I am not a cartoon aficionado, but one of my favorite political cartoons, drawn by syndicated “Bizarro” cartoonist Dan Piraro, depicts former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove conversing with Plato. Rove, sitting down in a classical setting, turns to Plato and says, “But surely you agree that truth can be created by the repetition of a lie.” Perhaps cable news should take Rove’s place.
Whether or not you believe in Rove’s agenda or his politics, the statement makes a poignant argument about human nature. How many times do people have to hear a lie in order to believe that it is actually the truth? Increasingly, it seems as if cable news has been trying to figure out the answer to that question. The production of opinion shows cloaked as newscasts has morphed cable news into a platform not for informing the public but rather for persuading the public that their version of the facts is more accurate than a rival network’s version. The programs on the cable networks do not exist to tell the news but rather to interpret the news. Although opinion is an important and vital part of the media industry, the business of running a cable network has pitted these “news” programs against each other in a way that fosters derisive and ignorant bigotry rather than intelligent discussion. The battle among cable networks threatens to divide America into two groups, with the supporters of each political party only listening to their preferred cable network. In order to confront this threat, the American people must be aware that their favorite newscast may not be the news at all but rather a pre-engineered news interpretation designed for a targeted audience.
There is no doubt that these opinion programs are shockingly effective at morphing an opinion into a fact. A Newsweek poll that found that 24 percent of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim proves this. In that same Newsweek cover story, Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter argues that those who believe that President Obama is a Muslim genuinely dislike the President and thus will latch onto any fact, no matter how ridiculous, so long as it paints Obama in a negative light. Believing that their favorite cable news anchor can only be telling the truth, the audience of the cable news program also takes the opinions of their favorite anchor as the truth, propagating personal beliefs and turning one person’s ignorance into a “credible” fact. The networks are particularly efficient at disseminating this opinion news to their other programs, rebroadcasting the same fallacy throughout the infinite news cycle. It is hard to blame the audience for falling into this trap; after being constantly reminded of the same information all day, it is tempting to just accept the original opinion as fact.
It is clear that opinion news programs are deceiving their audiences. It is also clear that this same audience needs to be made aware of the fact that their favorite news program is not news but rather an opinion program. This could be accomplished by implementing a network-wide rating system, much like the Motion Picture Association of America’s film rating system, which would make their viewers more aware of what is an opinion show and what is a newscast. Such a rating system would remind and explain to viewers what they are really watching. Before a program starts, a network should display this rating system, indicating the variety of content it offers and what each rating means. Most importantly, the network should also display that rating so that the audience is aware of what type of content they are watching. For example, if they are watching a true newscast, a letter or a symbol should appear before the program begins in order to indicate to the audience that the program they are watching meets a stringent set of guidelines that ensures its news integrity. The guidelines for this rating system would be established by an independent entity such as the Associated Press, the Society of Professional Journalists, or a new media organization comprising members of the journalism community. Ensuring that an independent authority conducts the ratings guidelines is vitally important. An unclear ratings system, especially one that has been influenced by special interest groups, would completely destroy the purpose of the ratings system in the first place. These guidelines would be implemented across all networks and newscasts and force programs on news networks to adhere to these stringent guidelines. A more educated public would then be able to make intelligent decisions about the content that they watch, and, more importantly, the content that they believe.
There certainly exists a place for both news and opinion programming on cable news networks. These same networks, however, must become more aware of their power to influence the public. Abusing this power by falsely labeling opinion programs as news programs is a detriment to society that fosters division and exclusion rather than inclusion. By forcing news networks to implement a ratings system for their content, we would keep the news networks honest about what kind of content they create and how they share that content.
Rexhep Dollaku ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Quincy House.