Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Fear, Free Press, and the First Amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
– First Amendment to the United States Constitution


We're at the point where entertainment has become more real than reality and we now suffer from information obesity.

Exercise: Fill in the blank:
"Houston, we__________ a problem."


TV news should make us better informed citizens; instead, it's making us unnecessarily more anxious. Here's why that is, and my personal solution for that problem.

Freedom of the Press

Why is a free press so important? Like the rest of the Constitution, its primary purpose is to give rights to individual citizens while limiting the power of the federal government. Freedom of the press is a key part of this right to prevent the government from interfering with the distribution of information and opinions.

Nowadays, it seems that the news has moved away from distributing information and, instead, it is predominantly supplying opinions disguised as news. Rather than telling citizens the facts, the media (especially cable TV news) seems to be telling people what to think, instead of how to think, which has the effect of dumbing us down.

The news media does this because we, as citizens, get lazy. Simply put, we now view TV news more as a form of entertainment than as a source of unbiased information. Journalists have, effectively, become agents of the news rather than reporters of it. Many so-called news reports on TV have been poisoned with opinions skewed to their audience's beliefs. This is clearly seen on both the left and right, liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican slants on news articles causing more and more division among the population. Rather than a single pluralistic America, it's clear that there are commercial and political advantages to the businesses and organizations who participate in increasing this polarization. Their gains are our losses. While it might be easy to point a finger at one side, the reaction of the other side seems to do very little for d├ętente. Rather than trying to empathetically understand another's view point, we, all to frequently, shoot back with reasons they're wrong. This causes the other party to become defensive and dig their heals in. Many times, the reality of both sides --- why both sides think their opinion is the right one --- has a lot to do with context and their time horizon; short-term thinking vs. long-term thinking. But that's only one small point of a bigger problem.

No Longer Informing Citizens

As Americans, we've become over-entertained with news resulting in us not becoming informed citizens.

Here's a test for anyone, from a casual news citizen to a TV "news junkie" (typically, news junkies are people who seem well-informed, usually due to a fear of missing out):

1. What information do you miss out on by getting your news from reading (articles online, in a newspaper, or magazine) instead of watching TV? (In other words, reading the news typically delivers information with more logic and less emotion compared to watching it, regardless if it's CNN, FoxNews, MSNBC, etc.)

2. Even more importantly, how well-informed are we when we pick up a voting ballot for the first time?

For me, the answer to #2 is that I feel very uninformed. I have no idea who most of my local, state, and federal politicians are when their names appear on my ballot. I'm hard pressed to name more than a few members of my city council or county supervisors except for when I have direct contact with them. We know very little about our local politics for many reasons, such as it's boring or there's less advertising revenue from local news compared to national or international sensational stories; frequently, the latter have virtually no impact on us.

The rescue of the 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave in Thailand grabbed national attention. But why should I, as an American, living in San Diego, be more affected by a story in Thailand while ignoring the plight of the others in my own city? The answer to this question is important. In this article, NPR boiled the answer down to one word: Drama.

Drama is more entertaining than simple, important facts.

Reducing TV News Anxiety

How do we reduce the unnecessary anxiety we get from TV news? In order to do that, we have to consume less of it --- much less of it --- while focusing on more impactful news in our lives, which is the less entertaining local news.

The first step I took, many years ago, was to simply not subscribe to any TV services (I only have an Internet cable subscription). This Vox video explains how TV news sucks us in especially during terrorist attacks or mass shootings. We get spun up, full of emotions and fear, which typically causes us to think irrationally. Everyone, from the NRA to the Brady Campaign (formerly Handgun Control, Inc.) wants to reduce school mass shootings. While this is of paramount importance, we seem to overlook any significant effort to reduce the number of child deaths, each day, due to car accidents which far exceeds the number of mass shooting child deaths. Child car deaths only seems to come to a mind when we, as a parent, become concerned about our teenage kid and their fresh, new driver license.

Since I don't have live TV news, I simply read my news online. Lately, I've started to watch short clips on the Apple TV Twitter app (which behaves significantly different than Twitter on the web or the Twitter mobile app). However, I've noticed that even these short video news clips on Twitter raise my level of anxiety without providing any actionable news; and these clips certainly don't make it easier for me to pick candidates on my voting ballot.

Simply ask yourself why you're watching so much news? Are the key politicians that you constantly see in the national news helping to change your opinion; or is that news simply reaffirming your past voting decision which is something that you can't go back and undo?