Ted Koppel reflects on partisan news opinion shows and news organizations becoming profit centers for entertainment companies
The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. It is, though, the natural outcome of a growing sense of national entitlement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's oft-quoted observation that "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts," seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts.
This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.
The transition of news from a public service to a profitable commodity is irreversible. Legions of new media present a vista of unrelenting competition. Advertisers crave young viewers, and these young viewers are deemed to be uninterested in hard news, especially hard news from abroad. This is felicitous, since covering overseas news is very expensive. On the other hand, the appetite for strongly held, if unsubstantiated, opinion is demonstrably high. And such talk, as they say, is cheap.
I've been mostly out of the news loop for the last year, and I don't really miss it. I'd rather spend time reading a substantive background article on a topic than getting the blow-by-blow slow dribble of small facts and grand interpretations.
I happened to catch the BBC World Service yesterday. They spent almost an entire hour on the release
of Aung San Suu Kyi
from house arrest. They had reports from an eyewitness correspondant (what American news agency has one in Myanmar?), interviews with multiple experts on the country's political system, and a discussion with a friend of hers at Oxford. They talked about the event itself, her background (I didn't know that her father was head of the army, influential in the country's formation, and assassinated), how she came to be a widely admired and potent political figure, how she might affect things now that she's released, what the military junta (which the BBC still pronounces with a hard J) might expect, and what needs to happen for Myanmar to progress (apparently there are a lot of ethnic militia groups that the military can't really defeat, but that would be likely to work with Aung San Suu Kyi).
Why is the BBC so much better at educating listeners than commercial media? Maybe it's because they don't have a narrow market. While under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi listened to the World Service in English and Burmese. There are listeners all over the world, and their interests are diverse. Maybe it's because they take their news mission seriously and are answerable to people who care about the quality of the news, not to people who care about the revenue delivered by advertisers.
In the information overload world of social media, it's even more critical to be critical of your news sources. If your source of news is links your Facebook friends share and you choose friends who share your opinions, you're in danger of falling into a self-reinforced echo chamber of selection bias and opinion monoculture. Be sure to follow some people you disagree with, or seek out some of the remaining outlets that care more about information than perception.