To think about the news (4): Ask, who is trying to get my attention, and why?

I have described three strategies for listening, thinking, and responding to the news: asking if it is really news, identifying the point of view, and questioning who wins and who loses. There is a fourth dynamic that requires a strategic response, as well, and it is how our attention is captured and why. On air, or online someone is always trying to sell us something. First they need to capture our attention, our “eyeballs” as I just heard a commentator call it. While radio is still the most ubiquitous platform and music the predominant vehicle, these comments could apply to the news and talk shows there, as well. Our attention has been a commodity for quite some time. In fact, the first television commercial aired before the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies game in July 1941, although few homes had televisions before 1947.

What is being sold and why has changed since those early days when a few products – soda pop, a car, a brand of cigarettes, the latest time saving appliance, or an automobile – have become thousands today. There are estimates that people may see up to 5000 ads a day (depending on time spent on media). Ads are not just selling products to use on things we need to do – wash the clothes, cook and clean, drive, bank, invest, or work online. They sell ideas to shape our lives and, even, determine for us who we are. All media outreach modes are sponsored by companies, or other kinds of organizations, including trade associations, foundations, and nonprofits that want to sell us something. This is especially true in the selling of the news and opinion. It is not necessarily true that any of these entities have nefarious purposes, although some surely do.

Let’s consider think tanks. They often sponsor programs directly, or support scholars, journalists, or commentators who appear on the many news and political analysis venues that are scattered across network and cable stations and the Internet. They are “principally in the business of selling their ideas” (https://thebestschools.org/features/most-influential-think-tanks/), and this link describes some of the players in this field. Most could be considered mainstream, they represent traditional conservative or liberal/progressive points of view. For example, you may recognize the names of the American Enterprise Institute (conservative), Center for American Progress (progressive), the Brookings Institute (independent), Cato Institute (libertarian), Guttmacher Institute (liberal), or the Heritage Foundation (conservative). I heard all of these mentioned on programs last week, or noticed their names in the list of sponsors. The point of view ranges from the conservative committed to limited government to the progressive committed to the common good over narrow self-interest.

In general, these are positions that can be argued. However, even these influencers are changing as more of their funders are coming from business instead of foundations. (https://www.npr.org/2017/09/20/551364067/who-controls-think-tanks-shift-in-funding-highlights-changes-in-the-industry) It is not a hopeful sign for more reasoned dialogue about national or global issues if think tanks are becoming more like industry and trade groups. It is one thing to debate ideas based on ideology, whether of Adam Smith of the Wealth of Nations or the Adam Smith of the Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is quite another thing to debate social and economic policy dictated by the bottom line of the few individuals who benefit (the 1% of the 1%). Many of those ‘analysts’ we see on news programs actually represent individuals and corporations that have a vested interest in a limited government that does not regulate coal, oil, or gas emissions; that does not protect rivers and streams either as drinking water, or habitat for endangered species; or that does not insist on the protection of workers, a safety net for the poor, and affordable health care. In fact, they may even represent groups that pretend to represent consumers like Americans for Prosperity funded by the Koch brothers. (https://www.mediamatters.org/research/2015/07/31/media-disclosure-guide-here-are-the-industry-fu/204708) Such organizations present daunting obstacles when real engaged citizens seek to play a role in positive movements for social change to create a “more humane and ecologically sustainable global future.”

By now you may be saying I have made watching (and reading and listening to) the news impossible or, at least, a formidable task. You may be saying, “but I just want to know what is going on.” I hope I have made the case that it is impossible to know what is going on without asking the questions I have proposed in these brief essays, including the final question: who is trying to get my attention and why? This question demands that we delve a bit more deeply than point of view, which is often just shaped by background and context and not by the bottom line. I have not mentioned the Mueller report this time, but it is worth noting that the bottom line was paramount in some of the investigated activities, as well. It is the bottom line, the commodification of almost everything that makes us human that is our potential undoing as a democracy and, maybe, as a species.

JoAnn McAllister

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