Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism
© 2020 Sharyl Attkisson
316 pages

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

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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6 Responses to Slanted

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    I think essentially it’s all to do with money and the media outlets business model(s). Obviously they want to make money so, in a highly polarised environment, the best way to do that is to appeal to those who will already agree with them – hence the bias of MSNBC and Fox – because they know that people who don’t agree with them won’t watch them anyway. As there’s always a news ‘show’ for you, you’re going to pick that one (or two) and stick with them. If they tried to appeal to a wider audience they’d fail – both by annoying their existing viewers and by not picking up many others. It’s a loss making decision – hence it doesn’t happen. I think that non-partisan news (at least in the US) is dead and buried.

    BTW – My TV died a good few years ago too and I never replaced it either. Haven’t missed it for one minute.

    • At least you’re free from the TV tax? (Or have they changed that to tax computers? )

      Unfortunately, it’s not just MSNBC and Fox — even NPR, which should be ‘protected’ against playing to the lowest end of the market because it’s subsidized by taxpayers, is partisan. I used to listen to it nonstop, but their cringy obsession with Trump put me off of them together.

      • Cyberkitten says:

        Oh, you still need to have a TV licence (at least ATM) to watch the BBC online…. [grin] Back in the day (I don’t know if its still the case) you needed a licence to listen to the radio… [lol]

        I think you’re stuck with partisan media at least for the conceivable future. I really don’t think non-partisan stuff would ‘fly’ these days. For one thing hardly anyone would believe it! For much to change you’d either have to move away from partisan politics or move away from ad revenue as a business model. So, somewhere between difficult & impossible.

  2. I dropped the mainstream TV news so long ago that I cannot remember when it was. I recently cut the cord so to speak with cable and now rely on the internet (Amazon, Netflix, and YouTube) for TV fare.I agree that there is no unbiased source available. My preferred sources are Reason online and miscellaneous other internet sites. Even our local newspaper, the once great Tribune, is a pale image of its former self (only useful for the Sunday crossword puzzle).

    • The local papers have the merit of locally-oriented opinions — though there are often editorials weighing in on the Big Event of the day, as if people were going to make up their minds about Chinese monetary policy or Russian-Ukrainian relations because of one editor broadcasting his opinion.

  3. Unfortunately, the Chicago Tribune is under the misapprehension that they are a “National Newspaper”; thus they often opine on issues beyond the local. Even on local issues they follow the latest woke trends and spew forth little that is worth reading.

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