In my last post I discussed how the deterioration of critical thinking in our school curricula has contributed to our becoming a nation of morons. This may explain the roots of our “moron-ness”, but fails to look at how it is reinforced in our adult life. How does one go from a child lacking the skills to form an opinion to an adult with an unwavering opinion?
The first and most obvious factor is social self-identification. The ideas that our heads are filled with by others when we are children greatly influence who we become as adults. Without the ability to think critically we are much more likely to absorb the ideas of those we admire and reject the ideas of those we dislike. The more we want to be like someone or believe that someone to be like us, the more likely we are to accept their world view as our own.
Still, we are bombarded by information 24/7/365, aren’t we? We live in the age of information, don’t we? Well… yes and no.
Yes, there is more information readily available to more people in more places and forms than at any time in human history. Yet we do not live in an age of information so much as we live in an age of content (not to be confused with an age of contentment – though hope springs eternal). Without critical thinking skills, people do not seek information as much as they choose content. Thanks to the explosion of the internet over the last 20 years, and social networking over the last 5 years, the existence of places to pitch your online tent where everyone thinks and feels as you do is guaranteed.
Fortunately for all of us (or most of us at least) we have a natural curiosity to know what is happening now, today, this very moment, that may effect our ability to live out our world view.
Enter The News Media (If I were a conservative I probably would say “Enter the News Media, Stage Left”).
Did you know that Charles “only call me Charlie in the morning” Gibson is retiring? Do you know who is replacing him? Here’s an easy one – do you know which network he anchors?*
Don’t worry if you answered “no” to all of the above. Network news is no longer that relevant anyway. Wait… On second thought, worry a lot.
Between Internet direct access to the wire services, internationally read blogs, Twitter and facebook – just to name a few – you already know everything that happened today. And if you don’t you can always turn 24/7 to the three wise men: CNN, MSNBC and FOX News.
Herein lies the problem. Before the advent of the 24 hour news cycle critical thinking was essentially organic. The environment forced it. Three channels had 30 minutes each to tell you what happened in the world that day. This meant a staff of producers and editors who had to shift through the ton of info coming to them from local, national and international newspapers, wire services (so called because they distributed information on a way not that far removed from telegraph) and other TV broadcasts, as well as there own sources and journalists.
This required serious (and rapid) decision making. What do people need to know? what is or isn’t important? How do we communicate the most amount of information with the least words? Of course, they could always do a “special report” if there was breaking news that demanded immediate attention, but evn that was frowned upon as it meant eating into revenue with news – a loss leader that functioned more as a public service then as a way to sell ads. Newspapers competed with this by taking advantage of their additional space to provide in depth analysis and special feature reporting, so that you could get all the details you needed to decide what you thought and felt about the information.
Then CNN came along, and the whole process was thrown on its rear end. They started with traditional news hours, starting over at the beginning each and every hour. However, they had to face a new challenge – as a network that existed only for news, they could not be a loss leader for something else. They had to make money, and that meant original programming. You couldn’t get by on one guy each who watched at 6:00 or 7:00 or 8:00. You needed all three watching at 6:00 AND 7:00 AND 8:00. But what if there wasn’t enough news of interest to fill three hours?
You stretched, you found as many different people with as many different takes on one item and then you had them talk about it incessantly. Since the information could often be communicated in 15 – 30 minutes they had to fill the other two hours with analysis. What does yada yada mean to the Democrats, to the Republicans, to your checkbook? This seemed helpful at first, but as the time required to analyze a thing grew to be so much longer than the time required to identify that thing, and as who analyzed that thing started to drive ratings it all went to hell. The Mass Media, and in turn the people who watched it – already weakened by a lack of critical thinking skills – became obsessed with process.
A perfect recent example is the Joe Wilson incident during the President’s speech to a joint session of Congress. From the moment the speech was over the questions began: Who said that? Why did he feel that way? Had anyone ever done that before? How would the Democrats react? Would discussion of censure derail the health care debate? Is Joe Wilson a racist?
Do you see what is missing here? Come on, put your critical thinking caps on. I’ll wait….
DID THE PRESIDENT LIE? Does or doesn’t the bill (or bills, depending on how you look at it) allow for federal dollars to go for paying illegal immigrant health care?** Did Joe Wilson lie when he called the President a liar? For extra credit (ok – not for extra credit – but because you really have to) tell us where the answer to that question comes from. Once you know the answer to that question, THEN you can start to form your own opinion on why he said it. They can report on his biography and you can make up your mind. You can also hear the plusses and cons of such a provision in the bill from a purely statistical point of view and decide how that fits into your own moral framework.
But that does not happen. You see, the ratings started to come in, and the news channel (CNN) started to realize that certain personalities and opinions drew higher ratings. Now instead of helping the people figure out what they want it became about giving the people what they already want. Why educate 50 people when you can reinforce the already held beliefs of 100?
For that matter, if you have the money and know what you want people to believe, why not hire the talent that will communicate that constantly, over and over again, in a format that allows the uninformed to think they are being given facts when they are really just receiving positive reinforcement of already held views. Why not use this to move forward a larger agenda? Why should the news be about information when it can be about control? ENTER FOX NEWS, STAGE RIGHT.
Now the news cycle and the Republican spin cycle were one and the same. As shown in the Robert Greenwald documentary Outfoxed, a whole new process was born. Each morning the republicans (and the democrats for that matter) would chose a story of the day. The thing that they wanted to try to concentrate on and get in front of the people.
The democrats did this through press conferences and public appearances, as well as giving interviews. The republicans just emailed it to Roger Ailes, president of Fox News. Literally. Ailes would then prepare a “Message Of The Day”, distributed to all producers, writers, and online personalities, stating what point the channel wanted to try to get across to the American People that day. Not only was this always based on the party talking points, it often just cut and pasted them verbatim from the email to the memo. By the way, did I mention that they did all of this under the banners of “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide”. Those already inclined to believe whatever the right told them now had a home, a place where they could receive non-stop propoganda while convincing themselves they were receiving fair and balanced information and then deciding for themselves. It was the ultimate self-reliant delusion.
If not for the dependence on ratings this could have been harmless. So what if the right has their own mouthpiece? What’s the harm if the people watching are inclined to believe what they are hearing anyway? And the answer is none – no harm at all – as long as they are looking at the facts and just presenting their take on it. But what happens when they stop presenting the facts? What happens once they have built their army of viewers who believe everything they say and start lying to them?
Welcome to America today – an America when many on the right believe that the Clintons ran a coke smuggling operation out of Arkansas and had Vince Foster killed. An America that believes that a man who dodged his Air Force Reserve duty is more qualified to be Commander In Chief then a man who won a Bronze Star for running INTO enemy fire to retrieve an injured soldier. An America that believes that the only way to guarantee a fair election is to stop counting ballots. An America that believes the President has a plan to kill old people when they become too expensive to take care of, and isn’t even trying to hide it. An America that believes that the President isn’t an American. A land gone mad – a country of morons.
“But wait!” scream my conservative friends***, “You have MSNBC! It’s the same thing!”
Ummmmmm, no. Not even close.
First: Unlike CNN and Fox, MSNBC does not brand itself as News. While Fox is “Fair and Balanced” and CNN is “The Most Trusted Name in News”, MSNBC is “The Place For Politics.”
Second: While MSNBC hosts are clearly opinionated, they use clear sourcing and allow opposing view points. hey may discuss an issue with an Op-Ed Columnist, but they will have that columnist cite their sources rather than treat them as a source. They will give airtime to opposing view points – especially Rachel Maddow, who often has on guests that disagree with her – including regular commentary from Pat Buchanan.
Third: They correct themselves. On several occassions I have heard Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann (Yes, I admit it, a bit of a blowhard) correct themselves if they got a fact wrong the previous day, or even before the commercial break. I have even seen Olbermann and Matthews (GASP!) change their minds on an issue after speaking with a guest. Compare that to Bill O’Reilly, who claimed the day after Dr. Tiller’s death that he stood by all of his “reporting” and that he had “never said anything about Dr. Tiller that was not true”. Sorry Bill, but for the record not once did Dr. Tiller perform a third trimester abortion because the woman was depressed that day or didn’t like that she couldn’t fit into her shoes – both things he had stated as fact.
Fourth: They have a conservative host – Joe Scarborough.
So where does this leave us? The Republicans play more and more to their base, which as they lose the independents becomes more and more made up of the radical right, galvanized by right-wing radio. In order to hold on to these people they become more and more extreme in their speech, and in what they disseminate on Fox. Critical Thinking? Please – that only works against them. They report what you’ll decide.
But wait, don’t slit your wrists yet, there is good news. Very good news.
THEY ARE THE MINORITY. THERE ARE MORE OF US. We just need to get ourselves together.
How? I’ll posit my humble suggestions about how we turn the very people who oppose the change this country needs into critical thinkers who support it in my next post. Stay tuned.
* Yes, he is. Diane Sawyer. ABC.
** No, he did not. Section 274 of HR3200 specifically states that no federal funds can be used for the insurance or treatment of illegal aliens. That was already in the bill before Joe Wilson opened his mouth.
***Yes, I do have conservative friends. We talk about TV and the weather a lot.