It happened in a doctor’s office. It was during one of those awkward moments, when a medical assistant and I were awaiting the arrival of a doctor. We were running out of small talk about the weather, COVID, and lunch plans.
“So what type of work do you do?” she asked. “I work for a TV station,” I replied. “I’m one of those news guys.”
“Oh, really? Which side are you on?” she asked. I was a bit confused. “Excuse me?”
She continued. “I mean, don’t you have to be on one side or the other? You know, Democrat or Republican? Isn’t that what y’all do on the news?”
She was dead serious. She said the news had two sides, and that’s why she didn’t watch. “One side tells you one thing, and the other is just the opposite, and I just stopped watching because I don’t know what to believe,” she said.
I read and hear comments like this far too often, and it breaks my heart. We as a nation have more access to news than ever before, and it’s as close as our fingertips. But here’s the truth: what she calls news is not news.
When I was growing up, there was no confusion about news. There were three major television networks, a handful of national news magazines, and prestigious daily newspapers in our larger cities. They all covered Republican presidents and Democratic presidents. When things were going well (the moon landing, infrastructure improvements, a good economy), it was reported. When things went wrong (violence in the streets, the Watergate scandal, runaway inflation), that made the news too.
In addition to balanced news coverage, there was commentary. Newspapers and magazines have always had opinion columns and editorial pages, and all are labeled as such. Many TV networks and local stations often included an opinion piece, from a journalist or perhaps the station manager at the end of a newscast. Again, we were told in advance: this is commentary, not news. You could agree or disagree, and your feedback was encouraged.
The formula seems simple enough. We’ll give you the news straight down the middle, and then over here in this section, we’ll offer some comments to give you something to think about. Quite often, we will give you the pros and cons, and ask you to make up your own mind. For a couple of centuries, that seemed to work rather well.
Then came cable TV, and look at us now. Like my friend the medical assistant, we are so fed up, confused, and disoriented, we have given up on what we call “the news.”
The problem here is that we have partisan entertainers, also known as cable news hosts, masquerading as journalists. They are not.
Labels are important. The next time you’re in the store, look at those labels. They tell you exactly what you’re getting. When you grab a box of Morton salt, you know there won’t be sugar inside. They are not trying to fool you.
The same policy should be enforced on television. Tonight when you click on “Wheel of Fortune,” the title is accurate. There’s a big wheel, and someone will win a fortune. No false advertising there. What will you get if you watch “Entertainment Tonight?” There will be no war coverage, no sports, and no financial advice. It’s just entertainment, like it says on the label.
Certain cable networks should be honest with their viewers. Fox News Channel is not all news. Much of the content is highly partisan opinion. The same goes for CNN, which was established as the Cable News Network. In the beginning, both of those networks (along with others) focused on actual news.
In later years however, they shifted to a different style. It was a proven financial windfall, long ago perfected by professional wrestling promoters.
As followers of wrestling can testify, watching two people grapple in the ring, observing all the rules, can be tedious.
But if those wrestlers do something outrageous to grab our attention, suddenly we are glued to the TV set. Hit an opponent with a chair? Now you’re talking. Is that blood flowing from his forehead? We can’t take our eyes off that.
Fox, CNN, and their imitators are often the professional wrestling of news. It is a sideshow, designed to infuriate and sensationalize. Is the content truthful? Occasionally, but some of their own attorneys have admitted that certain hosts are not to be believed. Yet, they persist.
I’m all for freedom of speech. These networks should stay on the air, if they’re presenting factual information.
But the word “news” should be removed from the name. The correct word is “opinion.” Americans need to learn the difference.
News is a word with a long, proud history. Give it back to those who don’t abuse it.
(David Carroll is a Chattanooga television news anchor and radio host. You may find him online at ChattanoogaRadioTV.com, or contact him at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405, or at RadioTV2020@yahoo.com)