COMMENTARY: How We Got to 'Fake News'

by Jim Forsyth

We hear a lot these days about 'fake news,' which focuses the twenty year battle that those of us in the media have been waging, and generally losing, to try to convince the American people that we are in fact not biased against their point of view.

But where did all this talk about media bias come from?  Unlike many trends, I think you can point to one specific time and place where the idea began to take hold that the media was unfair.  That date and time is Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 18, 1991, when Gen. Norman Schwartzopf began his 'daily briefings' to the world on the progress of the Gulf War.

A couple of things came together on that date to begin America's path to where we are today.

First of all, CNN was brand new, and the concept of 'all news' programming was brand new.  There was no Fox News or MSNBC yet, and the three major networks (there was no Fox Network in 1991) were still focused on the traditional concept of broadcasting 'evening newscasts' which were a compilation of the day's news stories.  

Also, Electronic News Gathering technology, which had been around since the late 1970s, had reached the point where live broadcasts of 'events' was finally possible (contrary to general belief events from the Hindenberg explosion to JFK's assasination were not broadcast 'live,' the technology did not exist then).

Gen. Schwartzkopf's daily briefings were the first 'news events' to be broadcast live, something that is commonplace today.  And the viewers saw two things.  

First of all, they saw what the World War II generation, which was the dominant political and opinion-diving group at the time, felt were impudent young civilians who had generally never served in uniform, daring to question, even occasionally grill, a four-star general about his military strategy.  This created the image of the media as being disrespectful, especially of the military and to the authority they trusted, and appearing to focus on its own image at the expense of the general.  Would Gen. Patton have been treated this way?  Gen. MacArthur?

Secondly, the American people saw how an hour long news conference was boiled down in many cases to a ten second sound byte and a sixty second v/o standup.  That means they saw all of the material which was not being used in the media reports, much of which the viewers felt was critical information, and the viewers began to wonder whether that material was not used because it didn't fit some sort of 'media agenda.'  I don't think the public had ever really thought about news conferences, interviews, etc. in terms of the material that was NOT broadcast or printed, but seeing an event in that way galvanized the idea that...maybe...just maybe...the reporters were hiding something...and they began to wonder...why was it being hidden.

It wasn't long after Gen. Schwartzkopf's daily briefings that the World Wide Web began to blossom, leading to the sorts of intentionally agenda-driven news coverage that had never been seen, outside of specifically agenda-driven publications, "The Daily Worker," "National Review," to name a few.

This allowed a confirmation of the belief, which had been planted by seeing behind the curtain of news coverage at the Schwartzkopf briefings,  that the 'mainstream' reporting America was getting was either slanted to the right by 'corporate owners' or to the left by 'reporters with an agenda.'  At that point there was no turning back, and cynicism about the media grew to the place where it is today.

Had Gen. Schwartzkopf chosen not to deliver daily briefings, it would have been some other event, probably during the 1992 Presidential campaign, which served the same purpose.  It is clear that this is a genie that can never be placed back into the bottle, with still uncertain implications for the future of journalism.  But the loss of that trusted impartial referee is one we will certainly regret, and probably in less time than the quarter century it has taken us to get to this point.

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