When CNN launched on June 1st, 1980 it became the first TV station to run the news on a 24 hour nonstop cycle. This unprecedented effort promised to set a new standard for information, ending an era of 30 minute nightly news programs by inviting a nonstop flow of information into the homes of people around the world.
In years since, this demand for information has only grown. We set push notifications and scour the internet for updates, most of us taking in more than one screen at a time. At the same time, the line between creators and consumers has blurred to the point where almost anyone can deliver news or expertise on almost any given subject - where has the latest variant made landfall? Are we in a recession? Is Elon Musk taking over the world? How do I meet the woman of my dreams? What's happening in Iran?... The answer is one Youtube tutorial away or is hidden in a Discord channel.
The question that critics like to ask is: with all the choices in the world, why is it so hard to find someone to trust?
I had dinner with a friend the other night, and when I asked him this question he told me that the internet makes all sources equally credible, and in this way you can really believe anything you want. What he meant was, in this age we are so loaded with seemingly credible and conflicting information that it leaves us completely free to choose who we trust and what we believe. With such a glut of information and such a large array of influences available, it becomes hard to build a meaningful way to filter out the credible voices from the noise.
Whose opinion really matters when you've read all 2.4k comments? If a company is controlling the algorithm then are you even really considering?
Ours is a culture of entertainment - one that connects citizens of all nations, tickling their dopamine receptors while whispering crazy shit into their ears. We are experiencing cultural globalization - an extreme homogeneity of ideas, emojis and memes, all fenced in what Marshall McLuhan called the “global village.” As promised “distant events are brought to the immediate attention of people halfway around the world.” This is all to say that with our incredible access and proximity to information and our preference for entertainment, a tension emerges.
More and more it seems like the people are turning away from institutional sources for information. In the same way that CNN obviated the nightly news media format, the infinite omnidirectional stream of information online obliterates the standards of the establishment. The New York Times simply cannot
keep up. Even if conventional sources of wisdom could keep pace with the internet they can't quite shake the stigma of old age. In August 2022 The Late Show with Stephen Colbert had an average viewership of about 2 million, while CNN drew just under 1 million average viewers.
When people turn to satirical news shows for their global updates, it forces stations like CNN and Fox to compete with people like Alex Jones and John Oliver. When memes take on the news, the news becomes memetic. After all, people like to be entertained and TV channels do their best to make this possible, loading the screen with flashy graphics, dynamic soundbites and strobing lights. Newscasters themselves are entertainers, and while for many years their credibility came from remaining objective, the desire to entertain has led those personalities to devolve into entertainment. The morning news’ voice is its own stereotype - a character that many play.
You can't fault the news for trying to build these people up - glam up their faces and sex up their outfits. The truth is we celebrate performers and ideologues, and hold celebrity status in the highest esteem. There have always been hierarchies, and in a way this process is natural. People instinctively seek guidance and leadership - they elevate members of their communities in some fashion or another (shamans, highschool football stars, CEOs), and with that status comes credibility. Where these leaders once earned trust derived from local experience - even intimacy, now it's a numbers game. The groups of people we recognize as communities are entanglements of millions, hordes of individuals connected remotely through screens. This proliferation has created even more competition, thirst for recognition, and fame that fills this space with seemingly infinite could-be leaders.
It seems the media and its platforms were created to serve two oppositional purposes - first to
clearly communicate important information, and second, to provide entertainment. These two forces - truth and frivolity, information and entertainment, can be represented by news programs and what we’ll call general tv programming. There is some overlap, but conventionally the truth exists separate from fiction, am and fm radio, church and state - a helictical relationship intended to keep these spheres separate for their
own good. So why is it that we are so willing to believe entertainers are telling the truth (that Bill Gates wants to save the world / that Jim Cramer will make us rich) when we are so quick to scrutinize updates from NBC or a talking head on Fox News?
When the news debases itself by becoming entertainment it loses credibility, while conversely, entertainers who deliver the news are awarded credibility for their posturing and performance. Someone like Donald Trump was so believable to so many because he fully leveraged this relationship - he was an entertainer entertaining, using the news to inflate his persona. In a climate of doubt, scepticism wins and turning to absurdism is a combination of peoples fundamental preference for entertainment and their rising cynicism about the world.
Trump is outlandish, entertaining, and just as dark as many believe the true nature of the world to be. Nowadays, absurdity is credible, and these over the top figures have become modern mystics - portals to raw truth for the masses. Whether you like it or not, Dave Portnoy and Elon Musk move the stock market, Q Anon is an organized movement, Cuomo lied about dead Grandparents, and Joe Rogan has the most popular talk show on the planet.
Our preference for entertainment defines how we receive information and recognize the truth. This leads people to identify voices of entertainment as sources of magical truths, revealing things that the mainstream would never dare to. In many cases the people we see online and on TV are the sum of many parts and many voices, not just a single person but an entire team of people devoted to error proofing and planning their words and image. What’s becoming apparent is that this may not even be necessary, that this is yet another formality that can be stripped away. The voices that ring true are the ones that are similarly distrusting of power, whatever power may be, and in this way scrutiny finds its own level. Paranoia and the pipeline effect describe a tipping point where people’s words go from sounding crazy, into the space of “this is so crazy it must be true.”
The conventions and trappings of traditional mainstream media have been discredited by years of half truth. Today it’s more credible to come out of the gate as visibly compromised than it is to try and posture as an objective source. The decorum, pageantry and iconography of the news has been upended by its own failed attempts to present itself objectively. And the pretentious idea that anyone could be objective has been torpedoed by the bullish, absurd authenticity of entertainers and madmen. It seems in this climate, all ideas, good and bad, need a spokesperson - or even better, a salesperson.
For better or worse, the media is an umbilical cord to what we believe is real. When we look under the surface and come to realize that our connection to information is changing, to put it lightly, we then must look around, outside of the obvious, and look at what credibility is, how it is manifested, and how it is deployed, to have a clearer idea of how we engage with the world around us.