People who want to know more about a contentious issue might naturally expect to find answers in the media – but any issue can be looked at from different viewpoints, as brilliantly illustrated by Matthew Parris in his article We’re all guilty of recruiting this virus to our cause. He described 15 different viewpoints on Britain’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, published in 8 different media outlets.
News can be regarded as entertainment. Someone looking for entertainment, though, might be more interested in something sensational than in something factual. An Economist article on The meaning of One America News Network described OANN as “certainly alternative”, but it can’t be ignored – it “is the fourth-rated cable-news network, after Fox, CNN and MSNBC”. President Trump approves of it:
“Watching @FoxNews on weekend afternoons is a total waste of time,” he tweeted in April. Fortunately, however, “We now have some great alternatives, like @oann.”
The Economist is more sceptical about its value:
“Its reports suggest that the coronavirus, whose seriousness it considers exaggerated, may have been developed in a North Carolina laboratory” for example.
“Thrillingly angry talk-shows are not new to the American airwaves. They became a fixture on radio after the abolition in 1987 of the Fairness Doctrine, which had required broadcasters to give equal treatment to competing points of view.”
The mainstream media in America, although less “alternative” than OANN, is also politically slanted – as illustrated by the different reporting of the two separate and simultaneous Town Hall Debates in the US 2020 Presidential election. ABC hosted Joe Biden and NBC hosted Donald Trump at the same time. The debates were contentious – and they were reported very differently:
The CNN report on the debates, Trump and Biden hold dueling town halls, provided some detail on policy issues and did some fact-checking on statements made by both candidates. Biden’s policies were described in positive language, but the report on Trump’s town hall focused unsympathetically on questions where the President has been heavily criticised – put to him by the show’s host, Savannah Guthrie.
Fox News was very indignant about what it saw as unfair treatment of President Trump: Critics pan NBC town hall, Savannah Guthrie for ‘debating’ Trump, ABC for giving ‘softballs’ to Biden. That report didn’t examine Trump’s responses to questions, made no mention of Biden’s policies, and did no fact-checking.
Vox reported 5 winners and 3 losers from the dueling Trump-Biden town halls, declaring that Savannah Guthrie and Joe Biden were winners but that President Trump was a loser. It contrasted the styles of the two candidates in answering the questions put to them – noting that Trump’s responses to Guthrie’s questions “ranged from blatantly false (claiming masks don’t really work) to the dangerously absurd (suggesting some parts of the QAnon conspiracy theory might actually be true)”.
Dan Gainor on Fox News asserted that “the winner of the debate, hands down, was Trump”.
Reuters summarised the debates, briefly reporting the facts: In split-screen town halls, Trump and Biden squabble over coronavirus response. It was more neutral than the other media listed above.
The two debates were not helpful in helping television viewers to choose between the two candidates, because they were aired at the same time as each other. The CNN report provided the most detail, for voters who wanted information on both debates, but it wasn’t neutral. Reuters was neutral but gave little detail. America lacks what is described in the Patterns of Power books as an impartial source of news that provides full and trustworthy reporting.