Prior to the 80s, when it came to the news, sources were limited. For most Americans, the daily newspaper was the go-to medium for “reliable” information. At least, that’s what we thought at the time. We had no reason not to trust The Boston Globe, New York Times, Chicago Tribune and countless other big city newspapers. From the late 50s to the end of the 70s, people gathered around the tube and trusted the word of Huntley and Brinkley and Walter Cronkite. We received our news in a nice, neat, no frills package—no gimmicks, no opinions, no expert panel—just the news. Cronkite was once referred to as “the most trusted man in America.” He kept us updated on big news events including the moon landing, JFK assassination, Vietnam War, and President Nixon’s resignation.
Nixon, on the other hand, was one of the first notable persons to refer to reporters and journalists as “the media” as his distain for the press blew up after the release of the Pentagon Papers and during the investigation of the Watergate break-in. In 1972, Nixon told his confidant Henry Kissinger, “never forget, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy…write that on the blackboard 100 times.” It may have been the first instance where the “reliable sources” we’ve counted on were being brought into question. The cracks now appeared in the foundation.
When News Became Not News
Once the 80s awesomely rolled around, we became inundated with talk shows, including the new category of “shock” or “trash” TV. Led by Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera, and Maury Povich, the airwaves were filled with topics revolving around sexual perversions, religious cults, and lying, cheating spouses duking it out on live television. After years of trusting the words of talk show greats like Joe Franklin and Edward R. Murrow, the infestation of the tabloid shows also brought into question the legitimacy of the content being served before us. Crack.
But, some shock hosts were legitimate news reporters prior to this nose dive into garbage entertainment. Springer was a political campaign advisor for Robert F. Kennedy before he was hired as a news reporter for WLWT (NBC) in Cincinnati, Rivera broke in as a reporter for WABC-TV in 1970, Povich was a news reporter for WWDC and WTTG in Washington, D.C., and his wife Connie Chung, was a long-time, respected journalist on several networks. There was also Morton Downey, Jr., a disc jockey and wannabe singer who had a short stint on KFBK with a talk show and was soon fired and replaced with Medal of Honor recipient, Rush Limbaugh. Phil Donahue, who started his talk show in the 60s covering respected topics in current events and politics, later followed suit with the trending times and covered many taboo topics in the 80s.
The fact that people actually watched this gunk was only part of the problem, but some actually believed what they were hearing and seeing. And why not? Many of these talk show hosts, as we mentioned, were journalists and reporters at one time. The non-believers, remained faithful to Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings when it came to reporting truth to the masses. They were the big three of network news throughout the 80s.
The trash TV era still reigns strong today with Povich, Springer and a host of new “personalities” paired with a slew of “Judge” shows which spawned from the 80’s hit “The People’s Court” featuring Judge Wapner. Judges! Who can be more reliable and truthful than a judge…right? The seeds were planted and the weeds had grown high, camouflaging reality with an alternative façade that would soon be called…well, “reality TV.” Crack…crack.
The Birth of the 24-hour New Cycle
With the launch of CNN in 1980, the era (or error) of 24-hour news cycle had begun. CNN’s broadcasts started out with opinion-free news from well-respected journalists such as Bernard Shaw, Lois Hart, Dave Walker, and later, they added well-known radio interviewer Larry King. But out of tragedies such as the Gulf War, O.J. Simpson murders, and the attacks on 9-11, came new shows that made Wolf Blitzer, Greta Van Susteren and Nancy Grace household names. MSNBC and FOX News both launched in 1996 and we were now drowning in a 24-hour spin cycle of information. Not all necessarily news, but entertainment created for ratings and to keep your attention by any means possible.
By 2007, MSNBC had been accused of leaning left in the political spectrum. They soon parted ways with Tucker Carlson, who later joined FOX News, and adding liberal commentator, Keith Olbermann. FOX, on the other hand, was not shy about its right-leaning agenda as they placed Republican media consultant Roger Ailes at the helm as its CEO. As the Network thrived, Alan Colmes left the highly praised Hannity & Colmes show as the liberal commentator. He was not replaced, and FOX News seemed quite comfortable in their conservative threads. Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly went on to develop extremely popular shows, which are often mistaken for news, along with The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, Don Lemon’s CNN Tonight. Today, most of these shows focus entirely on politics and report very little on national or international events unless they are of high-importance (like global pandemic).
The years of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings were now gone for good and, though anchors such as ABC’s David Muir and NBC’s Lester Holt, are trying to maintain a format similar to the big three, many siphon their daily information from cable news and consider these outlets to be their “reliable sources.” Crumble.
The Death of MTV and the Birth of Reality TV
Not too long after Walter Cronkite said his last, “and that’s the way it is…,” MTV (Music Television) launched in August of 1981. After many successful years of chart-topping music videos, MTV decided to go into uncharted territory (no pun intended) by adding game shows and other programming to its lineup. In 1992, The Real World debuted which followed the “unscripted,” “real” events surrounding a bunch of teenage friends. What significance does this have to the search for “reliable sources?” Well, MTV may be the true epicenter of the “reality TV” explosion. The success of The Real World led to a massive change in the way we watch TV today. From Survivor to Keeping up with the Kardashians, so much of what we watch today is based in this false “reality” format. Even shows about animal doctors, treasure hunts and polygamist families are set up so to appear to be happening in real time. MTV realized the goldmine it had discovered and ditched their music format around 2001.
The important point in bringing up MTV is that so many of these “reality TV” shows that spawned from The Real World have the essence of believability to them. People believe that treasures are found on Storage Wars and Pawn Stars or that ghosts were found Ghost Hunters. Producers want you to believe that what you are seeing and hearing is real. I think that’s important to note.
A New Medium of Misinformation
By the early 90s, a new medium launched in the form of the World Wide Web. In the beginning, there was very little regulation and the internet was filled with bad neighborhoods of hate groups, perverse pornography and conspiracy theory sites. It didn’t take long for people to become swayed away from their normal “reliable sources” and get caught up in a whirlwind of far out-of-the-box points of view and flat out false information.
Then came the birth of social media. After MySpace died a quick death, Facebook launched in 2004 and soon people could create their own little bubble of friends and family to share ideas, politically opinions and photos of breakfast, lunch and dinner. But, there were no regulations in place stopping people from creating groups and memes promoting false information. Now, the majority of users certainly would never replace the newspaper or evening news with something Uncle Bob said on Facebook, but as the platform grew, so did the amount of misinformation. After the 2016 election, Facebook was put on trial to respond to why its platform did not stop Russian groups from posting misinformation campaigns.
In addition, posts from deep web, extremist groups to opinion blog posts were going viral leading to dangerous levels of falsities. Twitter emerged in 2006 and reduced the world’s attention span to just 140 characters. Twitter allowed for everyday people to connect with celebrities, sports figures, journalists and politicians and curate specific subjects with the help of the #hashtag. In the midst of what looked to be the decline of the platform with the emergence of Instagram, Snap Chat and Whats App, Twitter became the communication tool of choice for President Donald Trump. They soon up the ante to 280 characters. From 2016 on, Trump used the platform to reach his base and encouraged them not to believe traditional news outlets such as CNN, MSNBC and newspapers such as The New York Times and the Washington Post. He referred to their coverage (which often did not favor the President’s agenda) as “fake news”. He often called the press on Twitter as “the enemy of the people.” Sound familiar?
And there it is, now the “reliable sources” of information we depended upon had for so many years had been called into question, this time on a greater stage, as Donald Trump continued campaign rallies long after winning the presidency. Now what? Crack, crumble, crumble.
With the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, the country became more divided than ever. Many longtime friends were lost on social media due to picking opposite candidates. Dinner tables became quiet and I wouldn’t be surprised if some marriages broke up. But, something else happened. The cable news networks went after each other too. Before, there was this unwritten rule about mentioning competing stations or seeming uncivil to the news anchor across the isle who leaned a different way. Trump’s attacks on news media outlets, newspapers and journalists called into question whether the “reliable sources” many depended upon for years were actually telling the truth or were they spewing “fake news.” CNN anchors attacked the credibility of FOX News anchors and visa-versa. Anchors such as Sheppard Smith who refused to follow a particular agenda when reporting the news, left FOX News after 23 years.
Just reading Facebook posts, I have never seen such division based on what a particular network was telling them. People went about their daily lives and spread information based on what news network they found to be a “reliable source.” Now the calls were coming from inside the house. Crack, crumble, crack.
A Tested Time of Crisis
So, now in a world where everyone is getting their information from different outlets, what happens when a real crisis hits and people need a “reliable source” to depend on for their own well-being?
Say hello to COVID-19, aka the novel coronavirus, the first pandemic to hit the world since 1918. At the beginning of the crisis, cable news organizations were greatly split. CNN and MSNBC were being accused of spreading fear and overreacting to the capabilities of this virus. Some FOX NEWS and right-wing radio hosts claimed reports about the virus were an attempt to bring down President Trump. During a rally in North Carolina on February 28, Trump called the left’s criticism of his administration’s handling of the COVID-19 response as “their next big hoax.” Oh, there’s more…
On March 9, FOX Business reporter Trish Regan said the coronavirus was “yet another attempt to impeach” Trump.
On March 10, Sean Hannity said on FOX News that the left was using the coronavirus as a “political weapon.”
The folks on FOX & Friends on March 13 touted that it was “the safest time to fly” despite warnings about COVID-19.
The aftermath, Trish Regan was fired for her comments, everyone else comfortably kept their jobs.
It was during this moment I realized the true damaging effect of having too many sources of information.
Folks on the right relied upon the President’s words and the conservative media as their “reliable source” of information. While others depended on left-leaning networks, podcasts, blogs, websites, and so on as their “reliable sources” of information.
So, here is the vital question: How do we get important, TRUE and reliable information to the masses during a crisis when everyone believes what they want to believe?
Whether it’s Anderson Cooper, Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity or whoever, in an emergency like a pandemic, earthquake, hurricane, war etc., people should be able to depend on TV news anchors and personalities to supply them with reliable, truthful information.
Even on April 17, 2020, as I write this story months into this pandemic, information is all over the place. Many who watch CNN believe testing for COVID-19 is lacking and opening up government is too risky as FOX News viewers are being flooded with “open up America” stories as protesters take to the street and the President touts “liberate America.” How does it end? What does your reliable source tell you? Only time will tell. And that’s the way it is…