Boomers have seen the changing face of news in America

How many different ways can baby boomers wax nostalgic for “the good ol’ days?” Beyond, we mean, elections without the tensions tearing us apart today. For BoomerCafé’s co-founder and publisher David Henderson, a longtime journalist himself, it’s nostalgia for the good ol’ days when a local radio station was really local. As he writes in this Boomer Opinion piece, today it’s corporate, and remote.

Seems like wired in the nostalgic memory of many baby boomers, there’s a local radio station. For many of us, it was a sort of hub for our shared interests.

A local radio station was a place where we could phone in a song dedication and smile when, within a few minutes, we heard the mention on-air of our special friend. Radio back then broadcast all things local. Not just commercials for local merchants and car dealers but high school sports, local news, and on Sundays, a local sermon in the morning for “shut-ins.”

A local or college radio station in the 70s.

Local radio stations were usually locally owned by people who enjoyed the immersive community involvement. Yes, the owners made money but they also gave generously back to their communities. Our communities.

A local station in Arlington, Virginia, is where I first heard Elvis, and then a few years later, the Beatles. That station is where I ended up getting my first job in broadcasting, muddling through on weekends. I don’t think I was very good but it was so much fun.

At the same time, I would like to note, I arose early each morning to deliver The Washington Post in my neighborhood… and then I would come home to read the paper before school.

Most of all, those stations did their best to deliver accurate, truthful news, whether it came from a printer of the Associated Press (or also, in those days, United Press International) or from a local reporter. There were checks and balances.

Cities and towns, large and small, had newspapers, too, that reflected their communities. Journalism was a respected craft, practiced with pride. We actually learned of events in our city, our country, and our world by listening to the radio, reading the newspaper, and watching the news on TV.

Things changed in the early 1980s though, when big business began buying up those little local stations, installing remote-control equipment, firing the staffs, and broadcasting from one central location to any number of distant stations at once. There was no longer anything “local” about it. The objective shifted solely to making money.

Then, driven by greed, financial profit turned against newspapers. One in five has ceased printing. More than 2,000 have shut their doors in just the last 15 years. Others are victims of corporate consolidation and layoffs.

Which brings us to the shocker: today in the United States, six corporations own roughly 90-percent of all media.

I worked for CBS News back in the ‘70s when much of the company was still owned by its founder, William Paley. Today, CBS is a small cog in the television and film empire of National Amusements, owned by Sumner Redstone. CBS is owned by the same outfit that owns Nickelodeon and Paramount Pictures.

ABC is owned by Disney along with Marvel Comics and Pixar. NBC is a small piece of the Comcast galaxy of companies, including The Weather Channel and Universal Studios. Fox News is owned by NewsCorp with Rupert Murdoch at the head. NewsCorp also oversees Dow Jones Newswires, MarketWatch, The Wall Street Journal, and New York Post, among many other pieces of the puzzle.

Now, who still believes that the quality of journalism, the reportorial skills, and the lack of agenda at those major news organizations rivals what we, as young boomers, heard from Walter Cronkite or Frank Reynolds or John Chancellor?

Walter Cronkite of CBS News.

That was then, this is now. Now, television anchors are well-quaffed, slick, glamorous. On-camera reporters are all about the drama they can convey in their few seconds on the air, along with waving their hands and gesturing with their arms to get attention… the performance known as the “walkie-talkie.”

When you tuned in this week for election results, what were you thinking… honestly? Were you turning to Fox News or NBC News or any other source of information because you were consciously seeking clarity, accuracy, and the truth about what’s happening to our nation at perhaps the most contentious time in modern history… or were you turning to a particular news organization because their reporting promised to be something that makes you feel good, or the fastest to call a winner?

See what’s happened? News today, whether on-air or in print, is designed to meet the emotional needs or appeal to the political leaning of particular audiences, not necessarily to provide intellectual clarity or purpose. Established guardrails of journalistic accuracy, balance, and truthfulness as not embraced by a growing number of so-called news outfits today. It’s easy to be fooled.

For example… a Trump administration coronavirus adviser Dr. Scott Atlas recently gave a 30-minute TV interview to “RT” because he apparently thought it was just another conservative TV service. Not so. RT is the Russian state-funded TV channel. Atlas claimed he was unaware that RT was a registered foreign agent and apologized for allowing himself to be taken advantage of.

Dr. Scott Atlas… even a top White House adviser is fooled by the media.

Then, no less than Trump apologist Rudy Giuliani— who would certainly know that RT is a propaganda arm for Russia’s President Putin— appeared on RT on election day itself, aiding Russia in disseminating disinformation about the election (for example, “that Joe Biden is “suffering from dementia”).

Rudy Giuliani on RT, the propaganda arm for Russia’s President Putin.

I’m not waxing for the ‘old days.’ I know better than that. But I do admit to being a lifelong news junkie, both professionally and personally. And this I know: news today is not what it used to be, not by any measure. That doesn’t mean there are not well-meaning and dedicated professional journalists in the trade. There are.

But those in America’s news industry at any level are beholding to a higher devil… a corporate demon with shareholder and financial agendas and goals. And, while some might fiercely deny it, the act of beholding creates an ever-present ominous cloud over ‘news in America,’ a cloud that has the potential to sway and compromise and appease corporate goals and political pressures, at the public’s expense.

The political agendas that are intended to manipulate audience opinions are what concern me the most. Take, for example, Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair operates 193 stations across the country in more than 100 areas, largely in the South and Midwest. The American Political Science Review has found that “stations bought by Sinclair reduce coverage of local politics, increase national coverage and move the ideological tone of coverage in a conservative direction.” Stated another way, Sinclair is an ultra-conservative propaganda machine.

To use a cliché, it is what it is. But we still have some control. So watch the news, but challenge what you hear and see. Watch it, but question what may be presented as conventional wisdom.

5 Comments

  1. Great piece, David.

    I remember watching The Huntley-Brinkley Report and Walter Cronkite. In those days when they departed from the hard news to opinion, they said so. Now it is all info-tainment with a bias.

    It is up to all of us to think of news as we would food: by consuming a healthy balanced diet and reading the proverbial label beforehand.

  2. Thank goodness for NPR/PBS. You don’t mention that these are the only stations owned by the listeners. They offer excellent coverage of all things local as well as balanced pieces on the national and international front. And, these aren’t 30-second, hand-waiving drama pieces, but long, thoughtful ones that have the time to go deep.

    I too am a bit of a news junkie, but I’ve been a sponsor of NPR for probably 30 years and my local station is my ONLY source of news each morning. Urge your readers to listen to and support their local NPR/PBS station to combat the propaganda and headlines-only coverage offered by the others.

  3. Dave,
    Very informative. So much of what is called “journalism” is actually advocacy journalism when you look at the print media outlets that lead the field
    In this country. And then, of course, we have the radio talk show hosts who advocate for the right. This is a time when we need to use our critical thinking skills more than ever.

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