Not so funny now

The line between news and entertainment is getting blurrier, and our national discourse is suffering because of it.

by Matthew Hoy

In 2009, an online poll by Time Magazine found that Jon Stewart was America’s most trusted newscaster. Simultaneous joy and horror aside, this result is telling in regard to the current state of the news media. When a comedian on a fake news show is the most trusted anchor in America, there is a problem.

This is not meant as a slight against Jon Stewart. I, like many Americans my age, get much of my news from “The Daily Show.” Rather, this observation is meant as a criticism of our more traditional news outlets, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and so on.

It is well documented that the current trend in news media is to move away from investigative journalism and toward interviews and other opinion-based segments. Ironically, in a recent segment on “The Daily Show,” correspondent John Oliver investigates why CNN had decided to eliminate its investigative journalism department. In the segment, media analyst Brad Adgate offers his explanation: This type of reporting is just not profitable, and so it has no place in modern media.

This is the core of the issue. networks like Fox and MSNBC have shown that profitability comes from having big personalities comment on current events. It has become more important for newscasters to have an opinion on a topic than to understand it. The result is that every story is contorted into a false dichotomy of right vs. left, liberal vs. conservative.

Take, for example, the perennial hot-button issue of gun control. Outside of the narrative, its fundamental disagreement is relatively simple: Some believe that the safety of innocent civilians is paramount; others believe that the rights defined in the Second Amendment take precedent. There are legitimate debates to be had about exactly what those rights are and whether they are the superior method of keeping civilians safe, but people often forget that no one wants a madman to murder a bunch of children.

Unfortunately, this debate gets twisted into one between “gun nuts” and “constitutional oath-breakers,” and it leads to ridiculous events such as Alex Jones’ rant on “Piers Morgan Live” or the current congressional gridlock taking place between Republicans and Democrats.

We ought to remember that putting a person like Alex Jones on live national television will likely end in insanity and that, of the 535 people responsible for enacting national gun laws, 288 of them — 54 percent — have received donations from the National Rifle Association.

Our news coverage broadly compounds these problems. If people are only exposed to the national discussion through the framework of left vs. right, it follows that they will participate within that framework.

All of this stems from the need for ratings. News organizations strive to create the most entertaining product so their ad revenues are as high as possible. And it’s pretty entertaining to watch two clearly affected people scream at each other about something that, in the grand scheme of things, probably doesn’t matter all that much.

Unfortunately, its entertainment value does not correlate highly with its journalistic importance. This fusion of news and entertainment is responsible for the rapid decline of the news industry.