Jim de Bree | When News Is Entertainment

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree

When I was young, newscasters were viewed as purveyors of factual information. Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite were largely respected journalists. Their news programs preceded primetime entertainment and were not expected to be profit leaders for their networks.

A lot has changed in a half-century. Now we have news networks that provide 24-hour programing, which is expected to be profitable. To be profitable, those networks must attract sufficient audiences to generate substantial advertising and subscription revenue. To accomplish this, their news personalities must become entertainers. 

Cronkite earned a six-figure salary for much of his tenure as anchor for CBS News. Today, Fox News pays Sean Hannity $40 million annually. Indeed, many current news anchors are paid an eight-figure salary.

To command such salaries, the anchors must attract loyal audiences. They generally do so by appealing to audiences’ preconceived biases. Let’s face it, you are not going to tune in to a show that makes you uncomfortable. So the news network anchors generally tell you what you want to hear in a way that appeals to you. 

Like any competitive industry, media outlets disparage their competition. For years, talk radio and Fox News lamented their perceived bias of the so-called “mainstream media.” When mainstream media gets something wrong, conservative media quickly criticizes mainstream bias. Doing so has resulted in strong brand loyalty.

Unfortunately, this has come at a cost to the news-consuming public because, in order to make news more entertaining, facts and opinions are blended by both conservative and mainstream media. This entrenches consumers and makes them less willing to consider counter-arguments as being reasonable. Attempts to reign in media run afoul of First Amendment free-speech concerns, so the problem perpetuates itself. Last year there were two interesting cases that illustrate this issue. 

The first, Herring Networks Inc. vs. Rachel Maddow, was a defamation lawsuit against Maddow and MSNBC because she ostensibly told viewers that the conservative One America Network was Russian-funded propaganda. Herring Networks, the owner of the network, sued arguing that her statement was defamatory because it was factually incorrect. The court determined that Maddow was merely expressing an opinion after quoting information provided by other sources. The court’s conclusion was that reasonable viewers would consider Maddow’s statements to be an opinion rather than a defamatory factual presentation. The case was dismissed.

Four months later, in a second case, McDougal vs. Fox News, Tucker Carlson and Fox News used the Maddow case rationale to mount their defense in a defamation lawsuit brought by Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model who became a national celebrity based on allegations that she had an affair with Donald Trump. In the published court decision, the judge stated, “Fox persuasively argues that given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer arrives with an appropriate amount of skepticism about the statements he makes.” As with the Maddow case, McDougal’s case was also dismissed.

The news networks have been able to defend the blurring of fact and opinion based on First Amendment arguments and how a “reasonable viewer” would interpret the material presented. While the support of the First Amendment is commendable, the courts seemingly ignored whether a majority of the viewers meet the reasonable viewer standard. 

Remember, we no longer deal with news in the Walter Cronkite sense; news organizations need to keep their viewers entertained. Because fact and opinion are blurred, what the courts view as opinion protected by the free speech provisions of the First Amendment is often viewed as factual reality by a majority of viewers. 

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once stated, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” That statement is still true, but hard to achieve when facts and opinions are blurred. The inevitable consequence is the inability of large segments of society to agree on appropriate solutions or even on what behavior is acceptable. 

The problem is exacerbated by the increasing number of serious, complex and multifaceted issues society faces. To entertain audiences, media often oversimplify, downplay or exaggerate the significance of those issues. 

We need to address free speech concerns without compromising our ability to competently address the problems we face. This is easier said than done. Perhaps we should consider reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, which required the holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in an honest, equitable and balanced manner. 

The Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987 on the grounds that it impaired free speech. Restoring the Fairness Doctrine will be politically difficult because doing so would likely reduce the entertainment value of news media and the billions of dollars generated, but it may be a promising solution to an unnecessarily divided society.

Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident.

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