My father was a voracious consumer of news. When I was a child, I woke to news on the radio every morning. We also watched news on the television every evening before I went to bed. I remember watching the Iran hostage crisis, countless in-depth war zone reports, and Watergate. I hated Watergate. It was on the news for over one hundred days straight. I know because I counted them.
But as bored as I got with the news, I was proud of it as well. The American Free Press was an example to the world. A competitive market where news stories were sought after by reporters who defied governments and corporate interests to tell it like it is. Despite the fact that the Watergate stories bored me, it was an example of investigative journalism that had exposed corruption by the American President himself. It was heroic!
As a child, I watched Superman where the character Lois Lane risked her life to get news stories for her paper, The Daily Planet. She was a fictional heroine, but she reminded me of those reporters that risked their lives on battlefields or in totalitarian regimes to get the stories out to us of what was going on in the world.
We Americans were proud of our free press. We could depend on complete and largely unbiased news coverage, not like those Soviets in Russia whose state-run newspaper, Pravda, told only the news that the party wanted people to hear. We laughed at the irony that the word Pravda means truth.
There were two major newspapers in my city when I was growing up. These two newspapers competed for stories, and this guaranteed that there was always a rival paper to point out the biases of the first one. My city was not alone. Back then, almost every major US city had at least two major newspapers.
Jump ahead to the year 2016. Now I think that it is a good day when I go to a store where all of the televisions are turned off. I am pleased when I get through an entire day with only kittens on my news feed.
The reason is that the American Press has changed. It started with the consolidation of newspapers under only a few hands. Competing newspapers went out of business until their was only one major paper in each city. Then the news started to be censored. It wasn’t as obvious at first, but bias began to creep into the stories. Investigative journalism became a thing of the past. Stories that were important were overlooked or suppressed.
Take the years of protests in the occupy movement. Have you even heard of the occupy movement? It was a distributed popular movement by large numbers of Americans to oppose the increasing division of wealth that was occurring in this country. I heard about protests and then checked the news to see them. There wasn’t anything on TV. It wasn’t in the newspaper. It wasn’t anywhere. Thousands of people. Hundreds of protests overlooked. I knew then that the press was no longer free. Someone didn’t want those stories to be shown, most likely the very one percent that they were protesting against, and so they weren’t being shown.
I had grown up with a free press. I didn’t know how to describe what was happening. I didn’t even have the language to talk about the news anymore. In school we had learned about the ‘Yellow Journalism‘ that had led to the Spanish American war. It was vilified in our school books as a particularly partisan type of speech where people were incited to war by lies. Somehow, this wasn’t enough to describe what was happening to the American media.
I had to fall back to my English class and George Orwell to find words such as NewsSpeak to describe news broadcasts that used targeted language to lead the emotions of the audience. Newspeak is a language that removes the very possibility of describing protest. I could hear the press rewriting history, calling protesters thugs and criminals. They contradicted themselves at times encouraging people to ignore facts and using what Orwell called doublespeak.
You can still get accurate news on the internet. Mostly from people you know. I had to borrow a word from Soviet Russia to describe that, Kitchen talk. There is the news as you hear it in the press, and then there is the real news that you hear as kitchen talk. Because this is word of mouth, it is easily distorted, but it is all we have to depend on these days.
When I talk to the people around me, they express distrust of the news they get from official media sources. The 2016 presidential election was the low point that made this completely obvious. The news for the presidential election was completely biased with two candidates getting almost all the press while other voices were ignored or minimized. There were independent candidates running in this election, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the news. The final candidates had been chosen by the media well before the primaries were even over.
People around me were disgusted by the news coverage. I met people, mostly young people, who had decided that they would try to ignore the election entirely. Many of them didn’t even vote.
The media divided itself into liberal and conservative. They had different opinions, different language, and even different facts. A person could be labeled politically simply by what source they got their news from. Newspapers were no longer unbiased. Each one had a side that they were on, and you could tell just by reading the copy. The kind of language that articles used to describe their political opponents would have caused an editor from the 1970s to blush. The press was no longer impartial. It had an agenda to sell, and it wasn’t going to let little things like facts get in the way.
What about the stories that people wanted to hear, stories about people losing their jobs, about social movements, about their neighbors needs and hopes? What about what was going on elsewhere in the world? What happened to those battlefield stories that I grew up on? We are still fighting somewhere, aren’t we? You wouldn’t guess this by reading the paper or by looking at the news on television.
If you want to know what is going on, you have to go online. It was posts in social media that informed me about The occupy movement, about people protesting a pipeline in Standing Rock, about black people getting shot by police. The Press ignored those issues, so I learned to ignore the press.
I am calling it now. 2016 is the year that the American Free Press officially died. The American press is a biased monopoly completely owned by a few rich men. It only reports on issues that interest its owners, and it does not serve the people of the United States.
And this is a shame because a free press is one of the pillars of the American Political system, and without it, we are much less free than we were. Now we must rely on kitchen talk to get our news.
I feel sad to know that my kids have never known a truly free press. That they don’t even expect it. For them Lois Lane is a more mythical character than Superman. Now, I read my battered copy of George Orwell’s 1984 and wonder when the next step in the current dystopia is to come.
On November 28th there was an attack on students at Ohio State University. A man drove into a crowd and then started stabbing people. Some of them were seriously injured. The school went on lockdown and everyone waited while they checked to see if it was something larger, but it was only one attacker and they had subdued the person within minutes.
I heard that story while chatting with a friend on an internet forum. I didn’t bother checking for the story in the news. What’s the point. No one trusts the press to report on real stories anymore.