Whose Job Is It to Inform the People?

A couple of days ago, CBS News ran a story that said most Americans don’t know what’s in the Build Back Better bill. If they know anything at all about it, it’s that Democrats want to spend $3.5 trillion on something. But they have no idea what.

Call me crazy, CBS News, but maybe the real story here is the failure of television news to do its bleeping job and inform the viewers. Since what little professionally reported news most Americans consume comes from television, this is critical.

I caught the 2005 film Good Night and Good Luck on television a few days ago. If you don’t remember it, it’s a dramatization of the making of Edward R. Murrow’s 1953 exposé of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Murrow (played by David Strathairn) worked for CBS News, and one aspect of broadcast news that came out in the film was that, in those days, the news department was supposed to be separate from the entertainment divisions of the networks. In the film, CBS’s CEO William Paley (played by Frank Langella) is reminded he had promised to not interfere with news decisions.

I believe that was true in the 1950s; network executives mostly agreed to leave news content alone. Broadcast news actually operated at a loss in those days, but the loss was considered acceptable if the news department enhanced the prestige of the network.

In the 1980s, however, the bean counters took over. News divisions had their budgets cut and were pressured to drive up ratings, often at the cost of doing actual journalism. The half-hour evening network news shows today are, IMO, much less informative than they were in Walter Cronkite’s day. Of course, their audience share isn’t what they used to be, either, since people have many more viewing options than the three networks.

Weekly news “magazines” like 60 Minutes were supposed to be the answer to the lack of substance on the nightly news. 60 Minute still does some decent segments, but ABC’s 20/20 and NBC’s Dateline mostly focus on true crime stuff these days.

What about cable? Fox News is the ratings leader. Fox, of course, is to information what a black hole is to matter. A number of independent studies over the years have concluded that Fox News viewers are less informed than people who watch no news at all. CNN prefers news stories with compelling visuals, like natural disasters, to explaining what’s in bills.  PBS works so hard at being innocuous and inoffensive that it’s mostly worthless. Only on MSNBC are there still people who just sit in a chair, look at a camera, and provide researched information.

Speaking of MSNBC. last night Chris Hayes commented on polling about the child tax credit, the $300 payment per month for every child under the age of 7 and $250-per-month payment for every child under the age of 17. Although people receiving this benefit do tend to like it, fewer than half of those polled credited Democrats for the benefit, and only 38 percent credited President Biden. Chris Hayes continued,

“I think what we`re seeing there is a testament to what the American voter is saying. They simply do not know. And the Biden administration for better or for worse has not made that case specifically around these child tax credits and how they`re impacting the American people`s lives and making their lives better. We have seen just this overwhelming information zone of topics and issues whether it be COVID, Afghanistan, the battle over saving democracy. And it`s really hard for the average everyday voter to really zero in on these things.”

President Biden absolutely cannot count on news media to inform voters about what he is trying to accomplish. IMO the biggest mistake President Obama made was failing to communicate clearly to the American people about what he was trying to do. He may have assumed it was the job of news media to inform the public, but news media barely does that job any more. Major newspapers do try, but newspaper readers are slowly becoming extinct.

I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but I do know that the number one job of the Democratic Party right now must be figuring out a way to inform more voters about, for example, what is in the Build Back Better plan, and who is responsible for the checks going to parents.

Photo 141675000 © Oleksandr Lutsenko | Dreamstime.com

7 thoughts on “Whose Job Is It to Inform the People?

  1. The problem with President Uncle Joe and Democratic Politicians explaining what is in the Build Back Better legislation is that the BBB (if it actually passes in any form) is not going to resemble what Joe said he wanted.  

    The current betting odds on the YouBetYourAss site are 750-1 that you are not going to see anything that resembles meaningful tax increases on corporations and the 1%ers.  The 'bipartisan' (ie lobbyist written) Infrastructure legislation provides money to corporations with next to nothing that directly benefits the working classes.  It is like the 'bipartisan' 'Get competitive with China' legislation that easily passed and became law a few months ago;  it committed $250B spending over 5 years ($50B a year) that goes to corporations.  

    If you have watched CNN and/or MSNBC over the last couple weeks, they have increased their attacks on progressives for wanting more than handouts to corporations*.  (*my words, not theirs)  It is always the Progressives who are called upon to give up their desires to support the working classes in favor of 'party unity'.

  2. SadOldVet,

    I watch MSNBC nightly, and no one in that evening line-up is rooting against the progressives.  They're rooting for them.

    Now, MSNBC's Cup o' Schmoe and his morning crew of coffee-klatchers aren't with the progressives.  And maybe not Andrea Mitchell at noon.  And certainly not UpChuck Toad, and his Meet the RepubliKKKlans show at 1pm, and Sunday's.  And imo, most of the rest play it towards the middle.

  3. The bean counters have determined (correctly) that it's more profitable to cover the fight than the reasons FOR the fight.

    "If it bleeds, it leads." is a true axiom.  That's why a peaceful protest in 2016 with sit-down civil disobedience that generated 1200 arrests at the US Capitol Building got NO media coverage. The cops didn't mace anyone, the protesters didn't fight cops. And the protest in DC was on big money in politics.

    Still, if the protesters had hospitalized a cop, or the cops engaged in brutality, the media would have been interested. 

    REAL issues like child care, the cost of college, beefing up medical care for Seniors, cutting Rx costs… these aren't blood and gore. They don't even hint at a gruesome discovery in the immediate future. 

    The worst thing is – we fed that media monster. We watched the gruesome, we were fascinated with the macabre. And the media went where the money is. We have to quit expecting the news to resemble an Alfred Hitchcock thriller and pay attention to the facts.

  4. I am not sure who's job it is to inform, but the money is in misinformation.  That is what makes the notorious Facebook a trillion dollar company.  The media is all about ratings, as the higher your ratings the more money you can charge for your ads.  Ad's too are generally misinformation, especially political ads Republican style.  You know less about a Republican candidate the more ads you see about him, and more misinformation about his/her (rarely) opponent.  

    Misinformation has  become ubiquitous, like miscommunication.  One of my favorite sayings of late is we must not complain about having a problem with miscommunication or we might end up with no  communication at all.  I suppose one could substitute misinformation for miscommunication and repurpose the line.  I am not sure it might not have too true to be as humorous, though.

    Joe Kernen on the business channel CNBC called the social infrastructure bill spending on metaphysical infrastructure.  Would you call that misinformation or twisted information.  What about quality affordable child care is metaphysical?  Just because they are your little angel does not make their care metaphysics.  They are not angels in many ways.  As one teacher in training for one of our developmental preschool programs once asked — Why do I need a masters degree to wipe butts?  I still laugh about that one.  Joe needs to spend a couple of weeks working in child care and a little quality time with a dictionary.  He might be worth his salary if he got some ground level reality,

    That's why some people read this blog.   We'll give them the straight poop once in a while at least. 



  5. Unfortunately the media has been a big part of the problem for a very long time, with no incentive to change, so hoping that maybe they'll change and start reporting the facts, unvarnished is a waste of time.  And I'm sick and tired of talking about "messaging," or the lack thereof from the democrats.  restating that problem over and over, after all this time, hasn't led to a solution.   

    If I were Biden I'd start having weekly, oval office chats.  And in these chats I'd speak plainly to the American people: "you know that $300 you’re getting for each child?  It started when I took office.  I did that because I knew you needed help."  I'd address the Big Lie thusly:  "The election wasn't stolen from tfg, he lost because 81 million of you, the largest vote total in history, voted him out because he was a bad president!"  Prescription drugs: "the reason drug prices are high is because republicans and even some democrats in congress have consistently voted to not do what can be done to bring prices down because they are in the pocket of the pharma industry, and I am going to name some of them right now because they are blocking the part of BBB that addresses that" and proceed to name republicans and democrats who fit the description.  Each chat would be no more than 1/2 hour, covering just one topic.  I'd even have an "average citizen" with me who can testify to how much they were helped by what was done, or how they're hurt by what isn't, making sure who's responsible for the hurt is covered.

    On the economy, Biden already has a lot to crow about.  The media likes to focus on the September jobs report of 194K jobs as if that's a failure.  But cumulative/annualized GDP is 3.42 / 5.61% respectively under Biden, whereas under Trump last reported it was 0.89 / 1.45%.   He needs to tell the people this.  

    Tfg was a good liar, and he'd stand up there and say the economy was great when it wasn't and people started to believe it.  Biden, like with so many other things, has the advantage of truth on his side, all he needs to do is tell it.  This isn't THE answer but it can't hurt, and its better than keeping quiet in the hopes that somehow the good will sell itself.  Doesn't work that way.

    • When Chuck Schumer spoke out against the republicans by telling the truth about what they did in attempting to hold the government hostage, instead of the fawning they expect when they "give" the democrats their votes to do something they were responsible for doing anyway, they and the media were stung.  It was "inappropriate," they said.  "The timing was bad," etc.  Manchin dramatically put his head in his hands.  McConnell threatened to go back into his shell and stay in it come "next time;" no "help" from him.

      Why?  Because nothing undercuts them more than public truth telling.  The truth is their enemy, and when that truth gets told, for them its a bad thing.  But the public got to hear what was at stake and why.  

      We need more of this, a lot more.

  6. The thing that Good Night and Good Luck doesn't tell you is that Murrow scared the shit out of the money people so badly that he spent the rest of his career doing non-news coverage. I think Cronkeit was too popular to pull after his diagnosis of failure in Vietnam, but his influence with his corporate masters waned after that also.

    Of the post-WWII journalists who have blown the whistle on power, I think only Woodward has prospered, and that by being mostly co-opted by The Establishment.

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