Head to Head

I’m caught up in a back-and-forth argument with a guy online. He maintains that all news media are in the business of entertainment, and that there’s no difference between them. The far right, the far left, they’re the same. Fox News equals CNN equals MSNBC equals Jon Stewart, yada-yada-yada.

This was my final shot at explaining how wrong I think that view is:

Shane: The news media are entertainers, yes. I’m glad you see that. I worked in the news media for a number of years, and yeah, news pieces are put together as “stories.” Each item is framed in a narrative the viewer will find interesting and digestible. This is known — from the first days a budding journalist is  learning to write news, you’re taught to do this. And yes, sometimes the story can overpower the facts.

Give you an example: Dennis Rodman once kicked a courtside cameraman. I saw the video, and he kicked the guy in the thigh, and not even very hard. The cameraman paused for an instant, then curled up as if he’d been kicked in the groin. Despite the video, the second story was apparently juicier to all the sportscasters, and played better to the meme of Rodman’s bad-boy-image. We got the titillating story — Rodman kicked a guy in the balls! — instead of the less-titillating fact.

But they also broadcast the video. Amid the entertainment, there was this objective bit of information.

Any day of the week, you can see entertainers of dance, entertainers of music, entertainers of imagery (artists). You can see entertainers of comedy: Jon Stewart, Rodney Dangerfield. Entertainers of combat: wrestlers, boxers, martial arts practitioners, but also professional athletes. Entertainers of drama: actors. Entertainers of adventure: outdoor travel guides. Entertainers of wonder: Carl Sagan.

The news media, generally, strive to be entertainers of fact. Yes, to find out what’s entertainment, what’s info, you check a number of sources and, as we all have to do, figure out for yourself what’s true, what’s not. But they create these stories, they report the news the way they do, not because they’re in the business of telling lies, but because they have to, because that’s how their human audience is geared.

The part I think you’re not getting is that Fox has wedded news, for the first time, to a type of entertainment not generally seen in the field. Fox offers entertainers of anger. Of fear. Of rage. Of hate. Of rebellion.

We’ve had plenty of INDIVIDUALS in the field. Joseph McCarthy, for instance, was an entertainer of fear and suspicion. But as far as I know, we’ve never had a powerful broadcast corporation selling rage. Consciously, continuously, wantonly.

If you want to live in a civil society, the narrative you trade in has to be civility. You project civility to counter the uncivil: “We’re decent people.” Not killers, not liars, not thieves, not haters, not torturers.

Individuals may pursue actions in any of these fields, but the societal narrative counters any mass-social trend in those directions. Why? Because no society can survive coming to believe itself evil.

The narrative can be wrong. You CAN have an evil society. But as long as you do have the narrative, it acts to correct the underlying actions. Slavery — in a society that understands its wrongness — ends. Torture ends. Fascism ends.

But for the first time, a major broadcast network is creating a narrative of incivility — of fear, anger, suspicion and rage. A narrative of perpetual division.

Say what you will about the biases at CNN or MSNBC or even The Onion …

THIS is happening at Fox.