Cut off the oxygen fueling the flames of extremism

Hello, I’m Stu and I’m a news-a-holic. 

As a child of the 1950’s I was hooked on broadcast news.  I waited all afternoon in great anticipation for the 30-minute national news broadcasts on the three major television networks: CBS, NBC and ABC.  I became addicted to news at an early age and I remain so today.

Thankfully I never suffered from an addiction to alcohol so I was never a “Friend of Bill”, the euphemism for alcoholics inspired by William Wilson who founded AA as a society of members dedicated to helping each other achieve and maintain sobriety.

But I was a “Friend of” Walter (Cronkite), Edward (R. Murrow), Ted (Koppel), Dan (Rather), Tom (Brokaw), Cokie (Roberts), Peter (Jennings), Diane (Sawyer), Jim (Leher), Christiane (Amanpour) and so many other inspiring broadcast journalists.  I couldn’t get enough of their excellent reporting of the world’s most critically important stories and events that effected society. 

Those were my news and information “dealers” and I was and continue to be an eager and willing “user”.  But if I missed that limited 30-minute window when I could watch the national news, first on a black and white television and later in living color, I would have to wait until the next night hoping that the important stories would continue to be covered.

There was no 24/7 cable news coverage.  There was no internet where streaming broadcasts from a prior day could be watched.  There was no social media where news and information flowed from a wide-open unfiltered spigot.  And that was both good and bad.  The best of times…the worst of times when it came to the reporting and analysis of timely news and information.

Otherwise good journalists and responsible media outlets have long ago given up their emphasis on reporting truly breaking news in favor of opinion, commentary and covering stories that are repetitive and redundant.  The cost of doing this is two-fold.  First, it provides an unintended bias when it comes to the weighting and ordering of coverage by importance and priority.  Repeating the same stories hour after hour runs the risk of creating the news instead of reporting it.

Secondly, the disproportionate coverage of a handful to stories, despite their importance, ignores the many important and newsworthy events taking place around the globe each day.  I addressed this in my January 2018 commentary The Day That Cable News Died  https://thephoenixfile.net/2018/01/27/the-day-that-cable-news-died/ .

Turn on a responsible cable news outlet today and you will be certain to hear 90% of their broadcast focusing on the same few stories no matter what time of the day or what day of the week. The lead stories on most networks continue to be COVID-19; Election Fraud; Congressional Gridlock; and President Trump’s Erratic Behavior.  But when broadcast news organizations focus disproportionately on these topics they ignore or defer coverage of:

  • Terrorist attacks
  • Wars
  • Coups
  • Famine
  • Nuclear threats
  • Space exploration
  • Technology and science
  • Medicine and health
  • Popular culture
  • Environmental issues
  • Societal changes
  • and much, much more

And the unintended consequence of focusing on the same stories results in the media becoming a megaphone rather than a news gathering and reporting medium.  Emphasis on the same stories promotes conspiracy theories by extreme policy makers and fringe groups.  The vicious cycle continues when media outlets feel compelled to cover the rants and behaviors of extremists.  News directors, assignment editors and producers fall into the trap of offering equal time to voices on the edge which creates a sense of false equivalency.  And the more time that is devoted to those who promote unsubstantiated theories and allegations the more credible those positions seem to people who share their extreme views or who are undecided.

And what are those extremist beliefs that get media attention even by responsible news organizations?  Beliefs such as Coronavirus is a hoax, the election was fraudulent and was stolen from Donald Trump or Joe Biden is not recognized as President-elect. The infamous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels said: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”.  While some media outlets themselves traffic in extremist propaganda (i.e. FOX, One America News Network, Newsmax) more responsible news organizations don’t intend to fuel extremist and baseless claims they do so in what they believe to be an attempt to offer time to “opposing points of view”.  Let me be clear, opposing points of view should be covered in moderation but baseless claims, lies and dangerously unproven fabrications and deceptions have no place being given oxygen by responsible media outlets.  And yet, those dishonest and malicious falsehoods are regularly reported which risks giving them credibility.

Imagine how our current events would be reported and received in a pre-cable news and pre-internet era.  No one wants to return to that time.  The excellent albeit limited reporting of that period was the precursor for the dramatically expanded news and information sources of 21st Century media.  But with the expansion and explosion of so many sources of information come the danger of crossing the line from reporting to creating news. 

The solution is not to censor but to cover news more effectively and prudently.  Reducing repetitiveness and redundancy will allow more room in broadcast news schedules for the coverage of a wider array of important stories affecting and impacting the world.  Curtailing the false equivalency does not mean that news organizations are managing information but rather gathering and disseminating information in a more responsible manner.

The danger of missing out on important information because you may have missed the 30-minute evening news is thankfully a distant memory.  News today is ubiquitous and on-demand.  But responsible news organizations have an obligation to do whatever they can to extinguish the flames of extremism.  Their task is to deprive those flames from oxygen through more prudent scheduling of stories and more discipline in the way those stories are covered.  The flames of extremism are fanned by the attention given to misinformation in the belief that broadcasters are being balanced.  Extinguishing those flames is the best tribute that can be paid to the professionalism of some of our most extraordinary broadcast journalists whose responsible and fair news coverage was a soothing balm to news addicts like me and other “Friends of” Walter, Edward, Ted, Dan, Tom, Cokie, Peter, Diane, Jim, and Christiane.   

For more commentaries by Stu Turgel go to: https://thephoenixfile.net/commentaries/


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