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Solving America’s Fake News Problem: Part 1 – A Fragmented Fourth Estate | Op-Ed

I started journalism school in 2016. Admittedly, this was not a great year for journalists. Rhetoric antagonizing the press had entered the mainstream and much of the American public began to lose trust in the institution of the free press.

Rather than sit by and idly let the important function of the fourth estate buckle under this rhetoric, I set out to understand the ways in which mainstream media was failing the public and find concrete answers for how to rectify the problems associated with a fragmented press.

Now, four years and one formal degree later, I have placed a large amount of importance on the role that satirical news programming can play in protecting democracy and ensuring constructive civic engagement.

  • In this two-part series, I will first lay out the problems currently plaguing the television news giants, then I will explain the ways in which Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and their peers, are important fixtures in the future of American democracy.

In Short: The role of our current mainstream media has been perverted. The emergence of cable news caused the sensationalist, for-profit experience which fragmented the original purpose of the Fourth Estate (the press or media). As a result, the future of a progressive and democratic society is uncertain.

  • Canada is not exempt from these same issues, but more notably, Canada’s media landscape has been shaped by American headlines.
  • For this reason, we cannot ignore the problems of fake news, and must also think about how we engage with media coming from both sides of the border.

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The Fourth Estate: An independent apparatus of society with the primary purpose of managing and maintaining democracy by holding elected officials accountable.

  • The idea of this emerged during the Enlightenment. Recognition was beginning to grow for the importance of a knowledgeable citizenry in promoting civic engagement.
  • Born from this idea was the establishment of an independent and private press, free to scrutinize and criticize the powerful in the name of public interest.

In America, the desire and promotion of a free press was met with extreme enthusiasm and heralded as a great protector of democracy.

While the idealized press and the reality of the press has never completely aligned, for centuries, the press was able to hold the trust of the public and provide the necessary information to continue the promotion of a democratic society.

The Beginning of the End:

1940 – The first news broadcast aired on television, and the marriage of entertainment and news was consummated.

1980 – With the invention of cable television, this relationship between entertainment and news evolved with toxicity, and the era of fragmentation began.

James Poniewozik, an American journalist with the New York Times, explored the effect that this new medium had on America in his 2019 book Audience of One – the crux of the issue lies with the vast choice offered by cable television.

  • Television morphed from a mass experience (conducted by three major networks) to a wholly customizable experience,
  • Every genre that had been broadcast on network television received its own, dedicated, cable channel.
  • Then it became several channels for one genre. Each channel further specifying, targeting, and dividing into tight niches.

With this new medium came a new objective for the press. If early broadcast news ostensibly positioned itself as an evolved fourth estate working in the public interest, cable news did not carry the same motivations.

Supply and Demand: A growth in supply is only valuable when it is accompanied by a growth in demand.

  • In an effort to grow demand and gain viewership, the cable news giants upped the drama of the news, bolstering opinionated, emotional, and provocative personalities, separating news coverage from the non-partisan, calm journalism of past generations.
  • This competitive market bred the identities and realities touted by each major network, and subsequently the identities and realities of their audiences.

The Cable News Wars: The vigor with which networks leaned into their brand identities resulted in some coining this era of subversion “the cable news wars”.

  • The fragmented media splintered the American consciousness and distorted the democratic function played by the fourth estate.
  • The ideal of an informed public is incompatible with a media that cannot agree upon the information deemed essential (or truthful) for the public.
  • The entertainment programs masquerading as journalism perverted the ability of Americans to become informed on matters of substance, and dangerously blurred the truth with personal convictions.

One can find plentiful and pervasive examples of partisan, entertainment-fueled news programming across all of the major cable networks.

  • Some voices are more prolific, inflammatory, and polarizing than others.
  • Ultimately, however, any “news” program that runs for 24 hours a day, often requiring the inclusion of pundits and roundtables (this is an entirely different way in which our fourth estate has failed us), cannot authentically be objective and helpful to the civic functioning of a society. 

Bottom Line: The sensationalist, 24-hour-a-day news programming has fractured the idea of a fair and objective press in America. Accepting this reality does not require the public to abandon journalism, nor does it require one to position the press as “the enemy of the people”.

  • Instead, we must begin to seek out new avenues through which the civic function of the fourth estate can be executed.

In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss one – perhaps unorthodox – way for audiences to regain agency over how they interact with current events and interact with the world around them. Satirical news programming, whose bias and entertainment-focus is blatant, is one way for us to reestablish a functioning fourth estate and save democracy.