by Kjerstin Thorson
Watching the very early morning local news one day I was not at all surprised to see their (new?) tagline, soaring above serious-sounding music: “We don’t tell you what to think. We just bring you the facts.” Here are some raw materials for making sense of the world, this tagline suggests (that’s what you wanted, right?). Now go do it yourself.
This is a stark contrast to Walter Cronkite’s sign off during his nearly two decades as anchor of the CBS Evening News: “and that’s the way it is.” Rhetorically, there is no messing around with “that’s the way it is.” There is nothing DIY about it. Hey, it says, thanks for watching our news show! You’ve done your job, you are informed, because we’ve done our job and have told you, unquestionably, the right way to see all the things that happened. See you tomorrow.
Of course, both slogans are untrue. A half hour or even an hour of TV news could never be the whole story of everything (even at the time that tagline was contested at CBS) and—just between you and me—there is nothing particularly “raw facty” about what gets aired on our local news.
But more importantly, both slogans are also a little bit insidious.
With Cronkite’s sign-off, it’s pretty easy to see why. “And that’s the way it is” cuts off debate about alternative interpretations of the news, and closes down the possibility that the news agenda is larger than the artificial container of a TV show. It also makes the contemporary news consumer giggle a little (when not sighing nostalgically—this may be an age thing). News media are less trusted than ever before. Fox News practically winks at you when it claims to be “Fair and Balanced.” We know there’s no way that most anything, ever, is definitely the way it is.
“We don’t tell you what to think” sounds like such a great corrective. A news organization that is at once not biased (they just give you the “facts”) and acknowledges your right—your desire—to assemble their facts into the storyline you prefer? Huzzah. It reads like a slightly goofy DIY rallying cry expected to resonate with those of us that watched the election returns across three television channels, and Twitter, and Facebook, yet still kept a finger reserved for refreshing live returns on a secretary of state’s website (or five)—you know, just to see for yourself.
The dark side, though, is the way these do-it-yourself discourses about news and politics raise the bar for the non-wonky, the politically uninterested, the people who have better or more required things to do than check their iPhones for the latest AP wires or follow the ever-growing number of breaking news rock stars on Twitter. DIY-powered notions of informed citizenship imply that this kind of information consumption—across multiple sources, always seeking out the story behind the story, never trusting, getting there first, doing it not only yourself but by yourself, on your own—is the only right way to arrive at a “real” opinion, one that qualifies citizens to vote or to take other political action.
Which is funny, a little, because we’ve never lived in a time when we all made up our minds on our own. We listen to our friends and our parents, to hints and cues from political parties or celebrities, we have conversations with neighbors at our kids’ birthday parties and, yes, sometimes we pay attention to the news media. In our current moment, a time of profound and really scary global risk—climate change, international financial crises, human rights, and so on to infinity (and beyond!)—there is also no way that any of us can figure out much of anything on our own. We should certainly not expect every person on the Internet to be their own researcher, their own 24-7 fact checker, or an independent expert on foreign policy, macro-economics, traffic patterns, identifying doctored photography or—shudder—education policy in Los Angeles. If we don’t want or don’t trust news organizations to tell us what to think, I’m fine with that. There’s a lot of good in that critique. But let’s stop setting the bar of informed citizenship so high that lots of people won’t bother paying any attention at all.