Anthony Rudel is author of Hello, Everybody!: The Dawn of American Radio.
When members of the Obama administration announced that they did not consider Fox a real news network, they were actually bringing attention to what has become the sad reality of real news gathering in this country: It's disappearing faster than contestants on Survivor. While some commentators and First Amendment mis-readers sing the praises of a society where a proliferation of electronic media outlets and the Internet have developed into a pseudo-citizens' press, they fail to realize that all that has happened is a substitution of quantity for quality.
As newspapers pare their newsgathering organizations and magazines trim their investigative teams to save money, we are left with a culture of instantaneous information or, now more frequently, misinformation. The American audience is bombarded with syndicated radio talk shows with hosts who, day after day, pound their beliefs into devoted listeners' minds, and cable "news" shows hosted by failed politicians and their comely sidekicks, or angsty, angry white men who concoct imagined plots, badger their guests into agreeing with them, or cry on air to make a point. Finally, the Internet, that uber-communications tool of good, has become the home of viral rumor spreading and bloggers whose deepest thoughts should have been shared privately with a psychiatrist rather than the wide audience they have found. The scariest part is how unchecked Internet blather has now become source material for cable news. Does the phrase "fact-check" mean anything?
Ironically, it was a free-market, minimal government intervention president who, more than 80 years ago, warned about the kind of opinion-dominated media that has evolved. Herbert Hoover, who as commerce secretary organized the radio spectrum and spearheaded the efforts that led to the rather restrictive Radio Act of 1927, was worried about the incredible power of a message delivered, unchecked, by electronic media. Comparing print journalism to radio—the only electronic medium of that day—he wrote: "Truth is far less carefully guarded on the radio than in the press. The newspaper editor has a chance to see a statement before it goes to the press. But on the radio it is often out before the station can stop it. There is little answer to a lying microphone."
Then, as is true today, newspapers were struggling because they had minimized rather than embraced the power of radio, just as they did a decade ago with the Internet. One can only imagine Herbert Hoover's sadness were he alive today and could see how the problems he foresaw on the radio have spread and worsened with the wild increase in available, mostly unchecked media. The blatant absence of any distinction between what is news and what is opinion has created a world where the victim is journalism itself, and the broadcast excesses from both the right and the left side of the political spectrum will eventually lead to a culture of ill-informed or completely disconnected citizens.
Thomas Jefferson wrote: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." But let's be honest, Thomas Jefferson was spared listening to talk radio or cable news punditry. That din, the volume of that discourse, will eventually silence the reporting of any actual news.
There is however, a silver lining in the clouded news world. In reality, with its salvo against Fox, the White House may have finally found a way to hasten an end to the inanity and the insanity, because, if it hasn't happened already, a vast majority of Americans will tune out the "news" completely, preferring to believe that watching reality shows is more real than what is on the news. The network-eat-network culture may be a good thing because, eventually, the blowhards who claim to be reporting will discover that no one is really interested in news that is by the media, for the media, and all about the media.