As a young journalist I was optimistic that the country would experience a better government and more thoughtful political discussions if the public could access more information. This was before the internet, cable news, and talk radio came into bloom—when newspaper and TV gatekeepers controlled what we’d read and hear.
All I could have hoped for has been realized beyond all my wildest dreams. Every American is now able to read the full range of opinions. In the past, it was nearly impossible to access underlying source documents. With a smartphone, anyone can search for legislation, court rulings and studies. You can also watch proceedings on YouTube.
Instead of entering a golden age for reasoned public policies, we’re sliding down into the dark age misinformation and sensationalism. Laugh at my naïveté, but I’ve finally learned that Americans prefer ad hominem attacks and conspiracy-mongering to reading municipal budgets and weighing arguments in amicus briefs. The democratization and dissemination of news is not possible.
Although such trends have been apparent for years, they may be at their peak this week. For instance, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who hosts the nation’s most-popular cable news show, praised right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones by calling him “one of the most popular journalists on the right.”
“Yes, journalist,” Carlson added. “Jones is often mocked for his flamboyance, but the truth is, he has been a far better guide to reality in recent years—in other words a far better journalist—than, say, NBC News national security correspondent Ken Dilanian or Margaret Brennan of CBS.” Critiquing Jones’ flamboyance is, of course, like criticizing Hannibal Lecter about his culinary preferences.
Maybe Carlson was just trolling the media, but he has millions of devoted viewers—many of whom take his pronouncements seriously. A Connecticut judge dismissed Jones’ remaining lawsuits regarding Jones’s, um, exaggerated portrayal of Sandy Hook Elementary School’s 2012 massacre that claimed the lives of twenty first graders and six teachers, last month.
“Jones for years spread bogus theories that the shooting…was part of government-led plot to confiscate Americans’ firearms and that the victims’ families were ‘actors’ in on the scheme,” The New York Times reported. Jones’ followers “accosted family members on the streets.” He admitted eventually that the shooting did occur, but the damage had already been done.
Jones has also postulated a variety of theories on his show, including the idea that the federal government is putting chemicals in the water that turn frogs gay (evidence of the Pentagon’s “gay bomb,” as CNBC reported). His own attorney once described him as a “performance artist”—but I had always figured that free citizens with access to information could distinguish truth from a charade.
“There was a time…when Alex Jones would have been far too toxic and deranged a figure for any influential member of the right to embrace,” wrote Peter Wehner in Atlantic. Yet Carlson’s praise of Jones “is the kind of tactic that propagandists…have employed so well: making claims that are so brazen, so outrageous, so untrue that they are disorienting, aimed at destroying critical thinking.”
Chris Cuomo was the other major media scandal of this week. He had been a TV anchor for CNN and was later fired. The New York Times reported, “testimony and text messages released by the New York attorney general revealed a more intimate and engaged role in his brother’s political affairs than the network said it had previously known.”
To me, it was an odd sight to see the TV journalist do puff interviews with his elder brother, the former New York Governor. Andrew Cuomo in the COVID crisis. Cuomo, the younger Cuomo did a serious journalistic wrong-doing by actively supporting Gov. Cuomo during the disgraced governor’s sexual-harassment scandal.
CNN was right to do the right thing. But the Cuomo scandal is a distortion of reality that Carlson uses as a way to call himself a conspiracy theorist. In this case, the public never heard the truth because of deep-seated bias—a “journalist” who was in the tank for the person he covered. Chris Cuomo may have done less behind-the scenes work than shilling for his brother in the radio.
Maybe we are just witnessing a return of yellow journalism. It is named after a yellow cartoon popular in color (the Yellow Kid), which was published in The New York WorldIt was first used in the late 1890s to denote a sensationalistic and profit-driven news method. According to the federal Office of the Historian, such coverage had dire consequences by stoking pro-war sentiments after the sinking of the Maine.
You don’t need me to describe the ill effects of a world where viewers can’t distinguish Walter Cronkite from Alex Jones, but here we are. This is something that I was not prepared for.
This column first appeared in The Orange County Register.