Freedom of the press is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. This pillar of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is also linked to freedom of speech, expression, and association. We are free to say and think what we want, to listen to and wear what we want, to join or unjoin the associations of our choice, and to choose our own personal and business relationships. But with this freedom comes responsibility. The other side of freedom of expression is critical thinking. As students of history, politics, and economics, it is important that we stay informed of what is going on in our nation and our world. Ignorance is not bliss in the social sciences. Information is power.
America is a country obsessed with the news. Early observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and others noticed the proliferation of periodicals as well as societies, clubs, and associations. By 1800 there were 200 newspapers in the United States. By 1860 there were 3,000. Giant steam presses and the telegraph revolutionized the journalism industry. 500 artists and correspondents were sent out to cover the Civil War (1861-1865). They sent innumerable dispatches home for printing and sketches for engraving. By the end of the war, photography had joined the ranks of the burgeoning media frenzy.
Radio emerged from the First World War, and by the end of the Roaring Twenties everybody had one. Television followed in the 1950s. The original three networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC were joined by PBS in 1967 with the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act by President Lyndon Johnson. This legislation also created the framework for National Public Radio, which began broadcasting in 1971. Local affiliates gradually grew over the following decades, many of them on college campuses. Today there are more than a thousand NPR stations serving over 30 million listeners.
I became one of them in the fall of 1983 as a graduate student at UMass/Boston. I began listening to WUMB Radio 91.9 FM from my apartment in Wollaston near Quincy. The mixture of folk music, entertaining shows, and comprehensive news grabbed my attention immediately. I especially enjoyed listening to All Things Considered with Robert Siegel, Susan Stamberg, and Noah Adams. The news was commercial free and focused on in-depth analysis of complex political, social, and economic issues in a way I had never heard before.
I was an avid television news follower during my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, especially during the year my uncle was flying a helicopter in the Vietnam War. But radio news had not come under my radar. Radio was for music and television was for news. But then I went off to college in 1979 and no longer had a TV. The campus radio station at UC Santa Cruz, KZSC 88.1 FM, broadcast mostly reggae and other world music at the time, but I don’t remember listening to NPR during my time there. KZSC carried the Pacifica Evening News, as did KPFA 94.1 when I lived in Berkeley a few years later. Pacifica programming had a left-leaning slant that counterbalanced the more conservative orientations of popular AM talk radio.
I appreciated NPR’s more measured approach to political discourse and the detail into which it delved to uncover the causes, course, and consequences of current events. Prominent Democrats and Republicans as well as independent and third party candidates were interviewed during election season and in debates on contentious issues. Small business and large corporations were covered. World news was given as much attention as local and national. Thematic series were developed. Special music and other cultural programs appeared and grew. Profiles of artists, writers, and independent filmmakers attracted a growing audience.
The cable television revolution of the 1980s and beyond offered a myriad of new choices for the discerning viewer. Fox News began to offer a more conservative perspective, as did MSNBC for more liberal viewers. CNN and other Turner programs grew exponentially, covering stories that the mainstream networks had ignored for decades. Television coverage became increasingly complex in both technology and analysis. The growth of the internet in the 1990s and smartphone technology in the new millennium led to further transformations in the media. Online journals, blogs, and podcasts competed with traditional newsprint.
I took advantage of all these new outlets as they each made their appearance. My personal favorite remained NPR, however, and I found my local station wherever I lived. In the Bay Area I listened to KPFA in Berkeley and KQED Public Media. In Honolulu in 1989-1990 I listened to Hawai’i Public Radio. During my year in Kansas I followed Radio Kansas out of Hutchinson Community College. I listened to Capital Public Radio when I lived in Sacramento and Valley Public Radio when I was in Bakersfield. In Orange County I had KPCC and KCRW on the radio during my commute. When I moved to San Diego last year, I immediately found KPBS.
I paid extra attention during Presidential election years, beginning in Boston with the Reagan-Mondale contest in the fall of 1984. During my decade in church work and my twenty years as a classroom teacher, I remained informed and encouraged my students to do the same. News programs helped me produce better essays and papers as a student, better seminars and lectures as a teacher, a comprehensive genealogy scrapbook project, and a more informed choice at the ballot box.
NPR entertained me on long drives and allowed me to consider important issues in greater depth and detail. Morning Edition and All Things Considered occupied my daily commute for years. Weekend Edition helped me wind down after a hectic week at work. Jazz, classical, folk, and world music programs formed the backdrop of my day to day ops and social gatherings. Special educational and cultural programs like The Thistle and Shamrock and The Thomas Jefferson Hour entertained and inspired on a regular basis.
Now you can listen to news podcasts on your iPhone or Android device. Opinion pieces, blogs, and online forums number in the millions. Search engines allow for comprehensive browsing. Sound bytes are an effective marketing tool for potential new listeners. YouTube channels give anyone the opportunity to contribute to public discourse and the dissemination of information. Attracting new online followers can lead to better programming. Many entrepreneurial startups add new media options to the menu every day.
The exponential growth in news coverage over the last fifty years has offered the contemporary reader and listener an endless smorgasbord of choice. This is a good thing in light of the First Amendment. It can also be daunting and perplexing. The best approach as a media consumer is the same as that of a serious student of history and other social sciences. Consider as many perspectives as possible while forming your own opinion. The more you listen, the more you will learn. Thomas Jefferson identified an “enlightened citizenry” as the foundation of a strong democratic society. Staying informed is an important part of achieving and maintaining an enlightened mind.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
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