While we’ve been waxing poetic about how the world (thanks to a unifying global media) has become a global village, the reality is that today’s mass communications landscape is undergoing an unprecedented amount of fragmentation and polarization. From the face of it, media houses around the world (especially in America) are now becoming more like churches – defined by political and cultural ideology; and promoting beliefs, values and special interests espoused by dubious demographic groups.
Ours is an age of NARROWCASTING (having superseded yellow journalism) where people increasingly tune in to news channels and cable news chatter that reinforce their ideology and views. Nowhere is this social cataclysm more evident than in American society where, according to a conservative political commentator, “viewers are comforted by a market environment in which they are able to access and are provided with information that conforms to a familiar state of mind.”
The trajectory of American cultural and political evolution points ineluctably to the fact that the mass media and American politics are at a crossroads. When one looks at the preponderance of narrowcasting and the extent to which it has almost usurped broadcasting, it becomes clear how 24-hour-news channels with clear ideological predispositions, such as Fox News or MSNBC, have changed the political landscape, even as BuzzFeed news continue to polarize public opinion and instigate political division. Particularly in the case of Fox News, the depravity has become indisputable.
One can even reasonably argue that this political season, Fox News has managed to set the political agenda for the Republican Party. The result has been a party and a presidential candidate with a chimerical vision of America – narrowly focussed on parochial and conservative issues at the expense of a broader debate that galvanizes support from a wide cross section of American society – even one that elicits global participation, as America is a global superpower.
If civic life in a democracy depends on a certain amount of common ground, then narrowcasting has managed to restrict opinion and sow cultural discord – creating comparatively small audiences or targeted consumers in micro-communities who view the world through the prism of the biased and contentious information presented to them.
Matthew Baum, Professor of Journalism at Harvard University, defines these consumers as “politically inattentive individuals,” who do not “turn to traditional political news, and so are unlikely to be exposed to hard news stories about foreign affairs.” The fact that today more and more people get their news from online sources (including Facebook and Twitter) instead of newspapers, supports the argument that the “narrowcasting” media has succeeded where the traditional “broadcasting” media has failed – particularly in terms of setting the political agenda for politicians and parties, as well as indulging the political and cultural curiosities of diverse audiences.
With the advent of 24-hour news cycle as well as ideologically-aligned media reporting, the line between straight news and blatant editorialization has become blurred. The rise of “media personalities” and “news pundits” who use their platforms to make sweeping characterizations about countries, people and companies have inevitably engendered a culture of misinformation and contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives.
Andrew O’Connor points out in Neo-Americanist, a political website, that “News personalities, better known as ‘pundits”, now dominate the journalistic landscape. The likes of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, CNN’s Glenn Beck, and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, presenting themselves as newscasters and anchormen, now rule an environment once dominated by Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. Thomas E. Patterson, a government professor at Harvard has noted that we are seeing the rise of soft news, a ‘more personality-centred’ medium in which the newscaster has become as much a part of the news as the news itself. Infotainment, then, is the portmanteau of information and entertainment.”
Yet, has narrowcasting largely contributed to the “anti-intellectualism” and “dumbing down” of world societies as several political pundits have claimed? With unswerving conviction, Anastasia Pavlinskaya, author and reporter at Knightnews.com believes it has. “Narrowcasting can lead to narrow minds, which is very dangerous to a society. People will tune into a channel just to hear from a specialist or an anchor that will report with a slant towards their views, which can inhibit the amount of information people take in. With the lack of non-biased information, people selectively pick and choose information based on what they want to hear, creating individuals who are not well rounded,” she wrote.
If you listened to most of the commentaries by Bill O’Reilly of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, a conservative political commentator (both of whom are troglodytes who live in their own closed intellectual universe), you would probably think that America is a large homogenous white nation. On issues ranging from foreign policy and immigration to education and health, it appears not only are these media personalities entitled to their own opinion, but they are also entitled to their own facts.
Even when there is news on a major event, prejudices are reinforced and blatantly presented as facts without much of a challenge. Owing to the fact that audiences are increasingly fragmented, some news channels have skilfully used national tragedies to confirm or reinforce their political prejudices. Take for instance, mass shootings in America. Whereas Fox News would report a mass-shooting event and propose the need for more guns to protect American citizens, MSNBC and CNN would likely advocate for more gun control and an assault weapons ban.
Unfortunately, none of this is reassuring. To be sure, the quality of public debate will continue to deteriorate as long as the quality of ideas promoted by the media remain wanting. The Fox Media juggernaut, enthralled by cultural illusions and political superstitions, is not likely to temper its political and cultural tone, especially since it thrives on presenting abecedarian explanations and spreading propaganda on positions and people it doesn’t support or like (including the Clintons and President Obama).
So if indeed you do feel connected by the information superhighway, I am certain that that connection doesn’t extend to the media houses and “news” personalities that offer views which can only be described as outrageous, bigoted and unedifying.
For comments, write to ClementSoulage@hotmail.de – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.