August 11, 2020

Self Aware Parody of the News? We Deserve Better

news interview

The day before Joe Biden made good on his pledge and announced his selection of Kamala Harris as his VP pick, I found myself watching cable news. The pundits were speculating not so much about who he would pick but about what his pick would mean for the election, if anything. And then something happened that would have seemed quite strange just a few years ago. One pundit raised the question of whether Biden and his VP pick would draw any coverage because of how much other news there was (e.g., COVID-19, the relief efforts currently stalled in Congress), and another said something about how it would depend on how the media decided to cover it.

Before this sort of hyper self-aware news media emerged, this would have been quite strange. After all, it wasn't that long ago that reporters at least pretended to report the news rather than trying to shape it. It wasn't that long ago that pundits at least pretended to be offering informed and somewhat objective analysis. And it wasn't that long ago that nobody tasked with bringing us the news would comment on their role in making news. While traces of these old ways can still be found, the new normal appears to involve pundits pontificating about themselves and their industry. The two I was watching addressed this in such a bizarre way that I heard myself yell, "But you are the goddamn media" just loudly enough to feel stupid for doing so.

I suppose people watch the news for different reasons, and I can't expect everybody to want what I want. When I watch the news, I am not interested in watching a self-aware parody of the news or a display of propaganda. I am looking for something that seems increasingly scarce: actual news. And that is because I am interested in being informed of the facts rather than having my opinions shaped in ways that are becoming far too blatant to ignore. We are right to be worried about Facebook's efforts to influence our views and fuel our chronic outrage. We are wrong not to be worried when mainstream cable news does the same thing. And let's remind ourselves that the conspiracy-crazed hack on YouTube isn't doing any better.

Why does this matter? Why should we care? I'll answer these questions with a question of my own: Why is a free press so important in a democratic society? If we can answer that question, I think we'll have the answers to why this matters and why we should care about it. If we cannot answer that question, I fear it may already be too late for us to escape this rapidly sinking ship.