Saturday, November 3, 2012

What to Do with Our Media?

How many times do you hear the host of a radio or television news analysis show introduce the “guest expert” with the words, “Welcome back to ___________” (fill in the name of the show)?

Immediately I’m struck with a slight nausea. Sometimes I know the guest expert; more often I don’t. But it is obvious that he or she is one of the “go to” persons whom the host, or the producers, run to when a topic comes up for which they are considered “expert”. They represent the shortest path to an authoritative program.

Certainly we want expert opinion on important matters. In many cases those “welcomed back” to the show are as authoritative as any other guest might be. But often they are not. The listener or viewer would be better served by a greater variety of guest experts. Further, the “guest” is often nothing other than a colleague working for the same media outlet. So we get celebrity hosts hosting celebrity hosts.

To further corrupt (or dilute) the stream of information, media outlets began, as far back as the 80s, bringing on board “experts”, retired (or fired) from government, entertainment, business, or sports whose credentials are less than sterling. The first I recall was the influx of former Nixon aides to serve as TV commentators on governmental issues – John Dean being one of the most prominent examples – some of whom had served prison time, or escaped it by gaining immunity from grand juries by testifying for the prosecution. Then, after the O.J. Simpson trial a number of members of the defense team for O.J. moved into the realm of legal commentators. Perhaps the most egregious example is that of Sarah Palin, a failed vice-presidential candidate and drop-out governor from Alaska who now graces the airwaves as an employee of Fox News and resident expert on politics and family values.

It is the role of our media to inform and entertain us; we are poorly served when it does not do both. But our current media has almost completely forsaken the role of informer, in the scramble for ratings.

Time was when at least the first ten or fifteen minutes of the evening news was devoted to serious news reporting. Now the program begins with dramatic musical underscore, flashing graphics, and ominous announcements of the earth-moving events to be covered in the following half-hour. No event is less than spectacular, and almost always destined to affect the viewer negatively. Guest experts are lined up in their little boxes as each segment begins, waiting for the moderator to give them their turn to spin the story according to the particular outlet’s point of view. And that point of view is so predictable that most viewers (or listeners) know, according to the story being reported, which network to switch to so that their sensibilities will not be offended – or their prejudices fed.

There is little the consumer of media can do to change the situation. But there are defenses against the negative effects of media bombardment. Sadly, the most important defense is skepticism. In the best of all possible worlds humans would be able to trust humans. But we live far from the best of all possible worlds and anyone who tries to navigate our world without a healthy dose of skepticism will become the pawn of ad men, politicians, televangelists, and other hucksters.

A second defense is to disabuse oneself of the expectation of getting a really good bargain, either in products being sold, or ideas being pedaled. There are occasional bonanzas to be had but they are few and far between. (The best bonanzas come unbidden, not offered exclusively on TV for $19.95 plus shipping and handling.) And yes, there are amazing things happening in our world, but if one continues to follow a story it more often than not is less than the hoopla promised. (The new cure for cancer has only been tested in amebas and any human benefit is several centuries off.)

But, in order to make it through the maze of manipulation and deception in our media with some semblance of sanity, one must add to their skepticism a willingness to go beyond the obvious – beyond the punditry of “guest experts” – beyond the promises of the hucksters – in search of the truth. Too often the “guest expert” who is being “welcomed back” has a predictable answer to the questions being considered. He or she has an axe to grind or a pocket to line.

The alert consumer of information knows to put up his guard when he hears the words, “Welcome back to . . .” He’ll go scrambling in search of other sources. And they are available to anyone with a computer and Internet access. It takes some work. It still requires skepticism – be wary of dot com sites, don’t automatically trust all dot org sites, or even all dot edu sites. But if one is willing to search, and compare, and use one’s God-given common sense, he can avoid many of the traps our media sets for him.

Hey, he may, someday, be a “guest expert” himself.

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