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In a more sharply divided media landscape than ever before, is the truth really out there anymore?


President Trump and ad hoc press secretary Sean Hannity. Fox photo

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
True or false: The truth is out there.

Answer: Basically false these days. This tagline might still fit within the confines of Fox’s The X-Files. But in the real world, it unfortunately must be altered to “The truths are out there.”

Your friendly content provider has lamented for years that there’s just too much media out there. Consequently, there’s increasingly no “there” there. In a severely divided country, far too many consumers now get their “news” from television networks, websites or newspapers that mirror or reinforce their opinions. I’m on the record nationally about this, courtesy of a transcript from PBS’ September 2003 edition of Flashpoints USA. The host was Bryant Gumbel and the co-panelists were NPR host Brooke Gladstone and former TV Guide reporter Max Robins. It was before Twitter took hold and Facebook devolved into a part-time war zone.

“I think you can make the case that there’s almost too much news out there right now,” I said. “It’s not the same as in, say, the fast food industry. If you’ve got McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s all competing, you get lower food prices that generally benefit the consumer. With all these news channels out there now, especially the three cable channels, the competition, I don’t think, leads to better news. It leads to a lot more screaming . . . A lot of times, the old definition of news doesn’t apply at all anymore. I think it’s mainly, take one story a day, and flog it to death, and go from one personality-driven show to another in many cases.”

Well, we hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. Fueled by Donald Trump’s election and subsequent Twitter-pronged presidency, the three cable news networks and myriad websites have taken sides as never before.

The President’s frequent “fake news” diatribes and infamous “enemy of the people” tweet have never included Fox News Channel, where he’s lately done the majority of his interviews while also parroting whatever the network says is news -- even if it’s from a commentator citing the unnamed sources that Trump claims to despise. In the horse race to curry his favor, FNC’s Sean Hannity is a veritable Secretariat, trailed by Fox and Friends and Tucker Carlson in that order.

MSNBC, after initially struggling to gain traction as a more or less middle of the road news outlet, gave up that game plan long ago and now is the anti-Trump network at the other end of the cable news teeter totter. In the win, place and show results, Rachel Maddow continues to lead colleague Lawrence O’Donnell by perhaps a length or two. Former Trump pals Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski come in third while continuing to assail him on Morning Joe.

CNN, which has taken the brunt of the President’s “fake news” slams, began the presidential campaign as a compliant disseminator of all things Trump. The network is still comparatively balanced compared to its cable news adversaries. After all, its payroll includes Trump defenders Jeffrey Lord, Kayleigh McEnany and, lately, Jason Miller, who replaced Corey Lewandowski.

But led by Don Lemon and Jake Tapper, CNN also has aggressively and bluntly challenged the President’s declarations of what’s true and what isn’t. You can only take his lashings for so long before, in a sense, becoming part of The Resistance. Lemon and Tapper lately can be seen as both truth-tellers and ax-grinders in CNN’s determined effort to growl in defiance after rolling over for Trump during the early stages of the presidential campaign.

Even the two Sunday morning media analysis shows, CNN’s Reliable Sources and FNC’s Media Buzz, can’t be relied on to be faithfully impartial anymore. Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter, who replaced Howard Kurtz, is easily the more balanced of the two. But he’s now regularly on the Trump attack while Kurtz and his Media Buzz program clearly have a conservative slant. Comparing the two programs on a weekly basis can be both instructive and dispiriting.

Things came further to a head earlier this week, when Hannity and Ted Koppel clashed on CBS Sunday Morning. “Do you think we’re bad for America? You think I’m bad for America?” Hannity asked.

“Yeah,” Koppel said drily, continuing after Hannity interjected. “You know why? Because you’re very good at what you do . . . Because you have attracted people who are determined that ideology is more important than facts.”

On Monday’s Hannity, the host of course fired back in a top-of-the-show segment titled “Edited Fake News.” Only about a minute of his 45-minute sit-down with Koppel made the air, he said, terming the former Nightline anchor a “hypocrite” who feels free to express his own opinions but doesn’t want to hear others.

“I was just used as a prop” to further Koppel’s pre-determined narrative, Hannity charged.

His guest for the segment, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, of course agreed with Hannity, lumping Koppel among “these walking dead liberal media decrepit elitists.” Furthermore, Koppel is “this ancient gatekeeper” in Malkin’s view. And his brand of journalism is dead.

Earlier, on FNC’s The O’Reilly Factor, guest Brit Hume (a former colleague of Koppel’s at ABC News), said he assumed that Koppel also would similarly find fault with MSNBC’s decidedly left-leaning approach. In fact he has. In a 2010 guest column for The Washington Post, Koppel wrote, “The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me.”

I haven’t even gotten into all of the partisan media websites that have sprung up since that now far-off 2003 Flashpoints USA program. This is, after all, primarily a TV website.

Suffice it to say, though, that 1996 turned out to be an arguably dark year for American journalism. It’s the year when both FNC and MSNBC were launched. A little over two decades later, are we better off now than we were then?

From this perspective, that’s gonna be a pretty big no.

Note to readers: This piece, in shorter form, first appeared as my regular column for Katy Trail Weekly.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net