Before the 24-hour news cycle, there were three major news networks on TV: ABC, NBC and CBS. The news consisted of short half-hour evening programs that covered the current events of the day. For decades, these three networks dominated the broadcast news market. Then, a billboard mogul and business maverick named Ted Turner broke onto the scene and changed the news landscape forever.
Forty years ago, On June 1, 1980, CNN was born; the world’s first 24-hour television news network. CNN lost a total of $77 million in its first five years before turning a profit in 1985. It was nicknamed the “chicken noodle network”, due to its limited financial resources and on-air mishaps. But Turner was a visionary and saw what no other news outlet did at the time; that the American public was hungry for content.
In 1996, another 24-hour channel was created. Founded by Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch and run by Roger Ailes, Fox News started as the “counter-weight” to CNN’s left-leaning commentary. The network swiftly found its foothold in the marketplace. By the 2000 election, Fox News was in 56 million American homes and saw a staggering 440% increase in viewership.
During natural disasters such as Katrina or a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11, 24-hour news is a valuable resource offering minute-by-minute updates on the current state of affairs. But outside of unprecedented cultural events, networks rarely if ever have enough relevant news to fill up 24 hours. So how do they meet their coverage quota? By bringing in countless political analysts and so-called experts, by sensationalizing and fearmongering, by reporting issues endlessly and beating viewers over the head with the same moot talking points.
And what does this constant bickering, this nonstop noise do to the American psyche? It divides us, makes us angry and changes how we see the world. Through the lens of the mainstream news, it feels like everything is going to Hell. Of course, that isn’t true. All you have to do is turn off the TV and look outside for confirmation that the world is in-fact not in ruin.
To go off topic a minute, growing up I loved watching “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”. You might be surprised to learn that one of the show’s regular guests was former Fox News contributor Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly often came on Stewart’s show and Stewart in turn, regularly appeared on the Factor. These were two men who shared almost no common ground as far as their political beliefs were concerned. They would spend entire segments arguing over a single position. With that said, Stewart and O’Reilly always showed a level of respect for one another and kept arguments civil and jovial.
Looking back at those old interviews now, I can’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia for a time in which two political commentators could meet center-aisle to have an amicable conversation about current issues. The thought of that kind of civil bipartisan debate occurring in today’s political climate seems almost absurd. Can you imagine Sean Hannity and Wolf Blitzer coming on one another’s shows? The mere idea is laughable.
The phrase “fake news” gets tossed around frequently nowadays but in my opinion, even that term is generous. The networks aren’t really news anymore so much as propaganda machines, churning out narratives that confirm the political biases of their audience.
There is a small glimmer of hope that these media empires may someday topple. When Murdoch and Turner created their cable-news giants, there was no way they’d know how much the internet and social media would affect the way people digest news and information. Most of today’s young people don’t even watch cable TV, preferring to get their news through online hubs like Twitter and Reddit where free discourse and popular opinion reign. Try as they may, these mega-corporations can’t control the digital discourse and free flow of thought. These online platforms offer new opinions and viewpoints that young people previously wouldn’t have encountered.
The more people reject mainstream news, the less fractured America will be. So, try taking a break from the constant news cycle. Go for a bike ride or read a book. Have a conversation with someone across the aisle. You may find you have more in common than you think. And if you have to get your news fix, read the local paper.
Griffin Hicks is a staff writer for the Reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.