Welcome to the last post of January 2021. It’s our standard Sunday edition. I want to dive into the shift in media coverage over the last few decades. However, I’m not interested in taking a partisan approach. Instead, I want to discuss the law of unintended consequences.
This term is typically reserved for the field of economics. It describes a law, policy, or regulatory action that has future consequences that either couldn’t be foreseen or were simply not properly investigated before the act was instituted. If we apply this theory to the field of television news and entertainment, we can identify the changes that produced unintended consequences in the way we consume media today.
Cable television began in the late 1940s as a means of providing over-the-air signal boosts to geographically hard-to-reach locales across the country. It was completely innocuous. Entirely benign. Nothing more than a means of getting more information to more people.
The cable industry went through a long period of limited growth. It was restricted for a variety of reasons that kept it from growing organically. Those reasons are a topic for another day.
In 1972, with gradual deregulation, the first pay-for-TV service was launched as HBO. It was a novelty until a brilliant mogul stepped into the fray to launch his own programming. I am, of course, referring to Ted Turner.
You may know Turner as the creator of CNN, which operated as the first 24-hour cable news network in 1980. Over the next few years, more deregulation came to the cable industry.
Cable television started down its current path in 1984. It was originally nothing more than an act of capitalistic deregulation. Still, I enjoy a degree of intellectual irony to compare this genesis of cable TV, as we know it now, to the classic novel 1984, by George Orwell, describing a dystopian society. Naturally, this is nothing more than coincidence. Still, it’s interesting to consider.
Circling back (that’s my jab at Jen Psaki), most people would readily admit we have countless media agencies claiming to be news outlets, catering to a specific audience. The direction a particular audience leans is not relevant to the observation that it does, in fact, exist. Whether people choose to identify with one political Party, ideology, or curated analysis of the facts as presented, news has become a cafeteria selection from a smorgasbord of available options.
So, in conducting this autopsy of the death of objective news media, I cannot help but wonder if the law of unintended consequences brought us to where we are. In the early days of television news reporting, you had three options: ABC, CBS, and NBC. While they may have wanted to sink one of the other ships to grow their own viewership, there was a gentlemen’s agreement to maintain journalistic integrity. Surprisingly little information is available about this on the internet. Most pieces are nothing more than lamentations for the good ole days, like this one.
With so many options available on your television, tablet, or other media device, we’ve devolved into a back-and-forth of snatch-and-grab tactics to woo viewers or clicks. It’s understandable; it’s also unfortunate. When your job depends on ratings, you make Faustian deals to increase your market share. It’s an unintended consequence. It compels more outlandishness because that’s what the target audience wants.
In thinking about my writing for this space, I read some advice columns before I started on this journey. One of the salient pieces of wisdom I took to heart was to ‘avoid duplicating what already exists.’ Don’t be the news. Don’t offer the same analysis that is already available. Don’t sound like everyone else who is writing a blog.
I internalized this advice. I decided that whether or not I gained an audience, I would write what I wanted in the way I wanted to write it. I’m not an objective journalist. I will never aspire to be an objective journalist. I am not here to offer breaking news. Instead, I want to provide my analysis on events that have already occurred. Through this analysis, I hope to engage your critical thinking to consider perspectives you may have overlooked.
And writing in this way allows me to remain honest and faithful to my core. If you’ve read this far in today’s post, you are probably comfortable with my approach. I prefer a slow build-up. I’m happy to offer a glimpse of our destination in the beginning. I like to mix in analogies and paint a picture for you along the way. I hope to leave you with a fresh outlook on a topic that compels your curiosity to dig deeper into the issues I present.
If you think I’ve taken you woefully off-track, I promise to tie these two topics together.
You see, I’m not a journalist. I’ve said it before. I said it again today. The people I am decrying claim to be journalists. They may or may not believe in a traditionally objective approach to reporting the news. Regardless, to call themselves journalists conjures images in our minds of an individual who is presenting us with objective facts and news. When we get narrative-driven analysis couched as news from supposed journalists, it creates a dissonance in how we are expected to digest what we’ve learned and move on with our lives.
The unintended consequences of the deregulation of cable television created a competitive marketplace for news. This has been mocked by many aphorisms from if it bleeds, it leads, to never let a crisis go to waste.
As for me, I’ll continue to sit here and offer nothing more than my own opinionated analysis on topics and events that unfold. Certainly, my own actions will have unintended consequences. That’s something I’ll have to worry about down the road.
As always, this has been the World According to Chris. Please hit the like button or leave a reply.