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IMAGE HEADER: Media Comparisons gif. Courtesy of the Bronx Documentary Center.
As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, media literacy is clearly an issue. A free and independent press, one of the bedrocks of a healthy democracy, is under attack. A deeply divided and vast information landscape – more invested in surfing soundbites than deep dives into investigative reporting and thoughtful debate – prevails; and, the slogan, “fake news,” is an easy cop out. The digital exhibition, “The End of Truth,” the third and final installment in a year-long, three-part series of exhibitions under the rubric, “Trump Revolution,” presented by the Bronx Documentary Center, explores these issues offering historical context, journalistic rigor and solutions. We reached out to BDC founder Michael Kamber and Exhibition Curator Cynthia Rivera to find out more.
Timeline screenshot. Courtesy of the Bronx Documentary Center.
DUGGAL ART SCENE: What are the components of, “The End of Truth,” the digital exhibition produced by the Bronx Documentary Center, and how did you determine the breakdown?
BDC: The components of the online exhibition include a “Timeline” page, which outlines a brief history of radio, talk-radio, television news, newspapers, entertainment news and social media as well as a “False Conspiracy Theories” page focusing on six false conspiracy theories and explaining the facts around each event, a popular conspiracy theory around that event, how that conspiracy theory was spread and the after-effects. In some cases, the after-effects were violent or even deadly.
The “Media Comparisons” section of the exhibition compares and contrasts the reporting around news events from the 1960s and ‘70s with similar events happening in recent years. “Journalism Ethics + Definitions” is displayed as a resource guide to help clarify words that repeat throughout the exhibition. We felt these terms were important to understand for those studying news and media literacy; The “Healthy Tech Use + Further Learning” page is the final part of the exhibition. It is meant as a resource and guide for moving forward––understanding that there are steps we can take to move into a more media literate world. Factual conversations are the basis of any democracy.
The exhibition components were decided on by a small team. We spent months researching the history of media and journalism and looking at how America arrived at this moment of distrust. The results of our research dictated both the contents and design of the exhibition.
The “Timeline” is meant to be a documentation of the past 120 years of the evolution of the media. The other elements of the exhibition—media comparisons and false conspiracy theories—examine how the role of facts and professional journalists have diminished. We also look at President Trump's tendency to spread disinformation and misinformation.
Walter Cronkite, of the CBS Evening News, was known as the most trusted man in America through the 1960s and 70s, and tens of millions of Americans tuned in at 6pm every evening to learn the day’s events from Cronkite. This was many years before the invention of household computers, cellphones and social media. He believed facts were all that made up the news and took great pride in reporting them as accurately as possible, without his opinion. Today, Sean Hannity is one of the most watched men on TV, averaging 4.7 million viewers in August 2020. Fox News, which broadcasts Hannity’s show, started in 1996, when Rupert Murdoch, an arch conservative business mogul, hired Republican operative Roger Ailes to create the channel. Ailes created a TV format based on opinionated and controversial pundits, which was a break from traditional news values and anchors like Cronkite, but garnered immense ratings.
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Can you share some background on what the FCC Fairness Doctrine was and how it affected the rise of talk radio, Fox News and the consequent skewing of the information landscape?
BDC: The Fairness Doctrine was an FCC rule that said if a public figure was attacked or criticized on television or radio, he or she had to be given a chance to respond. It also obligated radio and TV outlets to present controversial issues in a fair and balanced manner.
Rupert Murdoch used the New York Post, which he owned, to help get Ronald Reagan elected and Reagan appointees at the FCC promptly rescinded the Fairness Doctrine that had existed for 40 years.
No longer constrained by the Fairness Doctrine, partisan talk radio, pioneered by Rush Limbaugh, took off and began to reach tens of millions of Americans daily. It was the beginning of an era of really nasty, conspiratorial media in America. Rush Limbaugh moved to television with the help of Roger Ailes, who worked for President Nixon and taught him how to utilize television in the early 1970s. Ailes also helped Rupert Murdoch start Fox News in 1996.
Fox News was a cable channel and would not have been constrained by the Fairness Doctrine. But Fox did eventually expand into FCC regulated public channels around the US. Murdoch today has more than 800 media outlets around the world, many of them in the United States. As the New York Times has documented, he has used his media outlets to get certain leaders elected and actually overthrow governments.
2006, Facebook launches "News Feed" feature on their site.
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Based on your research, are there any movements or policies brewing in the media landscape that build on the Fairness Doctrine? Are any of the actions and protocols put in place by social media companies during the presidential election a step in that direction?
BDC: What’s fascinating is that there is an extremely late response in much of social media to begin reining in the worst excesses. Until recently, Facebook and YouTube in particular had algorithms that recommended Infowars and other conspiracy videos hundreds of millions of times. One study found that most people who joined extremist groups on the Internet were actually recommended those extremist groups by YouTube and Facebook through algorithms.
So, you could say there’s the beginning of a movement to swing the needle back. But millions of people still listen to Fox News, which functions very much like a propaganda arm of the White House under Trump. The White House Communications Director was a Fox News executive before taking the job under Trump. Some Fox employees are known to speak to Trump weekly, and even daily. Breitbart, Alex Jones, and many other conspiracists are still incredibly popular, and are reaching millions upon millions of Americans each week.
In a country governed by freedom of speech, there’s no way to stop this, nor should we. We can only hope that people become more media literate and interested in finding good information.
PBS News 1960 Nixon vs Kennedy Presidential debate - C-Span2 2020 Trump vs Biden Presidential debate. In 1960, Presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy participated in the fourth general election debate, which was broadcast on television and radio. The two outlined policy positions and defended against criticism, making their case to American voters. In 2020, the televised debate between President Trump and Joe Biden was reduced to an ugly TV spectacle that broke from any norms of substantive political debate. The President incessantly interrupted his opponent and made numerous false claims, while Biden spent more time defending himself from Trump’s attacks than outlining a plan for America’s future.
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Overall, what has the response been to your year-long series, “Trump Revolution,” and what are some of the takeaways from producing such a comprehensive project?
BDC: It’s been a tough year to create a series of exhibitions, or pretty much anything else for that matter. But overwhelmingly, we’ve had a very positive experience with our “Trump Revolution” series. The most rewarding thing is that many people have used it as an educational tool and passed it on to friends, families and students. The series will live on the Internet for many years and we hope that it will help to educate many and create a small amount of change.
View, “The End of Truth,” digital exhibition here: www.trumprevolutionbdc.org/about-the-end-of-truth
IMAGE HEADER: Media Comparisons gif. Courtesy of the Bronx Documentary Center.