Fracking the Media: Can We Have TOO MANY Different News Sources?
Fracking the Media: Does shrinking and therefore dividing news sources sabotage our common understanding of reality and impede compromise? Might this spell the end of democracy?
Writer’s Note: Today’s essay is a continuation somewhat of yesterday’s topic, “Are Twitter and Facebook Flaming Out?” which can be read HERE.
The turning point of America’s ill-fated involvement in Vietnam came on the night of February 27, 1968. During a broadcast of the CBS Evening News, anchorman Walter Cronkite, who was the nation’s most trusted man at the time, delivered a devastating commentary that essentially swung mass public opinion against America’s engagement in Indochina. In contradiction to earlier reports over the previous three years that victory was just around the corner, he declared the Vietnam War “a stalemate.” Cronkite might as well have announced the war was unwinnable, and therefore we had no place being over there.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson became aware of Cronkite’s potent indictment of American foreign policy and criticism of military action in Southeast Asia, knowing the enormous impact his words would have among millions of television viewers, he’s reported to have uttered, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”
Such was the power that was once the mainstream media in America. Think of it: One lone voice spoken on a single network broadcast on the nightly news nearly half a century ago was enough to reshape the way Americans viewed the world, and our nation’s reputed role in it. That goes beyond the tipping point. Indeed, many of the stark cultural shifts that took place during the 1960’s would not have occurred and might not have been possible had video coverage of events not appeared on our television screens that were broadcast into every living room and bar in the country. Although the competition to convey the nightly news was fierce, all three major networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — gradually and somewhat extemporaneously introduced what would become the compelling narratives of the times, including civil rights, poverty, war and other issues which came to be imprinted upon the collective national consciousness.
I sometimes wonder what might have happened during the 1960’s had the Internet and social media been around, instead of a few primary television networks and newspapers. Would social changes have been accelerated by having wider public access to more information more quickly? Or instead, might social networks and their often nefarious spinoffs have erected so many divisive gauntlets and firewalls that a concerted outcry for change would have become impossible? How we answer this historical question carries with it far greater ramifications as to how we get our information, and thus how we think about the major issues of today.
Based on the way things are now, I’m inclined towards pessimism. Had the Internet and social media been around back then, the social and cultural revolution might have been stymied. Such conjecture might seem counter-intuitive given how conventional accessibility to breaking news and the immediate fallout of mass public opinion would seem to enhance democratic processes. Accordingly, allow me to explain.
Long before the Internet, mainstream media — which meant television, newspapers, and radio — effectively triggered our collective national awareness under a few giant umbrellas. If you’re older than 40, you likely grew up reading the same newspapers as your parents and neighbors. You watched the same news programs as your family and co-workers. You tuned into the same primetime television shows. You listened to the same radio stations and enjoyed the same types of music. Everyone knew the most popular songs and television shows. While there wasn’t typically common agreement on the issues, at least there was (and this is important) a prevailing narrative. In other words, most people agreed on what the basic facts were.
Increasingly, and alarmingly, that’s no longer the case. As networks and newspapers have been sold off, divided, shut down, and then gobbled up by conglomerates….as news divisions have seen their staffs and budgets slashed…..as news outlets have increasingly become partisan and even duplicitous….and as Americans inexplicably gravitate further from reality and real issues towards sensationalism and conspiracy theories, we not only lose our common sense of purpose. Hell, we can’t even agree on what’s true versus false. Step out in the street and ask someone if President Obama is a Muslim. About 3 in 10 are likely to answer in the affirmative. That’s not a valid counterpoint. That’s an epidemic of madness.
Indeed, the very worst perpetrators of division and confusion are partisan news sources, in many cases fronts disguised as news outlets, financed by shady political partisans connected to darker powers and hidden interests, which mangle information to the point of outright distortion. Many exaggerate and mislead. Some even lie. Intentionally so. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer citizens read daily newspapers. Less and less Americans subscribe to respected news journals and periodicals. CNN languishes in the television ratings, barely registering numbers unless it’s election night or there’s a crisis. And C-SPAN might as well be a ghost town. The explosion of news outlets hasn’t made us any smarter. To the contrary. We’ve collectively only become more confused and increasingly divided.
So, how would some of the partisan news sources and inflammatory social media platforms of today have looked upon and covered the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, and America’s terrible conflict in Vietnam, of yesterday? One can be certain there’d have been incendiary headlines and rabble-rousing news features designed to fire up the partisan base which might have created a mass public backlash against social and cultural progressive movements. One can only imagine how the demagogues of Breitbart, Newsmax, or The Drudge Report might have covered inner city riots of the 60’s, LBJ’s introduction of Medicare and his Great Society programs, and the Vietnam War protests. Given the vitriol we see daily from the political right, the Kent State massacre probably would have been celebrated in many conservative circles.
Then again, there likely would have been a dozen or more IPhone videos posted on Twitter and Instagram within the hour of the National Guard shooting unarmed protesters on the college campus. Same thing for the riots that took place Watts, Newark, Detroit, and Washington. Same goes for the war in Vietnam. Imagine all the imagery and tweeting from the jungles had social media existed back then.
The more cynical view is that anti-war protests wouldn’t have occurred to the extent they did and the conflict could have dragged on senselessly for at least another decade had social media been there to distract us from the important issues of the day. Given how we tend to bury our faces in the screens of out smart phones, absorbed in our insular little worlds with our own selfish interests, would anyone be motivated enough to go out in the streets and march in a protest? Social media might not be so much a communications medium as the globe’s busiest babysitter.
As news coverage has diversified, and as the truth seems to now come in more flavors than a trip to Baskin Robbins, better technology and more choices hasn’t unified us. Rather, it’s divided us to the point of hopeless dissension. In the process, not only is truth the victim, but so is democracy.
No doubt, if Walter Cronkite was still around, he’d call America’s current political and cultural impasse “a stalemate” — an unwinnable human and societal conflict where everyone loses, a sad characterization to which I echo his own famous parting words each night, “that’s the way it is.”