Even the least cynical among us will attest that the Walter Cronkite days are long gone. Unbiased, apolitical journalism seems to most of us like another world, one where news men check their facts through the night on beige, corded telephones, tapping furiously at manual typewriters before going out on a limb to break the big story. There was a time when journalists like Walter Cronkite told us things we didn’t want to hear, shared ideas with which we strongly disagreed. But then we thought of journalists more like doctors. We may not have liked what they had to say, but we accepted it. After all, who were we to argue with the experts?
Fast forward a few decades. Where once we sought the unbiased facts on which to form an opinion, today we seek other biased opinions that support our own. But how could this happen, and when did we start preferring opinions to facts? Here’s a straight fact: it started in 1987. In 1987, the FCC repealed the “Fairness Doctrine” – a policy introduced in 1949 requiring broadcasters to present information in a way that was “honest, equitable and balanced.” When this doctrine was repealed, there was nothing to prevent broadcasters from showing only one side of a story. Almost overnight, talk radio was born.
Talk radio and politics found their ambassador in Rush Limbaugh. Making the move from radio to late-night television during the Clinton administration, Limbaugh paved the way for a new, opinionated FOX News and other right-wing personalities like Glenn Beck and even left-wing personalities like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. FOX became the station of choice for Republicans, with about 47% of Republicans getting their information from FOX alone. About 11% of Democrats claim to get their info from MSNBC, but this story is not quite symmetrical. There is no Democrat equivalent to FOX News, but there are numerous smaller venues for Democrats to preach to the choir.
Today, it is no surprise to see news sources advocating political agendas, disparaging opposing political candidates and leaping into the fray to promote one side of a political issue. Viewers have the option to choose a news source based not on their reporting of the facts but whether their opinions are in line with those of their viewers. Successful broadcasts are those that yield the best ratings, and people are much more likely to watch those programs and stations that share their views.
Harking back to a time when Republicans and Democrats alike could trust the information (and occasional opinions) of a respected non-participant may be wishful thinking. But it is easy to see the harm that can come from conflicting camps with invincible opinions. The party polarization we’ve seen throughout the past few elections does not seem to be letting up. Before things get truly out of hand, could the new Walter Cronkite please stand up?
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