbiased news.
According to the principles of journalism, there should be no difference between being and seeming. Yet, the opinion-alloyed news media practise exactly that. Practically no journalist is exempt, not even I. To conclude, I remind you of Hamlet’s dilemma when he tried to cope with his father’s death and the lies that surrounded it. Shakespeare dedicates the play to the prince of Denmark’s futile search for facts, to sort out “seeming” from “being.”

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