The Failure of American Journalism
The Fourth Estate has Failed and Somehow Comedians are Left Holding the Bag. Part 1.
Due to its consolidated state, the journalistic quality of the US national news media has plummeted resulting in an American public that has become largely ignorant of or misinformed about the sociopolitical state of their country and the people and events that shape it. One result of such an abysmal news media is that comedians, who have traditionally had to do nothing more than poke fun at such things, now also find themselves informing their audience what is happening in the world. Like the jesters in a castle whose defenders have fallen asleep, comedians find they are all that stand between the king and those who would do him harm. In doing so, comedians do as much or more to create an informed electorate than the media whose job it is to keep the people informed.
Watch David Letterman lead into a joke about a current event tonight. He usually starts something like so, “So did you all hear about X it was Y when Z happened.” essentially explaining what is going on in the world as quickly as he can. He will then actually tell the joke. This was not how he told jokes 10 or more years ago, no late night comedian had to explain a word of current events because their viewers had just finished watching one of the various evening news programs. Late night hosts now actually work information into their acts so that the next night they can actually deliver a current events joke without giving away the ending and still be reasonably sure their audience will know what they are talking about.
Comedians as well as the modern news media provide more speculation and opinion than hard facts or investigative journalism. The media would not risk hurting its credibility and reputation in this manner unless it were advantageous to it or its owners. There is one very simple advantage to providing opinion and speculation instead of facts and investigative journalism; it is easier. There are other more unsettling reasons for the mainstream media to abandon journalistic integrity but that is a matter beyond the scope of this peace and is best discussed elsewhere.
In schools, more difficult and time-consuming assignments are given longer due dates. A class will be expected to write an opinion based paper, such as a reflection on an assigned poem, in a couple of days. For a research paper however students prepare for months and when such a paper is turned in students are required to clearly document where their information came from. This would indicate that an article, essay, or story that reflects fact is much harder and more time consuming than one that reflects opinion. Therefore, it is easier for the media to produce opinion and speculation based articles and stories in the stead of real investigative journalism.
Such an emphasis on speculation and opinion detracts from how informative these news sources are. Instead of research, many networks have developed “debate” shows such as Crossfire, Hardball, Hanity and Colmes, and The O’Reilly Factor. These shows feature two or more highly biased political pundits who argue violently over any political development, their angry hyperbolic rhetoric only serves to alarm the public. For the unconcerned news giants that is fine, it’s a well known fact that the public spends more time watching news networks when they are afraid. Such shows do not provide the viewer with any reliable information for several reasons. Audiences cannot hear what is being said because they attempt to shout over each other. Facts and figures used by both sides are quite often made up on the spot, as proved by Al Franken, a comedian, in his book Lies and the lying Liars Who Tell Them. (That this comedian ran for public office and won does more than a little to strengthen the arguments of this article.)
The base reason these omnipresent shows do not inform the reader about the state of the world is that both parties try only to persuade, not to inform. The most significant reason such rampant speculation and unsupported opinion is dangerous is that certain members of the audience may mistake it for fact, or as is more likely, be deliberately misinformed.
Comedians, like these faux-journalists, also provide more, albeit humorous, opinion and speculation than fact. Comedians, however, pose no threat to the publics understanding of the world. Comedians are not a threat to the ideal of a well-informed populace because of two conditions inherent to political comedy. The first is that political comedians have to provide the facts before they can make fun of them. The other reason comedians are not misleading is that people know comedians provide opinion and speculation not proven fact. When Steven Colbert says we should nuke Alaska to put bears in their place it is funny because he leaves no doubt it’s obviously not a valid concern. Sadly, when some parents hear vaccinating their children might give them down syndrome they don’t know any better than to believe whatever crackpot source they learn it from because CNN isn’t there to call bullshit. While CNN is instead camped out in front of the apartment of a stripper who may have slept with a man who hits balls into holes children grow ill and endanger others who should have been safe.
Entertaining their audience is both a comedian’s and the news media’s number one priority. However, while this makes comedians more informative, it makes news media less informative. The largest indicator of how focused a media outlet is on entertainment is what they cover. The coverage celebrities receive is disproportionate to their actual importance, which is essentially none. Marital infidelity, companies have discovered, is irresistibly good gossip and they know at any given time someone of sufficient notoriety is cheating on their spouse. There are a large number of well known individuals and a certain percentage of the population is bound to be cheating on their wife so cheating celebrities are a statistical near certainty at any given time. Thus the major journalistic entities of American society turned their focus from what the people needed to know to what they would settle for once nothing better was on. Why spend large amounts of money to send experienced professionals halfway around the world to cover a genocide when you can give an idiot with breast implants a teleprompter and send a camera crew to nearby Florida where someone did something that’s generally disapproved of. Not only is a cute teleprompt reader cheaper, she’s better looking than a marine who has been killed by a roadside bomb or a starving Sudanese child. As long as none of the other networks pay to send real journalists somewhere they are off the hook. When the media succumbs to the lures of such “infotainment” the public will be aware only of what titillates instead of petty things like the economy, or genocide, or the continuing cost of two wars. The public is aware these things are going on to be sure but as long as they don’t see many pictures or hear a reporters denouncement of human rights abuses no one will get too worked up about it, out of sight out of mind.