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Fact deficit + opinion media surplus = bankrupt democracy

I’ve been thinking about the corrosion to our democracy that occurs when some forms of media — particularly cable “talking head” opinion shows and social media — exploit citizens with hot rhetoric that’s designed to inflame.

Liz Fedor

In the current Broadway hit “Network,” TV anchor Howard Beale implores his viewers to go to their windows and yell: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Played brilliantly by actor Bryan Cranston, Beale gets fired, says he plans to kill himself on the air, and then gets a new show because he’s become a sideshow and ratings sensation.

In 2019, we don’t have anchors threatening their demise, but we have plenty of cable news hosts stoking emotions, demonizing people in the political system, and manipulating viewers to keep tuning in to hear the latest cataclysmic predictions.

Hot rhetoric designed to inflame

Since I saw “Network” in February, I’ve been thinking about the corrosion to our real-life democracy that occurs when some forms of media — particularly cable “talking head” opinion shows and social media — exploit citizens with hot rhetoric that’s designed to inflame.

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Finding workable solutions to problems — in government, in business and in the nonprofit world — cannot occur without a clear understanding of facts and a rational evaluation of potential responses. Substantively addressing a challenge doesn’t involve name-calling, disinformation and screaming.

Yet Minnesotans and all Americans live in a society in which they can easily be seduced into escaping their everyday lives and marinating in a daily diet of negative talk TV, which increases polarization and partisan tribalism.

Easy to bully and belittle

On Twitter, which lacks face-to-face conversations with fellow citizens, it’s easy to bully and belittle people as well as condemn those who fail to demonstrate ideological purity on the left or right of the political spectrum.

The bruising nature of our political discourse provides ample evidence that we’ve fallen into the trap that the late professor Neil Postman forecast in his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Postman, who taught at New York University, warned in his 1985 book that television valued entertainment above everything else, and that it would trivialize how we handle public policy issues.

More than three decades after the book’s publication, television has had a profound influence in reshaping politics and journalism. A politician’s success is greatly linked to an ability to communicate persuasively, and sometimes outrageously, on television. Presidential candidates try to demonstrate they can be entertaining and hold their own with late night comedians. Meanwhile, TV and the internet have combined to produce the 24/7 news cycle. The most tantalizing headlines are broadcast in a repetitive loop and partisan spinmeisters work as paid analysts on talk shows.

Are we shouting ‘mad as hell’?

In 2019, how much time are we spending in a fit of rage while watching incensed pundits on television? Like the viewers in “Network” are we shouting that we are “mad as hell” to members of our own political tribe? Are we cheering when our favorite politician delivers a speech with time-worn talking points that never translate into effective policies?

How do we claw our way out of our current political quagmire that rewards divisions and political grandstanding?

The first action we can take is reduce cable TV and social media time and read more news articles reported by professional journalists.

Reporters know how to vet information, interview people with a range of opinions, find valid data and provide context on issues because of the expertise they’ve developed as beat reporters. While the number of newspaper journalists has dropped by 45 percent since 2008, those still employed are valiantly seeking the truth.

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In recent weeks, some of the best accountability reporting has been done by the Seattle Times, which carefully covers Boeing and the aviation industry. It has dug deep to uncover problems with the new Boeing 737 MAX, which has had two fatal crashes. The Times reporters had aviation knowledge and access to credible news sources that allowed them to raise key issues. They knew what detailed questions must be posed to Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration.

High quality costs money

High quality journalism isn’t free. Yet a recent Pew Research Center study showed that 84 percent of U.S. adults surveyed did not pay for local news in the past year.

To pay their journalists, the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press rely on subscriptions, and MinnPost and MPR depend on contributions. If the news organizations don’t receive strong financial support, they will be forced to make cuts and many important stories won’t be covered.

If people reduce their dependence on incendiary opinion media, there’s a secondary benefit. They’ll have more time to engage with their communities in constructive ways. They can get to know neighbors on their blocks. They can tutor children. They can join a civic or religious organization and complete a project that helps other people.

After turning off the TV and setting aside their phones, they also can spend some time thinking or reading a book. It’s OK to take time to reflect.

Liz Fedor is a Minneapolis-based business journalist who previously covered Minnesota politics.


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