Friday, July 01, 2011

CNN Reforms and the Difficult World of Modern Media

There was a piece on NPR that I heard recently about Mark Whitaker, CNN's new top news executive, and the difficulties that he faces in taking over a news organization that still has a stated goal of objectivity and bipartisanship in a modern media environment that fosters bias in its reporting and analysis (CNN has recently been growing its audience, but Fox still beats them by more than a 2:1 margin). CNN has strategies that it continues to implement in order to continue to survive and thrive. Whitaker plans (smartly, I think) to move the organization away from a role in which fiery pundits from the political extremes duke it out on air while anchors and reporters mostly stand idly by like hapless referees. Whitaker says that he plans to try to focus on more in depth reporting, with more research and fact checking, and he hopes to bring more of an international sensibility to the network, giving an audience a sense of global context by letting the audience know what sort of stories are receiving attention and reaction around the globe.
I think these are smart moves. Investigative reporting might be more expensive than cheap, colorful political argument (it costs more to pay reporters to do off-camera research and investigation than it does to throw loudmouth pundits on the air), but I think that CNN will be well served if it can manage to carve out a perhaps smaller, but curious and well informed audience. I hope that the audience for this sort of reporting is enough to sustain the network. I hope this not only because I typically prefer CNN, but because it would be nice to know that there are sufficient numbers of people out there who yearn for objective facts to at least support the continued existence of a major media organization. I know that CNN isn't perfect in terms of being objective, but at least they seem to be striving to avoid bias (it's the sort of neutral, middle ground territory that they've staked out), and CNN seems to do a much better job of trying to avoid bias than either Fox or MSNBC.

On a related note, the story about CNN got me thinking about some broader issues. It just bothers me that so many people out there are so consciously willing to allow their news information to be filtered in order to support their particular point of view. Are we really so insecure in ourselves and our beliefs nowadays that we can't tolerate the possibility that unfiltered reality might intrude us? Repeated studies and polls have shown that viewers of Fox News have consistently been one of the most misinformed news audiences in the country (see results here and here and here and here for some examples), yet the Fox News audience continues to grow and grow. People prefer a news outlet that gives them pretailored, prescreened, easily digestible "facts" that only fit their preconceived worldview. And plenty of news sources on the left that offer a similarly skewed perspective (MSNBC has also been shown to have significant numbers of misinformed viewers on some issues). We live in a world where we only read news sites that reflect our biases, only watch television news that reflects our predispositions, and, in many cases, only discuss world events with family and friends who are likely to agree with us.
We've created a culture where we artificially and painlessly exist in a cocoon of likeminded opinion and sentiment, and we've gotten so used to this existence that we can no longer tolerate even the smallest amount of cognitive dissonance brought on by facts that don't support our worldview. Instead of expanding our minds, remaining flexible, and becoming more tolerant, we're insulating ourselves. And I think that our inability to deal with opposing viewpoints or to accept reality on its own terms is making us, although outwardly more opinionated, probably utlimately less confident and secure. Wrapped in the swaddling of likeminded reinforcement (not only in terms of ideology, but an understanding of the world itself), we're kind of becoming spoiled brats. A willingness to sacrifice curiosity about the actual world for a set of selective facts or distortions that reflect our worldview? Well, it just seems like that path leads to solipsism, which ultimately leads to some extremely unhealthy living for both individuals and society.
And I think that this whole phenomenon, the trend toward seeking viewpoint affirmation instead of nurturing a curiosity for undiluted facts, might ultimately be doing some very real and serious damage to the social fabric of our country. Some people are making a lot of money by feeding our appetite for confirmation bias, but I think taht this is occurring at a cost.
I know that the culture wars have been going on for a long time and that our nation has always been home to groups of people with significantly different ideologies, but I still think there's a qualitative difference between living in a country where people are interpreting facts differently versus a country where people were never even exposed to the same set of facts in the first place.
But that's where this fractured news media system is getting us. We're being selectively presented with facts that some third party has determined to be appropriate for what they perceive to be our worldview. We live side by side, but two neighbors living next door to one another in the current media climate may see two entirely different places when they look out the window.

Annnyway, more blah, blah, blah. Mostly, I hope CNN really does try to stick to stronger analysis, more invesitgative reporting, and a commitment to objectivity (refusing to be cowed by self interested allegations of bias arising from any particular political camp). It would really be nice to see that sort of commitment actually pay off.
It never hurts to hope.

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