I started collecting newspapers in 1981. That was when the Iran hostage crisis just ended and as Ronald Reagan was about to take the oath of office. Even as a pre-teen back then, I had a sense that times were changing and that it was important to remember that event. Since then, I have periodically saved various newspapers for events that seemed significant at the time.
Growing up in Florida, it seemed our local newspaper catered more to tourists than printing real news. As a remedy, sometimes I would go to downtown Daytona Beach and walk over to a small shop right next to the old post office on Beach Street. I would pay $1.15 for a Chicago Tribune that was already a few days old (in the pre-Internet age). Back then, that was a lot of money for a paper. There was just something about reading a real newspaper. I actually remember creating my own newspaper with a manual typewriter. I used various stencils to create the title and then I would write up fake stories…oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself!
My late grandmother graciously gave me several old newspapers she had saved (apparently this runs in the family), which only further sparked my interest. One very significant one I still have is the inaugural launch of The Chicago Sun, December 4, 1941. The caption under the title reads “The New Morning Newspaper”:
If you can read the text of this photo I took of the front page, you can see the war in Europe kept the presses hot. Naturally, there is deep significance to this particular paper, coming just a few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was a shock (to most people anyway) when Japan attacked and America was plunged into war. That kind of surprise does not happen often. When it does, for example on how presidential elections sometimes turn out, it often takes a lot of time to sort things out. There are often many casualties along the way.
A serious casualty recently has been the news itself. This is often referred to as “fake news”. I define fake news as essentially blatant, gross, and often repeated inaccuracies, reported and formatted as news, and consumed as news, for manipulative purposes. It is the talk of social media, and for good reason. Traditional news outlets were caught completely off guard when Trump won the electoral delegates and the White House. Along the way, many on social media posted a variety of dubious “articles” under the guise of news. Countless sites create layouts that look like a newspaper. The headlines grab the attention of the reader. The content seems to be supported by various “sources”. Yet something is dreadfully amiss: there is a fundamental degradation of reliable and trustworthy news. I see minimally three contributing factors:
- Trust. Many of us still actually trust “mainstream” sources, though there seems to be a steady erosion of that trust. I recently commented to a friend that when Walter Cronkite went on the air to announce the assassination of President Kennedy, this was the epitome of trust in a newscaster. His emotions were genuine. The nation choked up with him on live TV in the realization of a profound loss. He and other newscasters of that era were genuinely trustworthy. While I am not a historian, the 1960s was a dramatic turning point in our country. That same decade our country slipped into chaos and distrust. “I am not a crook” Nixon would boldly say exactly 10 years later. It is speculation to suggest Cronkite marked the high water mark of public trust in the news, but it would not be too far off the think so.
- Sources and Channels. Many of us who can recall such events can also recall there were but a small number of news outlets. For that matter, on our TV dial we had a total of 4 networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. That was it! While there were differences between them, it’s like asking what kind of chicken do you want? Fried? Baked? BBQ? It was still chicken! We all know with the Internet we cannot even count how many channels (figuratively speaking) there are. Moreover, the sheer number of sources from which news outlets compile news is astounding. Like modern grocery shopping, there are vast numbers of canned products with dubious authenticity and manipulative labeling.
- Frequency and Consumption. I grew up with a morning and evening paper. In Chicago, some papers ran multiple editions daily. While radio and television filled some of the day with news, even WBBM AM only broadcast all news starting in 1968. With growing appetites for news, more stations devoted more and more time to broadcasting news or adding talk. Again, with the Internet came more and more options for non-stop news. We have become hungry consumers of news, and there are vendors of all sorts of news for all sorts of appetites.
This is not an exhaustive list, but notice how easy it is to see how we have gotten where are are today: eroding trust, exploding sources, and endless (and instant) delivery has provided a climate where fake news can grow unabated. I certainly cannot see an end to this anytime soon. Our culture is obsessed with news, particularly when it feeds into one’s pre-defined viewpoints. Bias rules the day. All the old trusted sources have lost their claims of objectivity. In a democratic society that demands insider knowledge, we are at a precarious moment in our history.
I cannot say I have a ready answer. It is not like we can turn back the clock.
My advice is plain enough: if a news source regularly seems to say things with which you strongly agree (emotionally and intellectually), you might want to rethink your news sources. In other words, critical thinking is essential. Ask yourself, “what might be motivating a particular article or story?”. Is there an agenda that can be discerned? Maybe so. Perhaps all modern news sources have an agenda. Be mindful of that and consider how you might be an unwitting target for manipulation.
Read a variety of sources, comparing and contrasting their “facts” and also the emotional ramifications (as in, how do you feel after reading a certain article?). There are still times when most outlets will be on track and we can trust the report. I simply think we cannot afford blind trust of our news sources.
The only other alternative is to withdraw into hermit life or subversive countercultures. That’s a pathetic way to live in a democracy!