Monday, March 22, 2021

Broadcasters in a State

RTÉ Documentary Makes Public Really Sad About Homelessness For A Whole Hour
 —Headline on the Irish satirical newspaper website Waterford Whispers News, January 19
In my previous post I vented my frustration with the increasingly polarized and fragmented media landscape when it comes to broadcast journalism. I was speaking specifically about the United States, but what about other countries? I attributed the U.S.’s partisan environment to the sheer size of the country combined with technology that rewards narrowcasting. Surely, those would not be such prominent factors in other countries?

What is distinctive about the States as a country, besides its size, is that it has no dominant national broadcaster. That’s an institution pretty much ubiquitous throughout the rest of the world. Canada has the CBC, the United Kingdom has the BBC, France has France Télévisions, Russia has RT, and Ireland has RTÉ. Many countries also, unlike the U.S. and Canada, exact a household license fee for the purpose of subsidizing the national broadcaster. In Britain, for example, this means BBC viewers do not have to watch commercials—apart from the BBC’s own adverts touting BBC programs. Ireland has the worst of both worlds with viewers (and actually non-viewers as well) required to pay the annual license fee but still having to sit through commercial advertisements. Despite its hybrid viewer/corporate revenue stream, RTÉ has long been unable to balance a budget, although it has just been announced that it finally does have a surplus—thanks to the fact that for the past year people were literally forced to stay at home with little else to do but watch telly.

Technically, the U.S. does have a national broadcaster through the taxpayer-funded non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting which supports the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) networks, but these do not have anywhere near the dominance in America that other countries’ public broadcasters have. Also, because PBS’s and NPR’s taxpayer funding meets only a small part of their budgets, they rely largely on voluntary viewer contributions and corporate underwriting. In fact, one could make the argument that, due to their heavy reliance on corporate underwriting, PBS and NPR actually constitute one more facet of the U.S. corporate media landscape, albeit one with a very specific educated and affluent viewer demographic.

Shouldn’t the national broadcaster be the answer to polarized political reporting? Shouldn’t a public or semi-public entity with a mandate to serve the entire nation and, ideally, independent or semi-independent from corporate money be an antidote to all the partisan stuff? Maybe in theory, but not in my experience.

This is where I again get to mention my Master of Arts degree in journalism from Ohio State University. I did my studies in that fine institution back when the idea of a journalism school in college, particularly at the graduate level, was a new one. Most of my teachers had gotten their professorships bestowed on them honorarily in recognition of many years of working in the profession rather than through any academic qualifications. They were mostly well up in years because the teaching gig was basically their semi-retirement. These were old-school guys—and yes, they were mostly, if not exclusively, male—who experienced journalism as a blue-collar profession, pounding city streets and banging on manual typewriters, and who at the end of a workday unwound in smoky bars. They had a hard-nosed, practical and yet refreshingly idealistic idea of what journalism was. You were supposed to keep digging until you got the story, and you never took sides. In writing a story, you assumed nothing and took no one’s word at face value. Skepticism was the watchword.

If your mother says she loves you, went the rule, check it out!

I would love to find my old professors now—if any of them have lungs and livers that have survived this long—to find out what they think of the current state of journalism. I think I kind of know. They were basically newspaper guys, and even way back in the 1970s they looked down their noses at television. Of course, the internet was not even a thing yet. One principle they were clear on was that the government should have no role in the news business except as something to be covered aggressively. In many countries, one needs a license or an institutional qualification to practice journalism. In the U.S., by contrast, the First Amendment has always meant that every citizen is born a journalist. The government cannot pick and choose who is qualified to do the job.

My old professors’ main concern about state media in general was that it could not be objective when covering politicians who approved their budget and paid their salaries. Ironically, after a couple of decades of getting my television and radio news from state broadcasters, I find that the problem is nearly the opposite. Safeguards are in place in countries like the UK and Ireland to insulate state news organizations from government pressure. Significant public funding also tends to insulate them from advertiser pressure. That sounds like a good thing—until you cop on to the fact political and corporate pressure are often actually extensions of general public sentiment.

In practice, I find, state news organizations tend to become detached from the general public they are meant to be serving, not unlike the way political reporting at student-run college radio stations often goes off in its own idealistic direction. On top of that, state broadcasters are de facto gatekeepers of information in the way that the three big corporate network news organizations in the U.S. once styled themselves. In RTÉ’s world, if it determines something is not worthy or salutary for public consumption, it simply does not get reported. Yes, there is a much smaller commercial rival TV broadcaster here as well as several newspapers, but by practical necessity most people have to rely on RTÉ for their daily news.

Those who don’t find the state broadcaster reflecting their own personal reality inevitably look for alternative sources of information. Traditionally, stories have gotten passed around informally by word of mouth. Of course, these days finding alternative news sources is easier than it’s ever been, and there are no geographical limits.

Is there anything corporate broadcasters (in the U.S.) or state broadcasters (elsewhere) could do to better meet the needs of news consumers?

The reality may be that there is no perfect model for broadcast journalism and that the current state of information churn is the best we can hope for.

On one hand, after years of listening to measured, modulated and controlled news broadcasts from state broadcasters, the blaring and breathless style of U.S. cable news operations—with their all-too-frequent commercial interruptions—grates.

On the other hand, I often find myself wishing I could switch to a different Irish channel (sorry, Virgin Media, you’re not it) for a contrasting perspective or just to fill in the information gaps.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Searching for Truth

Everyone Who Was Completely Wrong About Election Day Ready to Explain What Happens Next
 —Headline on the satirical newspaper website The Babylon Bee, November 5
Commentators sometimes like wax nostalgic about the good old days when everyone in America got their daily news from a handful of television network news operations which were generally trusted to supply accurate and unbiased information. Why can’t it be like that now? Why have so many news outfits picked a particular political world view and decided to cater to that view’s particular audience—instead of treating the whole country as its audience?

If you think about it, that question more or less answers itself, doesn’t it? Don’t all news consumers with favorite information sources think that theirs is the fair and objective one? It’s the other ones that are biased, right?

This situation was made possible by 1) the size and diversity of the United States and 2) the proliferation of news sources thanks to breakthroughs in technology. The latter cause is key. There was a time not that many years ago when “narrowcasting” to relatively small and geographically scattered audiences was economically impractical. Now, thanks to satellites and the internet, it’s a cinch. Arguably, a politically splintered society is good for corporate business. More than ever before, politics has become a team sport, and we all know how profitable professional sports teams are. Cable news networks even have an advantage that sports broadcasters don’t. In televised politics, when you pick your own channel, your team is always winning—at least the argument if not the election.

Still, people have a basic desire to think the information they’re getting is accurate. This would explain why, after the election of Donald Trump four years ago, The New York Times had an advertising campaign proclaiming simply and emphatically “The Truth,” and The Washington Post introduced the chilling slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” In the media generally there was much bandying of words like “truth” and “facts,” largely in response to questionable assertions by the new president but also as not-so-subtle digs at rival news organizations. Despite all this focus on truth, though, the country is nowhere near a consensus on what is “true” when it comes any major issue.

Here is what seems true to me. If Republicans generally think they are getting the truth—or at least more of it—from Fox News and if Democrats feel similarly about CNN, MSNBC and/or PBS, they can’t both be right. Whatever news you listen to will occasionally omit stories that get played on the other side. Stories reported by both will get different spins and emphases. The only way to make sure you don’t miss something or don’t get misled is to try listening to everything.

That’s time-consuming, though. If you’re busy but still want to be informed, wouldn’t it be nice if, to get back to the lament with which I began, there were one or more news sources that simply reported the major news of the day with some kind of balance and fairness you could trust? Such a news provider might annoy Democrats sometimes, but it would also annoy Republicans sometimes. Is there a market for such a thing?

There are actually people out there who see that gap and are trying to fill it. One that I came across a while back is called Ground News, and it takes an interesting approach. Available through its website or its app, it delivers a stream of news items but also includes information on what other media are carrying the same item. Furthermore it breaks down the other media sources according to where they fall on the political spectrum and gives you a liberal/conservative percentage breakdown on each article’s overall media distribution. If nothing else, it tells you whether the stories you find interesting are mainly being seen by most people or by mainly conservatives or by liberals. They even offer a browser extension that pops up if you’re reading another news site, e.g. The New York Times, and gives you the same media breakdown about the article you are reading there.

The goal is not to eliminate bias but to clearly identify it and label it so that you know where your news falls on the political spectrum. News sources are rated on a scale from the far left (e.g. Palmer Report) to the far right (e.g. The Gateway Pundit). Sources it considers in the center include the Associated Press, Reuters, the BBC and France24. Obviously, not everyone is going to agree on these classifications, but at least it’s some kind of yardstick. The Ground News website is freely accessible, but if you want to support them or get more features, there are a couple of subscription levels. You can also get their weekly “Blindspot Report” email which highlights legitimate news stories missed by sources on both the left and right.

Ground News is based in Canada, which is also the location of another source of serious balanced discussion, the charitable-foundation-run Munk Debates. Originally staged as live events in Toronto, the debates—as well as dialogs and interviews—are now accessible as streams and through a podcast. They highlight topical issues argued by prominent speakers on opposite sides in a congenial environment. Recent topics have included “Be it resolved: Go Green! Go Nuclear!” with University of Michigan professor Todd Allen and former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Gregory Jackzko and “Be it resolved: The GameStop frenzy is good for investors and good for financial markets” with market traders Tom Sosnoff and Danny Moses. It is a nice change of pace from the usual stacked-deck panel discussions that proliferate cable news.

Another source I came across recently is the five-days-a-week email newsletter Tangle by journalist Isaac Saul whose main job is with the positive-news-focused digital media company A Plus. A 10-to-15-minute read, Tangle concentrates on the major DC political issue of the day—as well as a few briefer items—giving a meticulous examination of the positions on both partisan sides, as well as Saul’s own (generally middle-of-the-road) take. It is pretty balanced, although your own mileage could vary. Tangle is subscription-supported on the Substack platform—an increasingly interesting source of informed commentary for people willing to pay for it—but it can generally be read four days a week for free.

The funny thing about consuming reasonable, balanced and fair news sources, though, is that there always seems to be something missing. Human nature, especially when we are younger, craves the passion of being committed and involved on the right side of a grand ideological struggle. People used to satisfy that craving with religion. Nowadays they fill it with politics. In the current heightened environment, objective reporting can feel strangely bland.

Also, if you’re paranoid—and shouldn’t we all be?—there is the concern that these self-branded objective sources may be trojan horses that are trying to subtly and with sophistication nudge those in the political middle toward one side or the other under the guise of supposed neutrality. After all, can any individual or organization be truly neutral? Short answer: no.

In the end, that is the risk you run in trying to be informed. You might end up having your mind changed.