The news of yesterday helped encapsulate what I have been thinking. It all began when the Coast Guard held one of its routine training exercises with speed boats on the Potomac. They were practicing how they would conduct high speed chases and interdiction of suspicious watercraft. The exercise was so low key they did not think other agencies--e.g. the FBI--needed to be given advance warning.
For whatever reasons, they were using open channels of communication, and that's how the brouhaha unfolded. Here's the opening of the Washington Post story:
"SUSPICIOUS VESSEL IN DC/Coast Guard fires on boat on Potomac River," said CNN's "breaking news" headline at 10:05 a.m. Friday.
Six minutes later, an "URGENT" bulletin flashed from Reuters, which attributed the information to CNN.
That prompted Fox News to report that shots had been fired, citing Reuters as its source. "Report: Coast Guard Fires on Suspicious Boat in Potomac," Fox News's headline said.
In other words--CNN picked up from a police scanner a report that they then repeated on the air, without any other confirmation, that suspicious boats were spotted on the Potomac (get it...near the Capitol including the White House). Then Fox News picked up CNN's story, and repeated it. And so on...the game was on.
Here's what has been buzzing around in my head. We have gone from having a free and unfettered press reporting on news to having a free and financially fettered press reporting on the STORIES of news that they hear. Less and less ground work is being done, and subsequently fewer facts are being gathered and reported.
Tune in to the 24 hour cable "news" cycle and what you are most likely to get is unbridled opinion being passed off as news. We don't hear what is happening; we hear what people THINK about what they THINK is happening. So if they are wrong, no matter--they still have an opinion.
More than two years ago, I wrote here in praise of John Peter Zenger. He would be appalled. When he was tried back in 1735 for the charge of libel, he is reported to have said "No nation, ancient or modern, ever lost the liberty of speaking freely, writing, or publishing their sentiments, but forthwith lost their liberty in general and became slaves."
To which, I can only add--well said. But the irony is not so much that the freedom to express ourselves is being taken away, as we are giving up on it. Around the country, newspapers are dying, not because of censorship, but because of falling readership, and the inability to make ends meet.
We have more access to news channels via cable and satellite, and less actual information being imparted. Is there anyone out there who really wants to read more about Michael Jackson's strange life and even stranger death? Is there anyone who doesn't know who Jon and Kate are?
But if I were to run down some of the stories covered on BBC news over this week, I would venture that most Americans have no idea about these stories. Yet, they reveal far more human need. Test yourself--here's the cover page for the BBC Africa stories.
Or, if you prefer, here's the cover page for the Asia-Pacific stories.
My point is that what we are fed as news in the U.S. leaves us woefully under-informed. We are hyper-aware of threats to our country--after all, the Coast Guard exercise occurred on September 11, no doubt a factor on CNN's jumping to pick up the story. And we are lulled into paying way too much attention to stories that should NEVER be on the news--e.g. Jon and Kate. We have little if any awareness of the larger world. And we have come to mistake opinion for fact.
The on-going health debate sadly illustrates that. There are no death panels in the proposed bill. But ask the average person on the street and you may get a yes, no or maybe answer. Then your local news will report that people are still confused about this issue. WHAT ISSUE, I feel like screaming.
Thinkers far more capable of addressing this issue than I have written about this phenomena. While I pride myself on being well-informed, I am not sure I have the stomach to read their analyses. I will, however, keep my subscription to the New York Times; I will listen to NPR for decent news coverage; I will read BBC on-line; and I will NEVER EVER watch national "news" coverage on FoxNews.