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Can You Really Get the "News" From Watching TV?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree."--James Madison

Truth is often lost when we fail to distinguish between opinion and fact, and that is the danger we now face as a society. Anyone who relies exclusively on television/cable news hosts and political commentators for actual knowledge of the world is making a serious mistake. Unfortunately, since Americans have by and large become non-readers, television has become their prime source of so-called "news."

This reliance on TV news has given rise to such popular news personalities such as Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Wolf Blitzer and Lou Dobbs, among others, who draw in vast audiences that virtually hang on their every word. In our media age, these are the new powers-that-be. Yet while these personalities often dispense the news like preachers used to dispense religion, with power and certainty, do they really deliver up objective reporting about the news? Or are they merely a conduit for propaganda and advertisements delivered in the guise of entertainment and news? Moreover, given the preponderance of news-as-entertainment programming, have viewers lost the ability to differentiate between news commentary and news reporting?

Sadly, in the short term, there is not much that the average viewer can do to change the nature of television news. Yet while television news cannot -- and should not -- be completely avoided, the following suggestions will help you better understand the nature of TV news and minimize its impact on you.

1. TV news is not what happened. Rather, it is what someone thinks is worth reporting. Although there are some good TV reporters, the old art of investigative reporting has largely been lost. While viewers are often inclined to take what is reported by television "news" hosts at face value, it is your responsibility to judge and analyze what is reported.

2. TV news is entertainment. There is a reason why the programs you watch are called news "shows." It's a signal that the so-called news is being delivered as a form of entertainment. "In the case of most news shows," write Neil Postman and Steve Powers in their insightful book, How to Watch TV News (1992), "the package includes attractive anchors, an exciting musical theme, comic relief, stories placed to hold the audience, the creation of the illusion of intimacy, and so on."

Of course, the point of all this glitz and glamor is to keep you glued to the set so that a product can be sold to you. (Even the TV news hosts get in on the action by peddling their own products, everything from their latest books to mugs and bathrobes.) Although the news items spoon-fed to you may have some value, they are primarily a commodity to gather an audience, which will in turn be sold to advertisers.

3. Never underestimate the power of commercials, especially to news audiences. In an average household, the television set is on over seven hours a day. Most people, believing themselves to be in control of their media consumption, are not really bothered by this. But TV is a two-way attack: it not only delivers programming to your home, it also delivers you (the consumer) to a sponsor.

People who watch the news tend to be more attentive, educated and have more money to spend. They are, thus, a prime market for advertisers. And sponsors spend millions on well-produced commercials. Such commercials are often longer in length than most news stories and cost more to produce than the news stories themselves. Moreover, the content of many commercials, which often contradicts the messages of the news stories, cannot be ignored. Most commercials are aimed at prurient interests in advocating sex, overindulgence, drugs, etc., which has a demoralizing effect on viewers, especially children.

4. It is vitally important to learn about the economic and political interests of those who own the "corporate" media. There are few independent news sources anymore. The major news outlets are owned by corporate empires. For example, General Electric owns the entire stable of NBC shows, including MSNBC, which it co-owns with Microsoft (the "MS" in MSNBC stands for Microsoft). Both GE and Microsoft poured millions of dollars into the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush. CBS is owned by Westinghouse, while Disney owns ABC. CNN is owned by the multi-corporation Time-Warner, while Fox News Channel is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

This begs the question: How can a corporate news network present objective news on any issue if it is financially supporting a political candidate or promoting a message to a specific audience? For example, Fox is aimed at conservatives, while MSNBC is the mirror image aimed at liberals -- two sides of the same coin -- and so are their commercials. "One doesn't have to be a Marxist," note Postman and Powers, "to assume that people making a million dollars a year will see things differently from people struggling to make ends meet." This is why it is so vitally important to get differing views on news stories and from sources that present a different view than what is seen on the corporate news networks.

5. Pay special attention to the language of newscasts. Because film footage and other visual imagery are so engaging on TV news shows, viewers are apt to allow language -- what the reporter is saying about the images -- to go unexamined. A TV news host's language frames the pictures, and, therefore, the meaning we derive from the picture is often determined by the host's commentary. TV by its very nature manipulates viewers. One must never forget that every television minute has been edited. The viewer does not see the actual event but the edited form of the event. For example, presenting a one- to two-minute segment from a two-hour political speech and having a TV talk show host critique may be disingenuous, but such edited footage is a regular staple on news shows. Add to that the fact that the reporters editing the film have a subjective view -- sometimes determined by their corporate bosses -- that enters in.

6. Reduce by at least one-half the amount of TV news you watch. TV news generally consists of "bad" news -- wars, torture, murders, scandals and so forth. It cannot possibly do you any harm to excuse yourself each week from much of the mayhem projected at you on the news. Do not form your concept of reality based on television. TV news, it must be remembered, does not reflect normal everyday life. Studies indicate that a heavy viewing of TV news makes people think the world is much more dangerous than it actually is. One "study indicates that watching television, including news shows, makes people somewhat more depressed than they otherwise would be," say Postman and Powers. This may lead to chronic depression and constantly being alarmed. Of course, a bevy of commercials pitch drugs at you that allegedly relieve the depression.

7. One of the reasons many people are addicted to watching TV news is that they feel they must have an opinion on almost everything, which gives the illusion of participation in American life. But an "opinion" is all that we can gain from TV news because it only presents the most rudimentary and fragmented information on anything. Thus, on most issues we don't really know much about what is actually going on. And, of course, we are expected to take what the TV news host says on an issue as gospel truth. But isn't it better to think for yourself? Add to this that we need to realize that we often don't have enough information from the "news" source to form a true opinion. How can that be done? Read good books, newspapers and the Internet. Listen to the radio. Study a variety of sources (including television commentators) and carefully analyze issues in order to be better informed.

The bottom line is simply this: Americans should beware of letting others -- whether they be television news hosts, political commentators or media corporations -- do their thinking for them. If not, then I fear for the future of this country.