Who Are We, and What Does it Mean for our Democracy?

“A little learning is not a dangerous thing to one who does not mistake it for a great deal.” – William Allen White, American newspaper editor (1868-1944).

In the recent flap that circled the blogosphere over the radically different front-page cover on the U.S. edition of the December 5, 2011 Time Magazine, most writers rightfully addressed the issue of Americans being “dumbed down,” shielded from the real news, and deception on the part of media. This is nothing new on the part of the media; however, the degree to which this happens, and the subtle effects that this has on the news that we receive as citizens, may not be so obvious. It reminds of a similar experience that I had with CNN back in 2010.

Here in New York City, there are two different cable channels with content from the Cable News Network. The first channel, CNN, has the standard fare such as AC360, Piers Morgan, and all the programming that the CNN is known for. Then there is a second channel called CNNi–CNN International. Never heard of it? Well, check your local listings. I stumbled upon CNNi because I’m a sports fan, and I was trying to find a show to fill the void left by the retirement, and subsequent passing, of legendary sportscaster George Michael. I’d watched the George Michael Sports Machine for most of the 27 years that he was on the air, and I was looking for a similar sports show that featured a mix of both national and international sports, along with personal stories about athletes that you don’t normally hear about in the mainstream media. I did a search on sports shows on my cable box, and came across a daily half-hour round-up of sporting news from across the globe called World Sport, broadcast on CNN International. Probably the best sports show you’ve never heard of. The show is on my DVR list, and I watch it every day, along with my evening newscast.

I also noticed the commercials during the show, and that they were promotionals for programs that I didn’t see on the normal CNN lineup. These show had more of an international perspective like Revealed, Inside Africa, Inside the Middle East, Talk Asia, Earth’s Frontiers, Icon, Living Golf, Mainsail, and Quest Means Business. The stories were often about artists, business people, sports figures, and trends, not always the stereotypical stories about war and terrorists (Middle East), or starving children (Africa). At first, I had a hard time trying to catch the shows, because the program times on the promotionals were not for my time zone—or worse—the programs were not even broadcast in New York City. So I was reduced to doing a keyword search to find these programs. And one day, I got lucky—I was able to catch an episode of Earth’s Frontiers, which is a half-hour program about the environment, on one of the on-demand channels. At the end of the show, an e-mail address came up where viewers could send feedback, and I did not hesitate to write the following to CNNonDemand@CNN.com:

I subscribe to Time Warner Cable in New York City. Today I got the chance to watch “Earth’s Frontiers” on demand. It’s a great way to watch CNN programs. Could you please add more shows, such as “Revealed” and “Main Sail.” I would love to watch these shows but for some reason, they are not part of the TV lineup here in New York. CNN on Demand would be a great place to have these programs. Thanks so much.

It took a few months before I got back the following response from CNN on Demand:

Thank you for your feedback – and please accept my personal apology for the lengthy delay in responding to your message.

The programs you mention, as you know, are not generally available in North America; these are CNN International programs, and they air once per month on that network.

However, we believe they are excellent programs and have decided to make them available to U.S. viewers via our CNN on Demand programming lineup.

Unfortunately, we are only able to send a relatively small amount of our total available programming to our CNN on Demand audience. For this reason, we evaluate each program on a weekly basis and make programming decisions based on which shows we feel are most relevant and appealing to our viewers.

Thank you again for your feedback.

Now I must admit that at first, I did not fully understand what CNN meant by this, until I saw the reaction to the radically different cover for the U.S. edition of Time magazine. Then realized that is one reason that I watch BBC World News on PBS. And why I switched from BBC World News America to the later broadcast at 11:00pm, because BBC World News America became a sanitized version of BBC World News, which is not what I was expecting to get from BBC News. That if I wanted a sanitized version of BBC World News, I could simply watch the standard network news that everyone already watches.

To their credit, CNN International has since included these shows as part of their regular programming here New York City, and their promotionals show the time that they air in this area, so I can program my DVR. And, it seems that the media is making an effort to improve their programming, with shows such as Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, and Washington Watch with Roland Martin on TVOne. However, it begs the question: As citizens of a democracy where we are (supposedly) dependent on information to informed decisions on the issues that matter, and to decide who will represent our interests on those issues—why are we given disparate treatment by the major media outlets? Do we even realize that, behind the hundreds of channels, tons of sound bytes, talking heads, and technological bells and whistles, that we have been segregated—and not for the better?

You may not think that this question matters, until you consider that some of our Congressmen and women—whose decisions not only affect the country but have an global impact—have bragged about not having a passport or travelled out of the United States. And that some of these representatives can, and do, go on to become the leader of the so-called “free world”—as President of the United States.

Then again, maybe we have thought about it, after all. Maybe that’s why print journalism and network television are worried. Now that we have access to the Internet, we don’t have to stay in our segregated part of the world anymore.

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