"Fake News" has become a popular phrase these days. Our president certainly likes to use it, often paired with another common phrase – "mainstream media". Both are convenient but meaningless labels that misrepresent the business of publishing the news in America.
The general contempt that a lot of folks have for news media is certainly nothing new. A century ago, newspapers often engaged in what was called 'yellow journalism' and reporters were held in such low esteem that they were referred to as 'ink-stained wretches'.
Newspaper publisher William Hearst was the poster boy of Fake News in those days. Hearst and his editors frequently printed misleading or entirely dishonest stories that promoted Hearst's personal views or demonized people he was at odds with.
That's completely different from advocacy journalism, which most news sources practice. Some even acknowledge that reality. I was once the editor of the Haleakala Times, a bi-weekly newspaper on the Hawaiian island of Maui that had the phrase "Environmental and Cultural Awareness" printed above the masthead on page one. That was our editorial emphasis, and we let everyone know it right up front.
When it comes to broadcast news programs and cable news channels, however, everyone claims to be fair or balanced or neutral in how they present the news, without editorial bias or spin. None of that is true. Every TV news program is under major corporate oversight and is expected to draw enough viewers to show a 15 percent profit over expenses. All of them focus on drama, headlines and attention-getting teasers to hold their audience. Straightforward facts, calmly presented with some depth of explanation, can sometimes be found on PBS news broadcasts but not on your usual nightly news or cable news program.
Fox News generally draws between 2 or 3 million viewers, dependent on which program is showing at the moment. CNN has about 1.5 million viewers watching at any given time. MSNBC has a steady half-million watchers, with almost one million tuning in to the "Morning Joe" show.
In a nice piece of irony, the Fake News label was first placed on Fox News when some people began referring to it as "Faux News". Why? Well, from its inception in 1986, Fox News included opinion shows staffed by talking heads who gave voice to the personal views of owner Rupert Murdoch and its recently deceased manager, Roger Ailes. They still offer an obvious viewpoint or message that is embedded into the programs they air.
CNN has been around since 1980 and is generally seen as the progressive counterpoint to a conservative Fox News, but CNN spends most of its round-the-clock broadcast presenting headline stories that reflect the bias of its corporate owner, Time Warner.
The three older networks must be measured differently. ABC and NBC both draw more than 8 million viewers to their nightly news broadcasts, while CBS pulls in just over 6 million. ABC News is owned by Disney. Comcast holds the keys to NBC. CBS owns its news programming as one small part of their global media business.
None of these media outlets are presenting the news without prejudice. All of them have a built-in bias that permeates their coverage of politics and big social events. They can still cover breaking news with some honest work done by reporters in the field, but back in the studio, producers call the screen shots that shape the nature of news.
People who consider any broadcast news program to be "conservative" or "liberal" or "progressive" in their coverage probably don't watch much. In a nation of some 320 million people, only about fifteen percent of us tune into the news each day on our multi-purpose wide-screen TV sets.
Newspapers are a different story altogether, but that's a story to be told some other day...
Rob Lafferty is a former newspaper editor and National Affairs columnist who lives deep in the woods of Oregon's Coast Range.
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