Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Hearing what you want to hear...

"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion," Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "but not his own facts."

That statement proved to be prescient.

I'm a news junkie, as you know. I work in my own quiet little corner of the media, which suits me just fine. The stories I write and my paper's main mission -- hyperlocal neighborhood news -- fit my personality. As much as I admired him, I could never be Mike Wallace. (I could be Andy Rooney, but I digress.)

Shifting media trends have bothered me for some time. It is now possible for a person to get up each morning and go through an entire day listening to, watching, or reading "news" that does nothing but reenforce opinions one already holds.

This is true for anyone on any part of the political spectrum and of several so-called news outlets. Don't think I'm about to start ranting about conservatives or liberals, Fox News or MSNBC. I'm calling out everybody.

First things first: the bit about the press being a bunch of biased liberals is a load of bull. It's a myth that goes back to at least my favorite enigma -- Richard Milhous Nixon -- but probably began to blossom during the Cold War (McCarthy, Murrow, National Review).

Don't get me wrong. A lot of reporters I know are political liberals. (God, I hate these labels.) Others are quite conservative.

I can't speak for anything other than what I know. But I can say that every reporter with whom I'm familiar -- with a few notable exceptions -- are extremely fair. Those who aren't make no bones about their biases. As long as readers know that going in, no problem.

But the bigger problem is this business about immersing yourself in political propaganda disguised as news. I worry about its long-term implications.

This goes for the person who -- limited to these options alone -- meets the morning with "Fox and Friends," reads the Drudge Report, throws mega dittos to Limbaugh during lunch, subscribes to the Weekly Standard, thinks the New York Post is the greatest newspaper in America, ends the day with Megyn Kelly and thinks Glenn Beck's departure from Fox News was the end of civilization as we know it.

It also goes for the person who -- limited to these options alone -- surfs through Slate and Salon before breakfast, wouldn't dare pay a penny for the Wall Street Journal, subscribes to The Atlantic, ends the day with Rachel Maddow and thinks Keith Olbermann's departure from MSNBC was the end of civilization as we know it.

Granted, both scenarios are exaggerated and are better than -- God help us -- never reading a newspaper or news website, naming the National Enquirer as your favorite magazine and thinking everything you need to know about the world can be found on "Entertainment Tonight."

But I think you get my point.

This whole notion of a "biased media" and the fallout from consuming splintered, self-fulfilling prophecy type "news" hit home with me three times over the past two years.

The first time was a relatively minor incident that nevertheless left me furious. Long story made short, I had been asked to surprise a North Knox senior citizen during her birthday party at the request of her family. They wanted a story in the Shopper-News to be a gift to her, telling me that she's done so much for so long and never seeks the spotlight. That's my kind of story.

So, I showed up on the appointed day at the appointed hour, and everything was great -- until a woman who wouldn't look me in the eye said with a smirk, "Well, here comes the paparazzi!"

That, my friends, is like calling someone more evil than Hitler. The words paparazzi and journalists aren't synonyms. Paparazzi are scum-sucking parasites who prey on the famous and infamous and are almost never invited or wanted. They are an embarrassment to the human race and certainly to the media. And let's not forget that they only exist because of consumer demand for their kind of "news."

Another, more humorous, incident happened in 2012. Our newspaper supported a Knox County Schools request for an increased budget -- one that would require a tax increase, which this county has not seen in nearly 20 years -- to fund cutting-edge and much-needed technology at every school in the district.

I laughed almost as hard as I usually do at state Sen. Stacey Campfield when someone wrote a letter to the editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel calling my newspaper part of Knoxville's "liberal, elite media."

I continued to chuckle as I went back to writing about a kid who had grown a large head of lettuce in an effort to win a college FFA scholarship.

The third and most bothersome incident happened after my editor and I voiced strong opinions on Superintendent Dr. Jim McIntyre late last year. After I published this blog post summarizing my thoughts after four months of research and reflection, I was accused of everything from lobbying for a public relations position with the school system, to being McIntyre's hagiographer, to being a backward bumpkin who wanted to return to bare knuckles and back room politics, to excoriating McIntyre as a demanding dictator.

Then it hit me.

"The people who sent these comments simply read into this what they wanted to hear."

And that scares me to death.

Common sense and analytical, critical thinking may be the real national deficit. Anger, vitriol, hyperpartisan ideology and purposefully distracting wedge issues permeate our current political climate.

Individuals I encounter daily (of all ages) know next to nothing about their own history. (I never will forget the customer at the bookstore where I worked during college telling me that he was 30 years older than I, which meant I was wrong and he was "damn sure certain" there had never been a president named Millard Fillmore.)

People are by and large ignorant of basic geography, social studies, philosophy, literature, science and international affairs. I seriously wonder how many Americans can even find Kiev on a map, much less know about the potentially explosive events unfolding there as I type.

Of course, there are many, many folks out there who know much more than I about all of these things. And I don't say all this to be arrogant, but because I have a serious, sincere concern for the future of humankind, one that grows daily. An uninformed electorate leads to uninformed voting, which can have serious, long-lasting local, state, national and international consequences. I want my two young nieces to inherit a healthy, prosperous country and a better world than the one in which we now live.

The lowest form of vermin is the politician who plays to anti-intellectualism. Compare some of the scum that hold office today to Lincoln, who was self-taught; to Wilson, who was a college professor and president; and even to Ronald Reagan, who said that his library card was his most prized childhood possession.

Close behind the education-baiting politicians are the worthless people who are ignorant and proud of it. If being, or hoping to be, an intellectual or a life-long learner is somehow a crime, I plead guilty in the first degree.

I feel like I'm so ignorant on a daily basis because I still have so, so much to learn. My idea of the perfect vacation right now would be to take two weeks off and do nothing but get caught up on my reading and clean out the documentaries and news programs on my DVR.

Any any religion that preaches anti-intellectualism isn't worthy of its name. 

"All politics is local," said former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill. That quote has the added benefit of being true. Know your county commissioner or city council member, school board rep, locally-elected officeholders, state rep, state senator and governor by name. They have the greatest impact on your daily lives, not the gutless wonders in Washington. It would also help if you can name the president and vice president of the United States, your representatives and senators in Congress and who's buried in Grant's tomb.

And please, please consider getting your news from several sources. You don't even have to be a news junkie to find it fun. It's almost a parlor game to observe how papers around the state, the major national daily newspapers, the Associated Press, the major networks, the PBS "NewsHour" (my favorite nightly newscast), CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, NPR, the BBC World Service, The New Yorker, National Review, the left- and right-wing websites and even Stewart and Colbert treat the same issue.

Pay attention to the headlines. Pay attention to the inverted pyramid -- i.e. the order in which the reporter organizes a news story or op-ed -- or, in the case of radio and TV, what stories they lead with and how the stories are presented.

The reason I care so much about this is because knowledge is power. We can sit back, be cynical and disengaged, and say, "Ah, that's just politics" or "I can't do anything about it; I just have one vote."

Or we can be active citizens armed with the best weapon of all -- facts.


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