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Reese Schonfeld Headshot

News That Isn't News

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Since Barack Obama took office, we've been bombarded with "news that isn't news" -- that's the partisan battles between opponents from both parties talking about their own party's virtues and opposing the sins of the other party. Facts are ignored and fables are perpetuated. It seems as if anybody can get on television if he's willing to shout loudly and smear well.

My first boss in the news business was Bill Higginbotham, who had previously covered the House of Representatives for Untied Press. He talked about John Rankin (D-MS), a notorious racist and anti-Semite who, as the senior member of the House, had the right to make the opening speech everyday. Every speech was a racist rant. That speech was never reported. The four reporters who covered the House everyday, Higginbotham, the AP guy, the INS guy and The New York Times man agreed never to write a word. Rankin's remarks were ignored.

Television bookers no longer ignore people like Rankin and give many of them, if they're good shouters, access to large network, cable and local audiences. Most politicians now are smart enough to hide their racist attitudes, but a few of them occasionally let a remark slip and then of course apologize. Rarely, if ever, do anchormen take on their guests and call them out. It is even more rare for bookers to stop calling on them. Producers believe those guests "make good television." More importantly the anchormen and the hosts almost never tell a "guest" that something he said is false. The most outrageous falsehoods go unremarked. I've never heard anyone tell a guest "Wait a minute, that's not true." Of course, lots of guests tell the other guy that he isn't speaking the truth and in most cases when it happens the host intervenes and makes peace with everybody.

Against that background, I suggest that a lot of the "news" we hear is not "news" at all -- it is propaganda -- and each party is using television to propagandize against the other. For television viewers the only hope (and that is slender) is to listen to guest-less reports from solid anchors. The first 15 minutes of network news on ABC, CBS, NBC and surprisingly Al Jazeera are the best examples of straight news reporting.

Unfortunately we have reached a time when ratings are far more important than facts and we will continue to suffer from that until we go back to the pre-Reagan days when stations could lose their licenses for their misdeeds.

My anger at lack of "facts" was occasioned by a TED Talk in Las Vegas that I came across today. Noah Blumenthal cleverly unleashed his comments on "The Danger of Hot Sexy News." It's worth a look.