A Couple Walk into a Bar…
A man and woman walk into a bar. Pretend the couple is me and my husband, David. We sit at the bar and order two beers. Overhead, three TV’s hang in their vivid color, ALL of them tuned to FOX news. When we ask for one to be switched to CNN, no one can find the remote. No one can find the remote?!?
In this time when many people are having internal shouting matches not only with the more extreme Trump supporters but with beloved friends and family who may have voted for Trump, I am doing a crazy side-step. I am asking something simpler. I am urging people to listen to something other than FOX news. That is the argument I return to when I fantasize about what to say to people about this election. I keep saying to them in my mind: listen to something other than the national Fox news. And don’t just turn to MSNBC (that’s as skewed the other way), but listen to NPR on radio or to CNN or read a couple of credible newspapers on line or in hard copy. And when some element of a story seems incomplete, look at the fact checking sites. Several sites on line are dedicated—some of them are even nonprofits!—to report only verifiable facts from objective sources—what we used to call hard journalism (as opposed to the newly prevalent fake news). Yes, I know ANY source may be tainted with flawed objectivity, but it’s not the single source that’s important here, but multiple sources, the assimilation of multiple viewpoints from responsible sources, what we used to call research, that makes a news story more reliable. We also rely on the ethical status of the reporter, but by looking at multiple sources from both sides of the aisle, we get a truer picture, at least by degree. I believe we make better, more informed decisions as a result.
Here’s another example: A man and a woman go to the new YMCA to workout. The couple is David and Me. We get on the bikes and treadmills, and overhead are four big screen TV’s, and all but one is tuned to FOX news—and the one that’s not is on local events. We ask if someone can change the channel on one TV, and the workout folks, those lovely trainers, look at us aghast. One of my other friends eventually starts a suggestion-box campaign to get all three major cable stations represented on those big overhead TVs. It works, but takes a few weeks because so few seem to believe that offering varied news sources might be important to people speeding along on the stationary bikes.
When I can overcome my confusion at how we came to this moment in history, getting reliable, multiply-sourced news is the one argument I keep returning to. If we all looked at multiple news sources, some that might even be representing opposing views, might we better understand what was happening? We might not change our minds, but we would be more broadly informed. We might not draw on so many generalities, and perhaps we’d come to more nuanced conclusions. We might stop name calling and look at the complexity of two (or four) different reports coming from different points of view. Most important, we might stop being so afraid, because we could access how the different points of view were informed or biased in each case. We might not be so susceptible to the language of anxiety that inflames the news (particularly FOX and MSNBC) and which may have contributed not just to the bitterness of this election, but to the entire electoral process. We might get smarter.
One more. A man and a woman walk into the home of a friend. Yup, us again. Two TV’s blare, both of them tuned to FOX news. They are on loudly enough that I ask if we can turn off the one in the living room so we can talk. I watch so little TV, that when it’s on, I get sucked into visual distraction, and can become so fully absorbed, I lose track of the present. Our host hits mute. As good as it gets. But as soon as we have chatted through the basic catching up, he unmutes, though he makes the concession to keep the volume low. I ask if he keeps it on all the time. Yes, usually. Does he sleep with it on? Oh, he doses with it on but no, turns it off when he goes to bed. I ask if he listens to anything else but FOX. Not usually. Maybe movies. I wonder what it means to have FOX in your ears while you dose, to have FOX in your ears all the time you are awake. I wonder what it would be like to have ANY TV station in your ears all the time. Does it mean that the words go inside the brain and lodge there even if you are not consciously listening? Does listening to anything over and over, even on low volume, influence your thinking?
In an era when Colbert’s one-time joke of truthiness (the word just passed its ten-year birthday) is real, when a news story is believed or not believed because of some mysterious “gut feeling,” when language is deliberately angled so that the listener almost always makes certain assumptions that are not necessarily the correct ones, when news anchors are coached to avoid any really complicated story because truly understanding the complications means listeners might arrive at a different conclusion, then it’s critical to get your news, and especially your political information, from a variety of sources. Not just one. If you are thinking of high level, really good newspapers—which I still like to read—look at Washington Post and New York Times—the best of the left. For the middle ground, look at Reuters and Christian Science Monitor, for the right side of things, look at Wall Street Journal. As for me, I’m a huge National Public Radio, where I find a balance.
I’ve observed that some people watch one station and one station only (and it could be MSNBC as easily as FOX) because it supports their beliefs, and it keeps their anxieties in place. Yes, it keeps their anxieties in place. Anxiety and fear may become compulsive and can certainly be manipulated. And they are addictive. It seems we love to get riled. We love a place to put our frustrations, and the news stations have learned if they point the way to the “true evil” we get a righteous “hit” from our own emotions: rage, judgment, indignation, smug satisfaction? We respond to these emotions based on how much we believe in the information being associated with those emotions. It strokes our egos to have our beliefs supported with the news. But watch what happens when varied reason-based information is introduced (as in a good, well-developed debate—not our version of TV debates). Our good brains tend to settle down, start to do their jobs: to mull, to question, to be curious, to create intelligent discourse. I so want to believe that my friend dosing in his living room, the double- shift bartenders, the personal trainers, and people in general, will try to break the single-source news cycle, will seek varied sources, will invite the complexity that then invites real thinking and more nuanced judgment. I want to believe they will do this because it’s the right thing to do for good judgement in a world where bad judgement seems to be running amok.
Here’s a link to an interesting list of options for news sources.