Not-Quite-Reality Programming

We Distort. You Decide. We Report. You Obey.

Fox News Channels advertising tag lineWe Report. You Decideis a favorite target for lampooning by many liberals, because the upstart cable networks slogan claims as a virtue what critics consider its greatest weakness. Foxs news (along with its talking-head programs) is relentlessly conservative in its priorities and outlook. Its also now beating CNN in the ratings. But the more interesting aspect of the Fox phenomenon isnt that the Rupert Murdochowned network is being less than up front with its marketing claims. Its that a significant segment of the American viewing public thinks Fox is objectiveand another significant chunk doesnt.

More importantly, those audiences grow apart over time in their shared understanding of the world. Conservatives watch Foxs news in part because it reinforces their worldview; liberals, by contrast, might rely on PBS or on accessing foreign media online, not just because theyre more interested in the issues those outlets emphasize, but theyre more comfortable with whats said about them.

As the U.S. invasion of Iraq grinds on, the differencesin not just punditry but actual factual reportingare so stark that foreign and U.S. media often seem to portray entirely different wars. Media outlets within the U.S. are diverging, too. Iraq is proving to be a watershed event in dividing Americans into camps, increasingly unable to talk with one another on political issues or events. We can all consider ourselves well informed, but we actually arent even talking about the same thing.

Our understandings of current events are radically different. Blame technology and the pressures of media competition. Sources for primary news in the U.S. now include TV and radio broadcast stations, cable TV, networks, daily and weekly newspapers, magazines, newsletters, zines, literally millions of Web sites, list serves, and e-mail lists, even (Lord help us) pagers. The 24-hour news networks, and especially the Internet, have added to the pressure, as new stories must be fed in constantly. For almost all of these outlets, even among news operations that traditionally reach the largest audiences (the TV networks and big daily papers), the trend is toward specializationnews meant to appeal particularly to a targeted audience. That target audience can be defined by interests, age, income, education, locationor political beliefs.

Ive always been skeptical of the entire myth of media objectivity. The U.S. is virtually alone, among Western democracies, in pretending that its editors and reporters scrupulously and successfully remove all personal bias from the stories we provide to the publicthat there is one, and only one, objective way to recount an event.

For the most part, thats not true. While the basic facts of a story can be beyond disputethe shooting happened at 9:45 p.m. at a bar on Second Avenueany number of factors can change how an audience perceives the news story, starting with whether the story is reported at all. Most bias in media doesnt come through factual errorit seeps in through which aspects of the story are emphasized, which are buried or left out, whos interviewed, whos portrayed sympathetically (or not), even simple word choices. Europeans are used to this. Britain, which is reporting the same war we are, has more than a half-dozen national newspapers, all available online, all of which are fairly up-front about their editorial roots. News consumers grow up knowing those biases, sorting through the different sources (or not), and making up their own minds based (hopefully) on multiple sources.

Were moving toward that model. Its a rare anti-war activist whos spending a lot of time these days primarily watching network TV for her or his newstheir war has no place for human interest stories from embedded journalists or uncritical parroting of the latest Bush administration press briefing. Its not the news they want to hear.

Similarly, Fox aficionados are probably not seeking out the online dispatches of British veteran Middle East reporters Robert Fisk or John Pilger (both have been scathing about Bush, Blair, and the invasion). Someone else might be focused on battlefield developments or international reaction.

In recent weeks, virtually no American news outlet has even tried to give equal weight to all of these aspects based on their newsworthiness. The editorial decisions are all being filtered through an assessment of what the audience wants to hear. Thats fair enough. The danger comes when audience members who care about this waror any other news storystart insisting that theirs is the one and only truth, and no other way of looking at the event can be correct. (Im certain of it! I saw it on TV!) Quite simply, we need to stop believing everything we heareven if its what we want to hear. Even if its the perspectiveor the factswe sought out in the first place.

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