Our Own Worst Enemies

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There has been a recent cry for Facebook to be broken up. The social media giant has too much power, argue critics. Robert Mueller’s report about Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election shows how massive amounts of disinformation were spread to the millions of people who use Facebook.

I’m all for regulating companies whose business practices are predatory and monopolistic, and I can certainly see how the success of such Silicon Valley behemoths as Facebook, Google, and Amazon can pose a threat to free commerce. But one of the reasons Facebook users were so easily swayed by bogus and slanted stories during the election is that they wanted to believe those stories. Many of us live in the echo chambers of our own belief systems. Whether it be from Facebook, TV news, or newspapers, we seek out information that conforms to our worldview and disregard or hold with intense skepticism those stories that contradict our beliefs.

In short, we are our own worst enemies when it comes to digesting information.

I certainly think our national security apparatus should deal more vigorously with avoiding a repeat of Russian or any foreign interference into our next presidential election. That won’t happen, of course, because Russian interference benefited Donald Trump, and he sees no reason it won’t help him again. I think we are past the point where anyone really believes Trump’s motivations are anything but self-serving.

What we can do as Americans is learn to take in information and opinions in a more critical and thoughtful way. Trump’s and Republicans’ complaints notwithstanding, there are still reputable news organizations and journalists working tirelessly to publish factual information about politics, the economy, foreign policy etc. When we hear or read things that sound hard to believe, we need to question those stories. “Pizzagate” comes to mind. There are also numerous nonpartisan fact-checking organizations that can confirm or refute what we are hearing from our leaders.

As a teacher, I used to work on critical thinking skills with my students. They learned about fallacies of logic, how statistics can be manipulated, and how language can affect the message. We need to do a better job in our children’s schooling to raise thoughtful individuals who are willing to question their own assumptions and test the arguments they encounter in the public sphere.

Facebook may indeed have too much power. Fox News might in fact be little more than a mouthpiece for conservative viewpoints. But it is up to us, the American people, to take the time and effort to discern what is true and what we should view with skepticism. Only with thoughtful and informed citizens will our democracy be sustained.

 

 

Stormy Weather

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im-1368There is a deep irony at the heart of the story alleging that Donald Trump had an affair with an adult film star shortly after his son Barron was born. Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that a woman named Stormy Daniels was offered $130,000 in 2016 to keep quiet about her affair with Trump. It turns out that several news organizations already had information about the alleged affair during the presidential  campaign. So why are we only learning about it now?

The mainstream media, the very institution that Donald Trump likes to vilify on a daily basis, did not have enough corroboration and therefore declined to publish what would surely have been a lurid and game-changing scoop. In other words, they were responsibly upholding journalistic standards, despite what Trump and his apologists like to claim in their near daily attacks on the press.

Just a few days ago, Trump said he would be announcing the “2017 Fake News Awards” to continue his campaign of discrediting the media. This from a man who has uttered more than 2,000 false or misleading statements in the past 355 days. (Washington Post, January 10, 2018) Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, both Republicans, have pointed out that dictators across the globe are using Trump’s term “fake news” to justify stifling the media in their repressive regimes. (Chicago Tribune, January 18, 2018)

Revelations that Donald Trump committed adultery yet again are hardly surprising. The man has shown himself to have few moral qualms or principles. But the president owes the mainstream media a debt of gratitude for their measured, responsible journalism. Without it, his “locker room” talk with Billy Bush that was broadcast during the campaign might have been looked upon differently. And voters might have abandoned him at the polls.

Donald Trump’s image of himself and his exaggerations about support from the American people are beginning to crumble like a week-old cake. Or to use another metaphor, his White House is a house of cards that is getting wobbly. Even his chief of staff called his Mexican border wall idea “uninformed.” I’d say he’s in for Stormy weather regardless of how this latest salacious tale plays out.

 

Television Journalism – an Oxymoron?

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Did you know that in the not so distant past, television networks were required by the FCC to broadcast a minimum 30 minutes of news programming per day? This is because in the days of Walter Kronkite, news programs did not make money for the networks. News shows generally consisted of sober, dispassionate reports on national and world events.

The likes of Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley were distinguished, mostly unemotional, anchors who provided facts, not drama. Programs such as the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour had in-depth reports that were never very sexy, but always informative and thoughtful.

In the 1970s, network news executives began to see the money-making potential of their news programming. With the advent of CNN in 1980, the 24-hour news cycle was born. This beast required constant feeding with dramatic footage and more colorful personalities that could keep the attention of the TV audience. Thus, we had the networks beating the dead horse of such events as the high speed chase of O.J. Simpson in his Ford Bronco (pun intended).

As news became less about informing the public and more about entertaining the masses, the sound bite became ubiquitous. Instead of those in-depth reports, we are now treated to numerous short segments and the repetition of key clips that will outrage, amuse, or titillate the audience. How many times did we need to hear Bill Clinton claim, “I did not have sex with that woman”?

These developments have led to the trivialization of the news and the increasing unprofessionalism of news personalities. In the past few weeks, for example, we have seen Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly being accused of exaggerating or outright fabricating their involvement in certain high-profile news events. We have a Cleveland morning show news anchor using the racial slur “jigaboo” on live TV.

The ideals of journalism are still alive and well in print and online form. There are many distinguished newspapers, magazines, and online sites. But the vast majority of American citizens get their news from television. And that is why the state of TV news is so disturbing to me.

I get teased because I never know the latest news until I have read about it the next day in the newspaper. But until television news gets more professional and informative, I will stick with the less sensational daily paper.

Fair and Balanced

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After President Obama’s State of the Union address, the analyses and reactions rolled in and were the height of predictability. Liberals high-fived each other, and conservatives criticized. For once, I would like to have heard or read a comment something to this effect:

Well, the economy is somewhat better, and universal health care seems like mostly a good idea. But I’m not sure we’re doing enough to go after ISIS. Middle class tax cuts sound good, but I don’t want to have to pay for them, if I’m being honest. Barack Obama is not the greatest president who ever lived, but he’s not the worst.

In other words, I would like to hear something more “fair and balanced” than what is trotted out in the national news and on social media. It’s getting tiresome hearing the same old saws coming from the same old pundits.

Being objective is supposed to be the goal of journalists, but more and more, news organizations, and the people who work for them, have cozied up to the powers that be. Glitzy correspondence dinners, travel, and other perks from political leaders have eroded the credibility of the news media. In the golden era of news, it was impossible to discern the political leanings of television news anchors. Now I could easily make bets on the political party affiliation of most anchors, reporters, and news analysts.

In the personal sphere, I find it frustrating to engage in political debates with friends and acquaintances. Our prejudices blind us to each other’s point of view. With such a polarized populace, how can we make meaningful progress in our society?

I have one Facebook friend named Dennis whom I have found to be refreshingly unpredictable in his opinions about current affairs. Often seeming very conservative, he has also given Pres. Obama credit where he felt credit was due. Although I don’t always agree with Dennis, at least I get the sense that he is actually sifting through facts and different sides of an issue before he makes up his own mind. Isn’t this what we should all be doing?

I myself tend to be a knee-jerk liberal. I have a hard time stomaching anything that comes from the Republican Party or Fox News. And I don’t like to admit it when the Democrats have made a mistake, such as not sending a high level delegate to the solidarity march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo killings.

But there is only one way to grow in knowledge and understanding, and that is to seek out opposing viewpoints, evaluate evidence, and make informed judgments. Guess it’s time for me to read the National Review.