The slow decline of solid, trustworthy journalism began with the birth of the 24/7 news networks.
The idea behind the all-news, all-the-time networks was noble. Instead of giving viewers 30-second sound bytes and dumbed-down news, the networks would adopt more of a 60 Minutes format, giving each story the time it needed.
Unfortunately, the fathers of the new networks didn’t do their research. To fill 24 hours every day of the week with news would require an Army of reporters, a Navy of photographers and an Air Force of editors. For the infrastructure to maintain all this, you would have to call in the Marines.
Since these networks didn’t have the budget of the Defense Department, they began by running virtually the same hour news program over and over. They would slip in new content when it became available and would slowly retire news items that had gone stale. To spice things up, they would show “breaking news” of the latest car chase. Then, they would repeat that same chase all day.
This product wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. There was news, honestly reported. But there was no buzz, no excitement, no reason to watch other than to get the news. The networks and their advertisers wanted more. Instead of investing heavily in additional journalists to come closer to fulfilling the original vision or cutting the 24/7 to a more manageable 8/5, the networks expanded into opinion/commentary. This would fill up hours at pennies instead of the big dollars needed to produce journalism.
Thus began the end of civility, the beginning of the bloodletting and the demise of the honorable profession of journalism.
There is nothing wrong with opinions and commentaries — when they base their conclusions on facts and when they are clearly labeled. (Please note, this is an opinion and is published on a page reserved for opinions.) It doesn’t matter that different networks or different commentators would draw different conclusions from the same set of facts as long as they were using facts. And as long as the viewers understood these were opinions and not news stories.
Unfortunately, neither was the case. The commentators created “facts” to support their conclusions and viewers didn’t have a clue. The most shrill and the most vitriolic commentators drew the most viewers. Ratings, not truth or enlightenment, became the goal.
This proved to be fertilizer for social media, which took up the ranting and raving by reposting and by further twisting “facts” until the final product had no resemblance to truth. The public ate it up like ice cream, ignoring the fruits and vegetables offered by journalists who tried to remain true to their profession.
What we are left with today at the 24/7 news networks and through social media is a Frankenstein’s Monster. It has been cobbled together with a vial concoction of lies and deceit in pursuit of the all-mighty dollar. It has no conscience. It has no noble purpose. It is intent only on destroying its enemy.
But who is the enemy? It is anyone or any group that does not think, act and believe the way “we” do. Hateful battle cries label our enemies in ways that show they are beneath contempt.
I don’t know about you, but I have at times disagreed with my family and my friends. There were times when my father and I couldn’t even agree on the color of the sky. But he was never my enemy. And I knew if I ever needed him, he would be there beside me, regardless of what color the sky was.
That has always been the way it has been in this country. Remember 9-11. When our backs were against the wall, we came together. It didn’t matter if you were Republican or Democrat, black or white, rich or poor.
We the People are guilty of allowing our emotions to feed this Frankenstein’s Monster. We the People can starve this monster and take away its power by simply refusing to participate. We don’t have to yell and scream.
We can debate issues and talk about differences without name-calling. We can think about whether our comments and actions are helping or hurting.
The next time you see commentators trying to whip you into a mob frenzy, simply turn off the channel.
When the next social media post makes you want to go ballistic, simply pass it by and let it die. When you need information, seek out real journalists who are trying to do their jobs.
We can make journalism strong again.
Rick Doyle was the editor of the Union-Bulletin for 32 years, from 1984 until 2016.