“He can play the Honky Tonk like anything
Savin’ it up, for Friday night.”–Mark Knopfler
Every once in awhile there are comments that crystalize ideas in your mind. The discussion of 24 hours news networks came up. One of the graphs we teach to students involves two axes. Most people focus on the left versus right axis. That certainly makes sense because that is the focus we want them to consider.
Jon Stewart had a terrific interview with Rachel Maddow years ago when he was still on the Daily Show. He described the whole apparatus as climate versus individual commentators as weather. The whole idea behind it was what he would call a relay effect. He compared it with his own show where at what point he was followed by puppets making prank phone calls. His brand of political satire existed on its own.
What he was describing was proportionality. When I’m watching a network that features Jeannine Pirro, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Tucker Carlson back to back to back to back there is an amplification effect in motion. The effect is the same as someone that watches Joy Reid, Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and Lawrence O’Donnell consecutively.
Bias can exist in two different axes. If we want to call this journalism, we would call it the journalistic judgement of choosing which stories to focus on and how much attention they receive. In the newspaper business they would talk about what goes above and below the fold. In terms of radio and television it becomes the equivalent of 64 point font being used for the headline.
When that gets multiplied four or five times (with consecutive talking heads) it becomes impossible to put any news story in its proper context. The only illustration that immediately comes to mind is the local flagship station for the Houston Texans. They have a siren that blares every time there is “breaking Texan news.” At one point they were interrupting every show with updates on whether Rusty Hardin (the attorney for Deshaun Watson) had spoken or the fact that their third string strong safety had been added to the COVID list. I openly asked what would happen when there was actual news to report.
24 hour news networks work in the same way. They were initially designed to cover news like 9/11 or 1/6 when there was a need for in-depth coverage. The trouble is that most days don’t have the need for coverage on that level. So, we hype up minor stories until they become major stories. We could repeat the same question as above: what happens when we actually have a major story?
The point that needed to be made though is that this is just one of the two major axes that separates different news networks. CNN, MSNBC, Fox, OANN, and Newsmax all employ the same tactics on that level. It’s the only way 24 hour news networks know how to survive. However, that is where the similarities stop.
The other axis is the axis of accuracy of truthfulness. Some networks report facts and some don’t. Even then, we have varying levels of truthful reporting. Some report facts most of the time, some report them some of the time, and some rarely ever report them. Add a big lie to the amplification effect and you can see how millions of people can find themselves trapped in an information silo.
When you find yourself battling to save a friend or family member it becomes important to realize what you are dealing with. People used to spend 30 minutes watching the nightly news. It may have gone on for an hour when you combined the local and national news. Now, people are tuning in when they get home and camping on that channel until their head hits the pillow. Saving someone from that level of bombardment is a daunting task. Furthermore, seeing an MSNBC or CNN viewer interact with a Fox or OANN viewer can be both maddening and fascinating at the same time. They are two different realities and who is to say which one is really real or not?