If It Sounds Too Bad to be True, It Probably Is-Pt I

Too bad to be true
Walter Cronkite announcing the death of President Kennedy, November 22, 1963, Image: Public Domain

Too bad to be true? 

Schadenfreude (shäd′n-froi″də) – 1) Pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others; 2) Malicious enjoyment derived from observing some else’s misfortunes; 3) delight in another person’s misfortune. – Source: American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

Greetings my fellow Americans!

In his recent series inviting a differential diagnosis of how we “remain a free and prosperous republic” despite the designs of many to effectuate the contrary, Brigadier General and AFNN Colleague Dr. Jeffery Marshall recently highlighted Media as one of the key institutions requiring such examination. Insofar as the dissemination and general availability of “impartial information” to its citizenry is essential to the preservation of such a society, it is clear that our 24x7x365 modern-day versions of these institutions have largely abdicated this charge while betraying the well-being of our republic for the sake of ratings, profits, and perhaps even more nefarious reasons.

So when did we enter this vicious cycle of disinformation with our media, why has it grown and flourished since it started, and how do we end it?

To be truly circumspect about “when” we culturally began our latest cultural downward spiral away from objective reality, we need to look at both the entertainment and news conduits by which we have been vicariously experiencing the world outside ourselves, and whom we have generally allowed (consciously or otherwise) to shape our perceptions of those phenomena. Print media (newspapers, magazines, books, etc.) had some isolated cultural impacts prior to the availability of electricity, but lacked the more instantaneous mass outreach to foment shared narratives beyond a particular town or community.

The case could be made that radio whet our collective appetite for the steady diet of both home-consumable news and entertainment that we would later exhibit, as it served as the first source of “on-the-spot” reporting and live broadcast entertainment which was shown to have a mass influence on our culture and its perceptions of reality, the Hindenburg disaster of 1937 (news) and the “War of the Worlds” panic of Halloween, 1938 (entertainment-turned-news) being two more notable examples from its heyday. President Franklin Roosevelt was the first to provide weekly radio addresses, also in the 1930s. Hollywood was likewise cranking out a steady stream of motion pictures (with sound and color!) by this time, with many of those set in the American West for action, many others being of the dramatic variety (murder mysteries, whodunits, love stories, etc.), and several musicals, comedies, fantasies, and even movie-length cartoons (thanks to Walt Disney) mixed in for feel-good entertainment. Catchy headlines and movie posters were nothing new; i.e., media marketers already knew how to grab the general public’s attention.

The news (and entertainment) media’s coverage of World War II marked a seminal moment in the blending of the visual fantasy and reality experiences of consumers. Though production of the Fox Movietone newsreels (i.e., the first Fox News) began as early as 1928, the novel imbedding of reporters with troops during an active war enabled the movie-viewing public to get timely on-scene updates on the activities of the conflict abroad and perhaps see or hear something which might directly relate to a family member or loved one serving in a particular area, as they were waiting for the movie to start. As automobiles with built-in radios became more popular and affordable, one could also now consume audial information both to and from the theater as well. Suffice it to say an ever-increasing amount of the public’s attention was already being grabbed by both news and entertainment programming, even before the advent of television.

The general release of the aforementioned TV to the post-WWII world began in 1948, and the fuse was lit on the explosive growth of home-consumable visual media.

The 1950s brought us the Korean War, Elvis, The Ten Commandments, and I Love Lucy. The 1960s included the Kennedys, Beatles, Peyton Place (the first of a multitude of daily “soap operas”), Martin Luther King, Apollo space program/lunar landings, The Sound of Music, Planet of the Apes and Vietnam. The 1970s were Watergate, Soylent Green, an energy crisis, Dallas, Star Wars and hostages in Iran. Walter Cronkite, the main anchorman for the nightly broadcast of CBS News, became known as “the most trusted man in America.” The U.S. and western world appetite for drama, and news about other people’s “problems” continued to grow.

The 1980s saw the next revolutionary wave in home-consumable news and entertainment. Dubbed “cable” television, the 24x7x365 stream of consumable media was born. CNN (i.e., Cable News Network) debuted in 1980 as the first such source of “news.” The Weather Channel launch came shortly afterward, along with several CNN spinoffs, but most of what was proffered via CATV was entertainment-based, and CNN pretty much owned the news and information space for that first decade.

CNN then took reporter-imbedding to the next level during the Gulf War in 1990-91, and became the standard-bearer for round-the-clock non-entertainment programming. Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and others emerged over the remainder of the 1990s, and the race was on for the affections of the consumers of news. Competition for the attention of the public via “special reports” and “above-the-fold” headlines was nothing new in 1980, but having a steady stream of such shiny objects pushed to a mass audience, and “clicked” with little more effort than a thumb movement (remote controls on TVs had also revolutionized effortless watching of multiple programs by this time), exponentially ramped up the ferocity of that attention.

Meanwhile, “traditional” broadcast television was being left in the dust, both locally and nationally. For the time being, they still had their daytime soap operas and nighttime drama and crime series to appeal to the devotees of emotional conflict and crisis, but their news departments were sorely lacking compared to their cable-based brethren. Enter Reality TV. More in Part 2.

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2 thoughts on “If It Sounds Too Bad to be True, It Probably Is-Pt I”

  1. “Oh, the humanity!” Hindenburg. That was a pivotal moment in broadcast journalism, too.
    Those times when the reporter began injecting himself into the news, by opining, instead of letting the facts speak for themselves. another being the corporations who owned the networks beginning to filter out content that affected advertisers.

    It just kept getting worse.

    Reality TV is what the news looks like, nowadays, with a twist. They spin lies into reality, to fit a narrative, for political expediency of a certain political ideology.
    I grew up in the days of traditional broadcast news, where even Uncle Walter was believable.
    Great article!

    • I too grew up in the era when news was to believed. Nowdays, networks decide for us what we should believe and what is true. sad.


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