I was honored to be the guest speaker at the Rotary Club of Milwaukee this week. They asked me to discuss the future of the media industry.
In 20 minutes? I did my best. I began with the following tale of two hypothetical, composite characters.
I’d like to introduce you to Bob & Alice. Twenty years ago, both Bob and Alice watched one of three nightly network television newscasts, because that’s all there was. They read one of two newspapers, either the Milwaukee Sentinel that came in the morning or The Milwaukee Journal that came in the afternoon. They each subscribed to a magazine or two on the side … Maybe it was Time magazine. Maybe it was Sports Illustrated. Maybe it was Reader’s Digest. Maybe it was TV Guide. Maybe it was Better Home and Gardens. But by and large, Bob and Alice shared a common culture, they were served by common messengers and their reference points for making sense of the world were homogenous.
Now, let’s look at these same two people today.
Today, Bob, wakes up in the morning, and he reads The Wall Street Journal with his first cup of coffee. Columnist Charles Krauthamer is his favorite. On his way to work, Bob listens to conservative talk radio. Over lunch, he glances online at blogs written by Ann Coulterer and Michelle Malkin. On the way to his afternoon sales call, he listens to Rush Limbaugh. On his way home he listens to local conservative talk radio. Once at home, he watches Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. These commentators have told him in recent months that President Barack Obama is a socialist, a racist, a Muslim and may not really be a legal citizen of the United States.
Today, Alice’s media routine also is quite different than it was 20 years ago. Her alarm goes off on the local National Public Radio station. She reads the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel op-ed page over her first cup of coffee. Over lunch, she logs on to Air America radio online, and she reads the latest blogs at the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos. Once at home, she turns on MSNBC, where hosts Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow have told her that former President George W. Bush was not very smart and former vice president Dick Cheney is evil.
Fair and balanced? No. They report and you decide? That’s a joke.
Bob and Alice are inhabiting the same earth, spinning on the same axis, but they are living and seeing very, very different worlds today. We all are. Over the course of the day, we all are peppered with news online, on the radio, in our cell phones, on our television. We no longer share the same culture. We no longer share the same messengers. We no longer share the same reference points.
My point is that in today’s cluttered, non-stop, 24-hour news cycle, the messenger matters. It’s long been said that you are what you eat. I dare say that from the standpoints of news and critical thought, your thoughts are framed by the messages you receive, and those messages often depend upon the media outlets you choose to monitor.
So many media outlets begin their day with preconceived political notions about the world, and then they take the real world and twist it to best fit their beliefs, their dogma. It is not real critical analysis.
It is not honest pursuit of the truth. And it sure is not news. It is little more than propaganda.
Whether you learn to the left or the right, do yourself a favor. Allow your brain to honestly consider conflicting points of view and accept the notion that neither side has all the answers, no matter what the partisan pundits tell you.
Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.