Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism
© 2020 Sharyl Attkisson
I stopped watching television news in 2009, a decision made for me by the overnight obsolescence of my TV set when the industry shifted to digital-only programming. I didn’t miss it, truth be told; it was shallow, and tended toward the sensational even then. It didn’t help that I was increasingly prone to think of the media as nothing more than the handmaiden of the corporate state, which distracted those it could not deceive. In Slanted, a veteran reporter who began her career with CNN and CBS shares the discouraging path that the mainstream media has gone down, sacrificing its integrity for the sake of ratings, entertainment value, and ideological purity.
The core problem, Attkisson writes, is that news corporations no longer assess the facts and deliver the story that develops from them: they begin with a pre-conceived idea and focus their reporting around that. The preconceived pattern, the Narrative, has certain characteristics; it is one-sided, advances political interests while pretending to be nonpolitical, and relies heavily on withholding information on the grounds that the public (we knuckle-dragging unwashed masses in flyover country) would get the wrong idea were we exposed to all of the facts. Attkisson first noticed this at CBS, when numerous of her stories were tabled or revised into impotency by the higher-ups, motivated by corporate ties or political connections. Sometimes this was innocuous, even risible, as when a story on the corruption of school lunch funding was shelved because Michelle Obama was concurrently promoting better school lunches, and the bureaucrats-in-charge didn’t want to look as though they were attacking her work. Other instances were more serious, like the shelving of a story about dangerous 737 airframes, or another story on the ginned-up panic over swine flu. As the years progressed, Attkisson saw the politicization of news becoming less the exception and more the rule: instead of creating stories for intelligent viewers who wanted to hear and assess both sides of an issue, Attkisson was asked to seek out extreme viewpoints to create more polarizing stories. This unprofessionalism was made worse by increasingly obvious, and fairly uniform, political bias. The drift of the news into sensationalism was most epitomized by the replacement of feature stories by panels, so that instead of focused dive into the facts of a story, viewers were instead subjected to six or more talking heads bouncing off one another.
Although the final part of her work addresses the media’s contempt for Donald Trump specifically, Attkisson smartly establishes a nonpartisan case for media bias prior to this, drawing chiefly on criticisms of the media from liberal or progressive sources. She also presents readers with the evidence for their own review: one DailyShow video attacking various thoughtcriminals for their evaluations of COVID circa March-April 2020, for instance, puts the ‘offenders’ statements side by side of those put forth by establishment media or more favored politicians. Drawing on the same data, both came to similar conclusions — that COVID was dangerous chiefly to the elderly, that most deaths (at that time) had been linked to Washington nursing homes, etc. Why would one personality be damned for a statement and another be ignored? More importantly is Attkisson’s focus: she’s not writing about media bias because the media is biased against her; she’s writing against it because journalism itself has been destroyed by this naked embrace of narrative-centered sensationalism. The variety of stories has dwindled, the content of those stories has become increasingly inaccurate (the vetting of facts and sources being a casualty of news that tries to march to twitter’s timeline), and people are increasingly dropping them for nontraditional reporters. Gleaning news from twitter or facebook is worse than from the mainstream media, though: not only is it presented in a more superficial way, but the platforms have taken a page from the journalists’ book and are now actively censoring information that people can see.
Slanted makes for compelling reading, especially for those who believe that a free press is the lifeblood of a free nation. Although any story will carry a bias in the facts it chooses to report on, the one-sidedness of virtually all of our major news outlets and their reliance on cheap tricks to get viewer eyeballs does us no good. Neil Postman was aware of this in the eighties, when he wrote about the adulteration of journalism by television in his Amusing Ourselves to Death, and the problem is far worse now. I don’t know that there’s a plausible solution in the age of social media: at this point several generations of news-entertainers have come up through the ranks of the old news corporations, and those who can remember when their institutions did genuine investigation and nonpartisan coverage are aging out of the industry. Attkisson does provide a list of people within organizations whose personal integrity means they can be counted on for solid reporting, even if their institution as a whole now panders to the lowest common denominator.
Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman.
Manufacturing Consent, Edward S. Herman