Morris: News Filters Aren’t New
I participated in a PBS TV show last week – three General Assembly watchers and a host doing our annual legislative preview session – and it was a little unsettling.
Because of the pandemic, only two participants were in-studio – properly distanced, of course – and two of us chimed in remotely via teleconferencing. The video I saw of the others in their little Zoom computer windows was live, but the sound was delayed five seconds because of the FCC’s edict to keep profanity off the air.
So, I would see people’s lips move, then, seconds later, hear them start talking. It took some effort to avoid visual cues and just listen to the words. Our communication seemed exasperatingly out of sync, discordant and misaligned.
It was a fitting start for 2021, which so many of us had foolishly believed couldn’t help but be better than 2020, the year of masking and sheltering in place and economic collapse and cities under siege and petty tyrants quoting experts who couldn’t keep their stories straight. That whole year was out of phase, as if an alternate universe had seeped into this one and reshaped our perception of reality, the whole disaggregated and reassembled clownishly.
And the new reality has been hard to grasp, try as we might to bring it into focus. We need reliable information on which to form our opinions, and the sad fact is that 2020 was also the year when our unraveling trust in the media frayed even further. Only about 40 percent of us, the polls say, even believe the news we get.
And this bulletin just in: January isn’t over yet, and already we have a contender for most preposterous statement of the year.
From an article in Politico:
“For a half-century, the trend in political culture has been inexorably in one direction: toward the steady loosening and eventually the near-obliteration of media filters. The erosion of traditional establishment filters — first by such mediums as direct mail, talk radio and cable, later and most powerfully by social media — has been a primary factor in the rise of potent ideological movements on right and left alike…. [T]he decision Friday night by Twitter to permanently ban Trump from its platform . . . represents an effort to reassert the notion that filters have a place in political communication.”
Filters have not disappeared. They have proliferated. The talk-radio host and cable news director decide who and what get on the air no less than the editor decides what goes in the newspaper. Social media managers have always carefully curated their content. Twitter’s ban of the president of the United States – as breathtakingly audacious as it might be – is merely a continuation of that practice.
My PBS cohorts and I covered perhaps a dozen potential bills in our half-hour on the coming legislative session out of the roughly 1,500 bills that will be considered. That makes us a filter, one very small filter in a news world full of them.
Here’s a little secret: Unless we see it with our own two eyes or hear it with our own two ears, the information we get has been filtered; it’s the very definition of news. And everyone with a filter has an agenda that might or might not have something to do with the knowledge we need in our daily lives.
But once there were just a few filters – the local paper and a couple of national ones, the three network TV stations – and we could pretend their agendas represented a national consensus of the way we were supposed to perceive reality. Today, there is no consensus, and those who dispense the material and dish the scoops seem determined to keep it that way.
Perhaps there will come a medium that pulls it all together and gives us an honest search for the truth, just the facts on which we can base informed opinions. Until then, there’s nothing to do but to choose the filters we get our information through.
Choose just one or two, and reality will remain fractured, our perception of it forever out of sync. The more filters we use, the better informed we will be. From many voices, truth. It has always been so.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.