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The Uninformative Entertainment We Call News
News is defined as “a report of a recent event; intelligence; information” (Dictionary.com). It almost seems impossible to find such a thing anymore. Turn on the television to any “news” station and you’re likely to find a guy at a desk in a suit, leaning forward on his elbows, loudly ranting about a political issue in an angered tone. That’s not news. People watch the “news” and they laugh, they shout, they clap in agreement. That’s not news either. Former Nightline correspondent Ted Koppel expresses his frustration with the scarcity of news in his article “Olbermann, O’Reilly and the Death of Real News.” In it, he establishes the claim that news in the United States has become fully opinionated, purely entertainment-oriented, and uninformative.
Watching the news used to mean being informed, learning about current events, and being exposed to pressing issues. Now, watching the news means turning on your channel of choice, the one that best matches your political position, and listening to the opinions of extreme partisans who have the same beliefs as you do. What happened to the old type of news? Why can we no longer sit on the couch and be politically informed? Why, when we sit on the couch now, do we have to be politically enlightened? Koppel’s claim that news in the United States has changed for the worse is completely relevant, as it is no longer about informing the public but about attracting and convincing viewers and confirming political opinions.
Currently, one of the big issues across the nation regards the passage of “birther” bills and the ongoing debate over the legitimacy of President Obama’s birth certificate. While “Hawaii officials have repeatedly confirmed Obama’s citizenship,” many right-wingers are raising the question to a higher level, publicizing the fact that no one has actually seen his birth certificate (“Arizona again plows…”). New state legislation has been considered in thirteen states, and passed in Arizona, requiring any candidate running for president of the United States to prove their citizenship in order to be put on the state’s ballot. President Obama is currently not satisfying “the requirements of [the] proposal and…would have to provide other records, such as baptismal certificates and hospital records.”
Supporters of this movement are referred to as “birthers.” One of the most prominent leaders in the birther community is none other than Donald Trump - reality television star, extravagant entrepreneur, and…possible Republican presidential candidate? Yes, Donald Trump is considering the run for office in 2012. Trump, who “says he hopes the president can prove that he was [born in the United States],” is not letting the issue go, insisting that it is only right for the president to confirm that he was born here, as required by the Constitution (“Trump Hammers Away…”). However, Trump’s opposition on the left claim that this is just his way of attempting to stop what he concurs is “‘a terrible presidency.’”
And so the mudslinging begins. The “drowning [of] television viewers in a flood of opinions” that Koppel argues is infecting America is no better exemplified than on the two most notorious stations for political slander, Fox and MSNBC. No matter how “fair and balanced” Fox News insists it is, the station’s motto could not be any more ironic. Fair and balanced? Please. MSNBC, though, doesn’t even try to assert a politically neutral standpoint; its slogan is simply “Lean Forward.” Should be “Lean Left…”
News used to be informative. It used to actually contain facts and evidence, and it used to be true. But now, these two head-butting, opinionated, entertaining channels are beyond repair. Koppel would call the time when watching the news actually provided viewers with an insight into current events a “bygone era” (Koppel). In 2011, we watch the “news” to have our biases reinforced by some of the most narrow-minded, obstinate, and generally insane personalities known to television. And these crazies all had something to say about the birther conflict consuming America.
As a soon-to-be young adult who has had very little political exposure, I came into this birther debate with no clear view and no bias on either side. I knew Donald Trump and I knew President Obama, but that’s about all I could tell you. So I started from the beginning. I researched the topic, gained the background knowledge I would need to continue, and set out to discover what really makes Fox and MSNBC’s “news” different than actual news.
Let’s start with Hannity. On April 15, 2011, Sean Hannity’s main topic of discussion was, of course, the birther situation. From the start, I knew that a Fox correspondent would undoubtedly be pro-birther. The fact that I, a completely ignorant-of-politics failure of a citizen, knew that Fox news is super conservative, tells us something right there. If a news station is famous for being totally right-leaning, then how can we call that news at all? It’s purely opinion, and everyone knows it. On this particular episode, Hannity spoke with Donald Trump about his potential run for office and his aim to disprove Obama’s citizenship. Several words exchanged between the two created a very convincing argument, leaving me to believe that the likelihood of President Obama being born in the US is very slim.
Hannity and Trump agreed at the beginning of the episode that the topic is “not a loving issue but one that must be addressed,” providing the feeling that Trump’s newly-launched investigation in Hawaii is essential for the country’s betterment. The idea that he does not want to have to search for Obama’s records but is being forced to makes viewers seem scared and doubtful, as well as skeptical of our president. Hannity described the proof that the president used to run for office in 2008 as a “certificate of live birth” from Hawaii. However, Trump concluded that the certificate was not legitimate because it has no signatures. He took the claim even further, asserting that possession of this document alone prevents one from getting married or even obtaining a driver’s license.
During the discussion, Hannity and Trump discussed the ease of obtaining a birth certificate. Trump, for example, had to provide his social security number and thirty-eight dollars to have his sent right to his desk in New York. Why, they asked, can’t Obama do the same? The host and the guest repeated the same question, “why won’t he show it?” several times after explaining the simple steps involved in acquiring the document. The repetition and explicit process described were extremely effective, and truly evoked doubt of Obama. As a viewer, I couldn’t help but assume he had something to hide – which was Hannity’s next assumption as well. The flow of the program, which mimicked the thought process in my head as a viewer, was also persuasive, making me feel like I was on the same page as the host.
Once the men decided that, for Obama’s sake, he should just spend thirty-eight dollars and prove his birth in the United States, they brought up the point that instead, he is spending millions on “hiding” his true identity. The juxtaposition between this huge number and thirty-eight dollars was really powerful; creating the effect that Obama really does have something to hide.
Another recurring device in the argument on Hannity had to do with Obama’s upbringing. Donald Trump told how he heard that President Obama’s grandmother said he was born in Kenya. Also, Trump and Hannity rampantly discussed that no one knew him as a child. These claims make the viewer wonder why the president’s past is so hidden and ambiguous.
This program was so effective in convincing the audience that President Obama was not born in the United States due to its systematic yet strong pro-birther argument. Hannity sat down with Trump, and together, they went through every possible reason why Obama was not born in this country. There were never any outright accusations against the president, no name-calling or belittling. It was a structured argument, direct, passionate, and factual.
However, no matter how convincing, most of the facts were wrong.
According to FactCheck.Org, the majority of Trump and Hannity’s evidence against Obama was just plain false. While the program dismissed a certificate of live birth as unreliable in terms of proof, “the U.S. Department of State uses ‘birth certificate’ as a generic term to include the official Hawaii document, which satisfies legal requirements for proving citizenship and obtaining a passport.” Strike one. The website has photos of the document, too, and it has signatures on it, contrary to Hannity’s belief. Strike two. The show also claimed that no one knew the president as a child, yet “two retired kindergarten teachers in a 2009 news story fondly recall teaching a young Barack Obama.” Strike three. Obama’s grandmother, Sarah, was actually quoted as saying “‘he was born in America.’” Strike four, Hannity’s out (“Donald, You’re Fired”).
Ted Koppel’s assertion that real news has died and its place has been taken by opinionated blabber holds true in this situation. Hannity surely did not provide factual information and instead aimed to convey the world “as partisans (and loyal viewers) at... [the right end]… of the political spectrum would like it to be.” If I were extremely conservative and watched Fox regularly, I would have loved this episode of Hannity. That is what the goal is now, to get consistent viewers and to keep them hooked. While news decades ago tried to “avoid even the appearance of partisanship,” times have definitely changed, and now a network couldn’t be caught dead without a political bias (Koppel).
So, to no surprise, the program I watched on MSNBC, Fox’s archenemy, was completely one-sided as well. Hardball, with Chris Matthews, was quite the experience for me. He speaks so quickly, so much, and so loudly, it’s a wonder the viewers can understand anything. But he’s entertaining, and that’s how MSNBC makes money.
On the April 15 episode of Hardball, Matthews rebutted the claims made against Obama by the birthers like Trump, and reasserted what he held to be the truth. Throughout his whole segment, Matthews used an extended metaphor, comparing a grassy knoll, or “a place where those who don’t want to believe the truth go,” to birthers. The metaphor made the birthers seem simple and stupid, almost like animals that would congregate in a grassy knoll to eat. Matthews then continued the portrayal of birthers as dumb, by shouting slowly and loudly, “Barack Obama is president, got it?” The blunt remark made the viewers assume that the birthers are slow, gaining him support from other anti-birthers, his audience. After the obvious statement, he began to explain the basics of the democratic process and described how Obama was elected by the majority of the people,” suggesting that the birthers are weak in number and have little influence.
Matthews used a great deal of sarcasm in his argument. Mocking the birthers, he acted in a stupid manner and pretended to brainstorm ideas: “how do we change it? I got it, it didn’t happen, he wasn’t born here!” By portraying birthers as desperate for ideas to gain support against Obama, the viewer was convinced that the birthers have no foundation to their argument. Matthews continued to mock them, “I read it somewhere that he’s from somewhere else…” The ambiguous tone that he mocked so casually was humorous as well as persuading. As a viewer that is attracted to humor, I was more prone to believe his case because he was funny. However, it was very thought-provoking to be introduced to the idea that the conservative side has no campaign other than to bash Obama’s birthplace.
Unlike Hannity, Hardball had a very abusive approach. Matthews insulted his opponents, calling the Arizona legislature “boobs” for passing the birther bill and Trump an “idiot” for not knowing how many representatives were in the House of Representatives. The outright affronts he threw around were funny, but again, were also convincing. As Matthews called people names, I, the viewer, was able to connect his insults to the reasons he was branding them as such. This thought process forced me to make my own accusations against his opponents, proving that I agreed with him, whether or not I actually did.
In fact, I did not learn much at all from watching Hardball. All I know that I didn’t know before is that Chris Matthews thinks the Arizona legislature is “boobs” and that he can’t believe Donald Trump didn’t know that there are 435 representatives in the House. That’s all. But if I were a hard-core Democrat, and an avid viewer of MSNBC, I would be thrilled. I would be in awe at Matthews’ ridicule of the right wing, and I would want to watch more.
This can’t be categorized as “news”. News is defined as “a report of a recent event; intelligence; information” (Dictionary.com). Hannity and Hardball were hardly that. They were simply programs with hosts who spit out political jargon and spun information to please viewers and themselves. Real news has died. Real news is gone. Real news is never coming back. It has been kicked out by the new, popular entertainment aimed at pleasing “clusters of consumers” with “information from like-minded providers” – Hannity, Matthews, and everyone else that works for Fox or MSNBC (Koppel). It’s a shame that I can’t learn anything from watching the news anymore, but that’s the way it is now.