If I Ran a News Channel

I have a pet peeve. I cannot stand the expression “the other side.” By that I mean when people on television talk about political issues and describe a group of people as “the other side,” generally as a euphemism for a member of the political party to which the speaker does not belong. It drives me crazy because it flattens everything into only two possible worldviews. It assumes that the only way to view things is as a liberal or a conservative and that what you will say about any given issue can be pre-determined by which you are. It even comes up in conversations about ending polarization. “Talk to someone from ‘the other side.'” Well there are lots of sides, and we have lots of identities and lots of feelings.

I saw an interview lately with Senator Elizabeth Warren. She was asked about how immobilized Congress is by partisanship and she pushed back against this. She told a story about a bipartisan bill to make hearing aids available over the counter that made it through both houses and was signed by the president. Why did this happen? Because it was not an issue that played into any culture war narrative about the left or the right.

We can discuss all the same issues, but there are important topics that we need to depoliticize. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in a recent Ted Talk said “We have an existential threat on our hands. Our left/right divide is by far the most important divide we face… This is the urgent needs of the next 50 years and things aren’t going to get better on their own.” (A few seconds later he used my hated expression “the other side.”)

I don’t have a billion dollars to launch my own cable news network to compete with the big three, but lately I’ve been giving some thought to what I would do if I had. If you look at the cable news networks today, there is a network that has a left focus and one that has a right focus and one that tries to position itself in the center, but they are essentially doing the same thing. There is a great deal of agreement between them as to what kinds of things constitute news, what types of issues warrant discussion as news and how to talk about them. They frame almost every event in terms of what it means for the democrats or republicans chances of re-election. There was, for example, much more discussion of whether the ACA (Obamacare) would pass or be repealed and how it would effect politicians careers and the balance of power in congress and the White House, than what the law consisted of. Same with the recent tax plan.

A while back I found myself watching this Youtube clip of Alain de Botton promoting his book “The News: A User’s Manual.” I was taken with his idea, which comes in about the 35:00 mark, (sorry, I couldn’t figure out how to book mark the video with a start time on Word Press) that the problem with news is that it does not have enough biases. That is to say, rather than framing discussion through the lens of left/right we could frame them through other biases or perspectives. His example of possible alternative biases are a Buddhist bias or a psychoanalytic bias or through the perspective of Walt Whitman.

Some biases that I could imagine, and would like to see represented on my imagined network, would include an aesthetic bias, a community bias, a citizenship bias. Perhaps these would be particular hours of programming– the Buddhist hour, the aesthetic hour…

De Botton’s “School of Life” experimented with the idea of news through a philosopher’s bias in the now defunct The Philosopher’s Mail.

A key principle was that news should target our needs. When a train in France was fatally derailed by a falling rock, we took the view that this was important news; not because we need to know about the state of transport in mountain regions but because it provides a sombre memento mori: a lesson for everyone about the fragility of existence and therefore, of our duty to forgive others, to get on with what really matters and to appreciate what is good in our lives. 

(I am reporting on this late in order to combat a bias that de Botton points out early in his Google talk, the news’s assumption that the most important things are the most recent.)

In any case, if had my own news empire, its bias would be focused on eliminating left/right framing. There would be no talk about “both sides” of an issue: because there are many sides to every issue. And I would love to see hours devoted to these different sorts of biases with watchable, well-informed hosts who took fresh views at the events of the world.  This might produce a different way of looking at the same events being covered on other networks, or it might priorities different stories entirely.

If politicians or political candidates came on the network to discuss current events or legislation, they would not be identified with an R or a D. This would take some getting used to. People look to those letters to decide, before the person speaks, whether they should agree or disagree.

There is, however, other information I would include. We have amble space on the screen and have become accustomed to tickers at the bottom and bullet points at the side. So instead of the R or D, the screen would show information about the politician’s geographic region, what the main industries are there– to give a sense of who that person represents. Additionally– and this is important– the biggest sources of campaign funds would be listed.

There is a strange disconnect in journalistic standards in this area. You would expect that if a news source reported on a scientific study on germs they would not leave out the fact that it was funded by Clorox bleach. It may be that the researcher would have found bleach is most effective in killing the particular kinds of germs it studied regardless of funding source, but it is a factor that people should know about. Not so with politicians. Yes, the information is available if you’re proactive. You can find out that your local senator was mostly funded by the chemical and banking industries, but that information should be made available at the time the viewer is evaluating a representative’s statements. The fact that a particular politician’s campaign was largely funded by health insurance companies may not impact her vote on health care policy, but we should be able to evaluate whether it does or not easily.

Being reminded regularly that this is the representative’s constituency, and these are their financial supporters, might change politician’s behavior to avoid the optics of caring more for one group than the other. If nothing else, it would help voters make informed choices.

I would also issue a moratorium on basing which stories to cover on what is trending online. As I’ve noted here before, there is a kind of story which is naturally suited to thrive in the digital environment. That is a story that allows someone to use it as an identity claim on social media. They tend to be tied to the culture wars in some fashion, often revolve around someone saying something stupid, which have little real world impact on people’s day to day lives, but which can elicit outrage and backlash against the outrage.

My channel would also not report on polls and day to day fluctuations in politicians approval ratings, treating that metric like a value on the stock exchange.

While we’re at it, I think enough channels cover the ups and downs of Wall Street. If you want to find that, there are plenty of places to look. Instead, my news channel would find different measures of economic health to report on.

The main point would be to widen the frame and to view the world differently.

If anyone is out there with a billion dollars to launch a new news channel, please feel free to use my ideas.

 

 

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