The title of this post refers to a story usually attributed to the Cherokees (although evidently its origins are murky). Commenters to previous posts have occasionally referenced it.
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Like many of you, I’ve loved this parable; it reminds us that we have moral/ethical choices (no matter what psychological researchers tell us…). What brought it to mind, rather forcefully, was an article from Politico, analyzing the business model employed by cable news channels. Apparently, their practices aren’t all that different from those employed by Facebook. And it isn’t only Fox. All of the cable networks–CNN, MSNBC, etc.– “behave more like political players — emphasizing one side while disparaging the “enemy” — than they do independent news organizations.”
By flattering the perceived political prejudices of their audiences and avoiding a story when the news becomes inconvenient to their agenda, the networks behave like vendors of political entertainment.
There’s nothing immoral or unprofessional, of course, in pursuing a partisan news agenda. There’s a long tradition of partisan, activist journalism in America, starting with the colonial era and extending to today. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, labor organizers like John Swinton, naturalists like John Muir and anti-corporatists like Ida Tarbell and Ralph Nader, just to name a few names from the past, reported the news through ideological lenses, and magazines like Mother Jones, Reason, and the National Review continue that practice. But these activist journalists made it apparent where their reporting was coming from. The cable networks, on the other hand, pretend, to use the old Fox slogan, to be “fair and balanced.” By attempting to have it both ways — tilting while at the same time posing as straight news — cable news tarnishes journalism’s good name and needlessly increases viewer tribalism.
I would quibble with the Politico story’s portrayal in degree–“They all do it” elides the rather obvious evidence that Fox “does it” to a far greater degree than CNN or MSNBC. (Confusing fair coverage with false equivalence really isn’t analytic rigor.) But that said, the article raises an issue that has no identifiable solution.
The problem is that, unlike the out-and-out propagandists and liars I posted about yesterday, news anchors–even on Fox– aren’t lying. (The pundits–the Tucker Carlsons and similar “personalities”– are a different matter, and it’s troubling that most viewers don’t recognize the difference between actual news and the wildly distorted commentary they are being fed.) Like all of us, news anchors and reporters can only view the world through their own eyes. Their individual lives and backgrounds inevitably form the context of what they see and report.
Yesterday, I cheered on the growing number of lawsuits against the most egregious propagandists–the individuals and websites trafficking in (sorry for the expletive) obvious bullshit.
The dilemma presented by the “slant” of the cable networks, falls into a different category. For one thing, omitting coverage of events that may be considered unpalatable or inconvenient or simply un-newsworthy isn’t technically lying, although in many cases it certainly is intellectually dishonest. For another, “spin,” intentional or unintentional, is ubiquitous–again, because we all see and filter events through our own world-views.
Saying that we all inevitably see the world through our own eyes isn’t simply another way of saying that we bring our own biases and prejudices to our news consumption. It also involves bringing such knowledge as we may have to bear, which is why I keep harping on the importance of civic education. (If your favorite “personality” is attributing the failure of Congress to pass the XYZ bill to President Biden, for example, it helps if you are aware of the GOP’s constant misuse of the filibuster and a President’s legal inability to do anything about that particular form of obstructionism–or actually, if you just understand that American Presidents aren’t kings.)
The Politico article was troubling, however, because it demonstrated one of the many, many ways in which Americans today are feeding the wrong wolf.