I watched the 2004 liberal media advocacy-funded documentary Outfoxed tonight, which tears into the evils of the Fox News network. Nothing surprising or unknown, really, though I guess I didn't realize how ridiculous it was back then. I didn't really think that much of it until a black guy with a funny name ran for president.
For me, the issue with Fox News isn't that it's blatant right-wing propaganda. The First Amendment is still one of this country's greatest qualities, after all. My issue is that they call it news. I mean, it borders on consumer fraud to call it that. What's even more sad is the effect it has since had on television news in general. For awhile, MSNBC tried to be like Fox, and eventually swung back the other way, instead of just, you know, reporting news. CNN, which made its name in journalism during the Gulf War, tried to be a little more pundit happy for awhile, and now just kind of sits around looking for an identity that still strays too far from bona fide journalism.
The transformation of TV news to this state actually took quite awhile. The FCC ditched the Fairness Doctrine in the late 80's, which required broadcast license holders (you know, the three or four local TV stations you had) to offer equal time to opposing viewpoints. Today that would be labeled as "government interference" of private enterprise, but remember that broadcast licenses are essentially a public resource. Everyone owns that radio spectrum, so regulating it to serve diverse interests was something even the Supreme Court upheld. Still, the doctrine was ditched eventually as we "gained" more cable channels.
When the Internet came along, the idea of ever reinstating the doctrine became outright silly. The democratization of media by the Internet meant anyone could have a voice. Aside from nipple slips and naughty words, the FCC could care less what you did on broadcast TV. The problem with all this media is that it hasn't been embraced as an opportunity to practice journalism; It has mostly been embraced as an opportunity to advance an agenda.
This problem is two-fold. From the media side of it, it's way, way cheaper to have a talking head on the television "reporting" what "some people say" than it is to have a crew where the news happens, getting the facts, trying to make sense of it into a rational narrative and publishing it. From the consumer side of it, it's easier to just take those bits of information, whether they're true or not, than to look around for something deeper. Media frugality + apathetic consumers = ignorant people. I think it's made worse by several generations of people, including my own to a certain degree, who grew up believing that what's on TV can be trusted. There has always been editorial in news, but the distinction was always clear, like labeling it as such on its own pages in the newspaper. Now the line is gone, and nobody cares. That seems to be the new American way, and it sucks.
When the health care reform bill passed last year, I did a lot of digging around to understand it. There was very little from mainstream news outlets that would allow me to really piece together the details to have an informed opinion about it (an opinion that concluded it didn't really address enough of the right things). That there are still assholes out there who call it "Obamacare" or maintain that it's going to ruin your access to health care is completely annoying, but with the aforementioned consumer apathy, not at all surprising. Because journalism is so sparse, there is very little intelligent political discourse about the right things to do.
So what does someone do if they want to be better informed? Well, you have to want to be better informed. The big three American TV networks do an OK job with their half-hour shows in the evening. Sometimes they don't have enough context, but I genuinely believe that Williams, Sawyer and Couric are journalists at heart, and aren't in any hurry to piss on the legacy of Cronkite, Jennings, Brokaw, Rather, Reynolds and others.
Even more obvious is the Internet. It does have real news, and it's not that hard to find. The "old" media outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post aren't that terrible. If you really want to challenge yourself, look at the news through a foreign eye, from the BBC or al Jazeera. It's particularly interesting to read al Jazeera's coverage of American politics. Again, what it comes down to is that you have to want to be informed.
Journalism has a strong sense of morality tied to it. It's hard, and it's work. Again, no wonder so few people don't care to practice it. I'm still hopeful that people will want to accept this great responsibility that is so critical to our way of life. "Citizen journalism" turned out to be a flop, since "wisdom of crowds" is really just "mob mentality." It will still take individuals with a higher sense of purpose to report news. I'm anxious to find that trust again.