by Ken Melvin
The Road to Calvary
From: What to Think
To: What to Believe
From 15 to 30mins of TV Evening News in 1970 to 24hr TV News in 1980; then on to Fox News in 1996. From the 1950s print journalists and radio news broadcasts, to TV Evening News, to 24hr TV telegenic news readers, to Fox News, to Donald Trump. From the trusted Cronkite, and Huntley – Brinkley nightly news, to cable 24hr CNN opining/news, to Fox News (the most-watched cable news) telling us what to think, to Donald Trump telling us what to believe. Were nearly half of Americans always so dumb, so lazy, as to want to be told what to think? What to believe? If not, what has changed? Is the first prologue the latter?
In the summer of 1970, Roger Ailes, then consultant to then President Nixon, in a memo entitled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News,” wrote, “Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather from any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.” Later, Ailes, as media consultant to both Reagan and Bush I, was there for continuing the ‘Southern Strategy’; coming up with, via a protege, the ‘Willie Horton’ ad; and the character assassination of Michael Dukakis; … He was, via TV News, doing the people’s thinking for them,.
CNN introduced 24hr Cable Network News in 1980, to be followed by Fox News and MSNBC in 1996 and CBSN in 2014. All are for-profit operations with ad revenues a function of ratings determined by their number of viewers. The News had become a commodity, an economic good, competitively marketed to cable TV audiences. But, given that news doesn’t happen on the hour, they were facing a lot of dead air time. Competing for viewers, a provider might: try to be the very best news source, spend time telling viewers what they want to hear, seek to make the news entertaining; or, more likely, provide some attractive combination of these.
In 1996, Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News with Roger Ailes as CEO — to appeal to a conservative audience, and, to offset the ‘liberal bias’ of the ‘other’ outlets — (nothing said about being the best or even good). For 45 years Roger Ailes was there for the republican party. Today, symbiotically, Fox News is Donald Trump’s biggest supporter, best source for info and advice, and he a most featured personage on Fox News.
Since 1949, United States (US) broadcast licensees had been required by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to abide by something called the Fairness Doctrine. Under the Fairness Doctrine, licensees were required to present controversial issues of public importance in an honest, equitable, and balanced manner. In 1987 the act was revoked by the FCC in a 4-0 vote. The ending of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 marked a new beginning for right-wing talk radio. Talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh could now present their own opinions with little regard for the facts or the truth, and their stations needn’t provide balance or contrast. Limbaugh opined on, told his listeners what to think about: current issues, politics, morality, religion, sports, … all delivered in an entertaining and dramatic fashion. Limbaugh found a very lucrative market for his product. Widely broadcast on AM, and some FM, stations across the nation, he quickly became very popular, very rich, and very powerful.
These things happened during a time when a lot of other things were happening.
- … in the 1960s:The Space Race, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the escalation of The Vietnam War, Martin Luther King and The Civil Rights Struggle, the social unrest, The Civil Rights Legislation, the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, the beginnings of The Rust Belt, the beginnings of large scale importation of Japanese automobiles and electronics, …
- … in the 1970s:U.S. bogged down in Vietnam, The Space Race, the continued growth of Japanese imports, the continued expansion of The Rust Belt, Watergate, the microprocessor, the personal computer, the Christian Right becomes politically active, the National Rifle Association (NRA) becomes politically active, the Koch Brothers began to spend big on politics, the oil crisis, the changing U.S. and world economies, …
- … in the 1980s:Reagan tax cuts, 24hr Cable News, large scale offshoring of production, the large scale implementation of the microprocessor in industrial and commercial applications, the mass mobilization of capital and the continuing socio-economic changes wrought by economic changes, the great advances in genetic engineering, the tectonic shifting of the republican party to the south, The Christian Right becomes a major political force, the rise of Chinese manufacturing, the ending of The Fairness Doctrine, …
- … in the 1990s:World awareness of Climate Change, the breakup of the Soviet Union, The World Wide Web, the application of genetic engineering advances, the continued growth of China, the continued thawing of the cold war, the signing of NAFTA, The Christian Right wields clout, Newt Gingrich and The Contract with/on America, the advent of Fox News, …
- … in the 2000s.Bush v. Gore decision, Bush II, the role of the Electoral College, the 9/11 attacks, Bush II tax cuts, Chicken Hawks and Neocons take charge of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, U.S. Invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. Invasion of Iraq, U.S. failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Christian Right comes to dominate southern politics, the continued rise of China, Facebook, Twitter, more startling evidence of Climate Change, the financial meltdown, Barack Obama elected President,…
- … in the 2010s.The Arab Spring, The Syrian War, mounting world’s Climate Change anxieties, the continued US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, European Migrant Crisis, Russian interference in US and UK elections, Facebook’s and Twitter’s growing role in politics, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the role of The Evangelicals in national politics, the consequent packing of the federal judiciary with Federalist Society judges, the increased role of Gerrymandering, the role of The Electoral College, …
The centre did not hold. More and more good-paying manufacturing jobs were being lost, first to low wage southern states and automation, then to Mexico and more automation, and then to Asia. Many Americans felt anxious about their future; about their children’s future. They wanted to believe things would again be as before; their leaders told them that they would, that they need only trust in ‘Free Enterprise’, ‘Markets’, ‘American Entrepreneurship’, … , … ; but things were getting worse, not better. They began to blame their leaders, immigrants, and ‘others’. Predictably, some in politics and in the media saw an opportunity to prey on people’s anxieties and mistrust, an opportunity to make a good living by telling the people what they wanted to hear.
Interviews are the staple format of 24 Cable News. From its beginning, TV seemed a perfect medium for informative educational interviews and discussions. But, was there a market for this format? William F. Buckley’s hour-long interviews on ‘Firing Line’; bits entertaining, educational and propagandistic, was never commercially viable; became a Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBS) staple. In the for-profit Cable News industry, interviews are much shorter; ten minutes is an exceptionally long Cable TV interview. We see Cabinet Secretaries give 2-minute interviews on CNN (imagine, as a Secretary, getting up early, dressing for TV, rushing to the studio, undergoing makeup, … for a two-minute interview???). Beyond understandably seeking to control the narrative, we constantly see CNN, et al, even PBS, interviewers strive to script the news, act as editors, ask leading questions, miss asking the questions that need be asked, … As Roger Ailes implied: … visions, images, …, all provided. All the viewer needs do is “sit — watch — listen”. Nimbly, the Media stepped up to the task at hand. We see, hear, and read media personalities opine on what the people think, what the people want, what the people should think, what the Government should do about an issue, … They are the self-anointed experts; the self-appointed arbiters of opinion, …, the thinkers for you. This wasn’t new, where the Alsop brothers had been two of a few arbiters of opinion in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, today there are many. So, when are 24 Hour Cable News channels opinion channels and when are they news channels?
In 2016 we saw Russia use Facebook and Fox News to ‘stovepipe’ truly fake news to the other Cable TV networks and to the PBS NewsHour. Cable News could have chosen to provide opposing or contrasting views as was once required under the Fairness Doctrine, but didn’t. What they do a lot is something called equivalency where two people representing different views on a news story are given equal time, reducing the news to an opinion poll.
On Cable TV News, a brief recorded statement by a public figure may be presented as news. These snippets of news have become known as ‘Sound Bites’. So, naturally, public figures spend a lot of time perfecting these sound bites; perfecting the technique of speaking in sound bites.
Definition of mass medium
: a medium of communication (such as newspapers, radio, or television) that is designed to reach the mass of the people — usually used in plural ‘mass media’.
Newspapers, radio, and television of the 1960s and 1970s, were commercial operations generating revenues from communicating sponsored programming (content) to their public in exchange for a fee from the sponsor(s). For TV and radio, there was a license requirement that they provide a certain amount of unbiased news as a public service. For 24hr Cable News, news, in a somewhat entertaining format, was the program, the product. After the ending of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, there was no longer any licensing requirement in re bias.
The advent of television (TV) changed, opened up, the world. People in heretofore remote areas could now see how people in New York, California, … lived and talked. People in New York, California, … , Alabama, Mississippi, …, watched the same news. People in the north could now see how blacks were being treated in the south, blacks in the south could glimpse the opportunities, equality afforded blacks elsewhere, … TV was a force for assimilation, TV induced people to (want) consume, … TV was a mirror held up to the world. TV was the medium of politics. Woe be it unto any aspiring politician who couldn’t do TV well enough.
: forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos)
Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Google+, What’s App, …, and, …, and …, making up this so-called Social Media are internet-based applications featuring user-generated content. Whereas Newspapers, Radio, and Television provide content in return for fee, Social Media entities provide internet access and usage in return for the users personal data. This information is then sold to anyone willing to pay for it. Personal data is now a commodity to be bought and sold like oil, corn, …. Social Media also sells ads. Whereas Newspapers, Radio, and Television entities can be held responsible for content, they have internal controls such as editors that monitor content; Social Media, until lately, argued that they weren’t responsible for content. The result was total and complete anarchy. Europe has made some progress grappling with this new business model. To date, the US has not. Just as with utilities in the late 19th century, and broadcast in the 20th, rules and regulations for Social Media are obviously much needed today.
So how has Social Media has changed the world? Social Media content includes news stories that may or may not be true, may or may not have happened. Social Media has been used to promote, propagate, legitimize, … Alternative Realities. With Social Media, Anyone and Everyone could make up or find their own set of facts, reality. Turns out, now, that Social Media is where a majority of Americans get their news. Russia made use of this by implanting false news stories onto Facebook and the like, nurturing these stories along, making sure they spread, then manipulating them onto Cable News programs as real news; an operation somewhat akin to money laundering. Uncontrolled, Social Media runs amok. Yet, today, effective utilization of Social Media is a requisite for any successful political campaign. Social Media and 24hr Cable News have both been spectacularly financially successful.
Any or all of the above things may have contributed to the dumbing down of America.
The advent of TV may have been a major demarcation of the beginning of the dumbing down; but Right Wing Talk Radio, Fox News, and Social Media, none of which are designed to appeal to the intellect, have all been major contributors to this dumbing down.
Alternative Reality has long roots in religion. It is especially well-rooted in today’s Fundamentalist Christian and Evangelical Christian sects where science is held in low esteem or even denied and the Bible is taught as being the word of God and thus the final word on all matters. All religions require believing. Religion forms part of a believer’s belief system. A belief system, whether from peer pressure, parental teaching, religious training, … allows for interpreting reality without applying thought or reasoning. Thought, the product of thinking and reason; is secular. Science, the product of thinking and reasoning, is secular. Many Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians and their leaders deem secularity an apostasy. In his 1970 memo, Roger Ailes said, “People are lazy.” Thinking is hard work; believing is accepting. P. T. Barnum is quoted as saying that people liked to be conned; maybe it’s that they want to believe, to have something to believe in.
The later part of the 19th Century saw evangelical revivalists traveling the nation and the world, holding revivals that attracted large crowds. This continued through the 1950s, but with the outreach being conducted more and more via radio — radio ministries. Some of these revivalists became significant social and political actors. Bob Jones University was founded in 1926 in response to the Scopes Trial, to counter the teaching of evolution. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Christian Academy, founded as a “private school for white students”, was established in response to the Brown v. Board decision to counter integration and as a means of preserving segregated education in the south. His Liberty University was founded in response to the Civil Rights Act of the 1965.
Televangelists, ministering to vast increasing TV audiences, came to the fore around 1960. Revivalists such as Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, …, acknowledging TV’s greater role, became televangelists.
Evangelicals’ opposition to cultural liberalism and secularism drew them to Nixon because of his culturally conservative rhetoric, and his public friendship with Graham. He, in turn, actively sought their support. As consequence, they gave him stronger support than they had given to any previous Republican presidential candidate. The Republican evangelical coalition that Nixon had helped to create has remained influential, and consequential. Since Nixon, every Republican candidate for President has paid homage to Evangelical leaders such as Falwell, Graham, … and now to their heirs; and made pilgrimages to Evangelical institutions such as Bob Jones and Liberty Universities. Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. are today’s Republican Party Boss Tweeds and the Bible Belt states its Tammany Hall.
President Reagan was prelude to this Trumpian farce. Reagan, was a professional actor, who, like revivalists and televangelists, knew how to play to the audience. To Reagan, the Office was a movie set. To Donald Trump, the Office is the set of a Reality TV show. Reagan, who, too, was no intellectual and didn’t do complex, who played the race card and cottoned up to former southern Dixiecrat segregationists (now conservative republicans), who made his pilgrimage to Liberty and Bob Jones, who ran against and sought to undo civil rights and environmental protections, was prelude to Donald Trump. Like many another salesman, Reagan and Trump weren’t big on policy, but both knew how to give a lot of people that warm and fuzzy feeling, something to believe.
History, give me rewrite.
The aide said that guys like me were — ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.—
The phrase was attributed by journalist Ron Suskind to Karl Rove who used it to denigrate a critic of the Bush II administration’s policies as someone who based their judgments on facts (Rove denied having said it).
Today, talk show host like Sean Hannity and Fox news spend loads of time telling us that the intelligence agencies are the real villains for investigating Russian interference in the 2016 elections; that it was illegal for James Comey to tell the public that Trump had asked him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn; that it was wrong for Robert Mueller to investigate Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice; … They try because it has been known to work: Oliver North and Henry Kissinger come to mind. Trump tells us that he is the greatest president ever; conservatives would have us believe that Reagan was the greatest. To a surprising extent, at least for now, it’s working.
The period from the fall of Rome (5th century AD?) until the Renaissance (~1300~1600) came to be known as the middle ages or the dark ages. Dark ages because it was considered to be a time of intellectual darkness as compared to either the period of time before or the one after. Some of this darkness can be attributed to religious beliefs of the time that focused on life in the hereafter pie in the sky versus a quality life in the here and now; to decisions made on the basis of belief rather than on reason. In these times of denial of science, climate change, reality, … and talk of building walls; we are hearing a similar ring. Rather than apply best thinking, will this civilization descend into the chaos of greed and war? Will we too be captive the church and lack leadership? Must we wait 800 years for a new group of big minds, big picture thinkers to free us from this current crop of mental midgets?