What’s Not Making the News

from Wildlife Promise

As a boy living in Pittsburgh, I watched KDKA, one of the world’s first commercial television stations, and WQED, the nation’s first community-sponsored public television station, on my family’s Crosley black-and-white television. I must say that, with only a 10-inch screen and limited programming, the TV was a weak option for a youngster living with hundreds of acres of forests, meadows and creeks out the front door.

In the evenings, our family would gather in front of the Crosley, waiting for it to “warm up” so we could watch the live evening news. Inspired by the tradition of Edward R. Murrow, in those days the newscasters always reported hard-hitting facts ferreted from diligent journalism. Today, with few exceptions, those days are all but gone. In recent years, the media has changed in several ways that, if left unchecked, threaten the future of wildlife and civil society.

First, traditional television and radio stations are competing with cable and satellite channels for advertisers and audiences. Now, it’s all about creating loyal market segments.  Rush Limbaugh and Fox News know their conservative market and give them what they want to hear. MSNBC has a liberal market segment and it plays to its audience. All too often, these and other networks rely on handpicked “authorities” under contract to be their talking heads. They hire surrogates because it is cheaper, and most viewers don’t seem to mind that they are being told what to think instead of seeing and hearing the news for themselves.

Rather than bringing people together to solve urgent problems, market segmentation also has the unintended consequence of deeply dividing viewers and listeners into more intense, unbuffered left and right viewpoints. Traditionally, our nation has always worked best when our citizens come together to confront a common challenge. We are a second rate nation when we fight among ourselves.  We are now a divided nation.

Second, with the intense competition, broadcast news content naturally skews toward the interests of big advertisers, reflecting a diminished sensitivity to important issues that threaten wildlife, such as pollution, climate change and habitat destruction. We hear a lot on the news about massive drought, record-breaking floods and other extreme weather around the world, but we hear little about the causes of those extremes because special interest advertisements dominate the airwaves and stifle the newsrooms. How can we learn about the threats to nature when the media often is allergic to the subject?

Third, in the 1980s after the Federal Communications Commission repealed the Fairness Doctrine—which had required companies holding broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a balanced manner—free public-service announcements have all but disappeared from the airwaves. For decades, NWF relied on a vibrant public-service campaign featuring such celebrities as the Muppets, Walt Disney, Bing Crosby and John Denver to promote our annual Wildlife Week. But as soon as the Fairness Doctrine was eliminated, our Wildlife Week public-service promotions died for lack of interest from the networks and local stations.

Broadcast advertising is changing, too. In the past, it was all about selling products to consumers. Today, increasingly it is about selling opinions to voters year-round and unchallenged. This fall, we will see an historic deluge of advertisements by shadowy super PACs and other special interest groups that are peddling their self-serving perspectives. They hire the best marketing agencies so the ads are focus-group tested and influential, prompting us to believe in their worldview.

In short, much of broadcast news today is junk food with too much candy and spice, and too little fruits and vegetables. Americans are living on this junk food and it’s not healthy.  In large part, it’s our own fault. Too many of us have an appetite for watching the latest “reality” show and ignoring the more profound reality of a shifting climate that is engulfing our world with excess retained heat, threatening our food and water supplies.

You can strike back against all the propaganda with one press of the button on the top of your remote control. Shut the television off and go take a hike in the outdoors. Find a high place in a meadow, under a tree or along a stream bank. Clear your head of all the media clatter, listen to the sounds of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy the fragrances of the natural world around you. Cherish these moments with your loved ones. Taste the beauty of nature and rediscover all that is important to you. You will be a better citizen for having done this.