War of the Worlds

It was 84 years ago this Halloween that Orson Welles’ adaptation of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was broadcast on CBS radio’s Mercury Theater on the Air. The radio drama was presented as a series of news reports from Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, describing a Martian invasion of Earth. Because of this presentation method, many listeners mistook the broadcast for actual news reports. In an effort to make the show as realistic as possible, actor Frank Readick leaned heavily on reporter Herbert Morrison’s famous account of the Hindenburg disaster. Halfway through the broadcast, the phone in the studio control room started ringing, and police were summoned to try to stop the show.

The framing of fiction as a “true story” has a long history. Mark Twain opens The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with our fictional narrator’s commentary on the first book:

Image source: David C Simon, Art Station

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly–Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is–and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

By starting the book this way, Twain makes Huck come alive. This isn’t just a character in a book. This is a real person, and he’s here to tell us the real story. Tolkien did the same thing with Frodo.

We’ve accepted this practice with books for a long time. It’s generally pretty easy to tell fact from fiction, and we’re usually (but not always) pretty good at it. But radio was different. Radio was a medium for both news and entertainment. It wasn’t always obvious which was which.

Sixty years later, this was still a problem. Ghostwatch was a Halloween drama that aired on BBC in 1992. It pretended to be a live investigation and report on supernatural occurrences in a house in London. The eleven million viewers were confused by the participation of Michael Parkinson, one of the most trusted news reporters on the network. But Parkinson was playing a fictional role, not that of an actual news reporter. Considering that he was playing a fictional version of himself, in the same media (and the same channel) where he reports the news, it’s no wonder that people were confused.

This blurring of lines between “entertainment” and “news” has accelerated in recent years. On television, Comedy Central launched The Daily Show, a satirical new program, which became popular in the early years of this century. Departing from the traditional late night fare like the Tonight Show and The Late Show, it used a format meant to evoke a news program, with a reporter sitting at a desk describing the events of the day while related graphics appeared over his shoulder. Its success spawned a number of similar shows on HBO, TBS, and others. By 2008, many Americans considered The Daily Show to be a reliable news source, with ratings rivaling those of PBS, CNN, and Fox News. This came despite repeated assertions by its host that it was not a news show.

Then, to make matters worse, the traditional news outlets moved away from news in favor of commentary and entertainment. Part of this was for ratings, but it also came as a practical measure. There really isn’t enough news to fill a 24-hour news channel while keeping the viewers’ attention. These networks had to rely on repetition to fill their time, and that means it’s tough to keep people watching. So Sean Hannity spends an hour every night on Fox News, but his program isn’t a news show. It’s a mixture of commentary and conjecture intended to push a political agenda. All of the cable news channels have entertainment programming like this, and some of them do a better job of differentiating it than others.

It’s no longer practical to simply rely one source for news. Edward R. Murrow is dead. So are Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. We’re left with the impossible task of navigating a news landscape that mixes reporting with commentary and analysis that is meant to entertain as much as inform. Unbiased truth is much less important than sensationalism, especially when trying to generate revenue.

So what do we do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Start with the Media Bias Chart. There are several of them out there. I prefer the Ad Fontes Media one because it assesses both bias and reliability. It doesn’t help to have balanced reporting if they get the facts wrong. The interactive version will let you pick the reliability range you want, and the bias range you’re looking for. You can also filter by format (web, tv/video, audio).
  • Avoid news sources that blur the lines between news and entertainment. One of Jim Lehrer’s core principles was to “carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.” I like sources like the Associated Press and Reuters for news.
  • Beware of anonymous sources. There are reasons for anonymous sources. And the general rule used to be that anonymous sources required verification from two other, independent sources to be reported. That rule isn’t universally applied anymore.
  • Don’t get your news from one source. We’re at the point now where we can’t trust any single source to know what’s happening in our world, regardless of how reliable we think that source might be.

In 1975, Chevy Chase took the podium at the beginning of the 5th episode of Saturday Night Live in an over-the-top impersonation of president Gerald Ford. The seal on the podium says “The Unofficial Seal of the President of the United States” and a text overlay on the screen warns “THIS IS NOT THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.” NBC wanted to make sure that there was no confusion. This is not a news report, and this is not the commander-in-chief. It’s just entertainment.

Those days are gone. Now, it’s up to you to figure out where the real news is.