Out of the Blue: Vetting the political news cycle (opinion)
September 15, 2016
As an incurable bookworm, I'm usually nose-deep in a novel while I work out at the rec center in Incline, oblivious to what my fellow exercisers are up to.
But last week I got frustrated with a book a friend had recommended, so I set it down and decided to check out what was on my elliptical machine's personal TV.
There are screens all over the place at this gym — ones usually turned to a sporting event and the others show sitcoms or reality programming.
But I quickly deduced upon plugging my headphones in that the same recognizable images were popping on the other six or seven screens in eyesight, but they were being broadcast via different networks.
I know that CNN and Fox News and the other heavy hitters in that league of cable TV have been offering often antithetical takes on the events of the day for decades now, but I had no idea just how disparate these various brands have become.
The issue at hand on this particular afternoon was the assessment of the performances of our two major party presidential candidates on an NBC forum during which Matt Lauer interviewed Hillary Clinton and then Donald Trump in front of an audience of military veterans.
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Craving the details of the actual exchanges, I'd have to wait to read a transcript online, but after spending a couple minutes sampling the various commentaries regarding the event, I became shocked at how all-over-the-map these panel participants were.
One fellow felt Mr. Trump had just won the race due to Mrs. Clinton's outrageous inability to excuse her email server nightmare with any integrity.
On another station, a woman discussed via satellite that Mrs. Clinton answered Lauer's questions carefully and lucidly, while Mr. Trump rejected any simple responses, instead sticking to boasts and familiar campaign tag lines.
The political question this raised for me as a voter was this: Where do I go for information?
I understand the naïveté within a seemingly straightforward query like this, but if one esteemed network says one thing and another stands by its opposite, where do the facts lie? I'm not a big social media guy, and the research I did there once I got back from the gym prompted no answers.
It seems like folks don't mind having differing blue/red opinions on issues, but nothing in the one or two feeds I nominally maintain in that realm seemed to go deeper than a headline or quick quote.
This got me thinking about a project I worked on a couple summers ago in which sent me searching for the most interesting and factual UFO stories Northern Nevada had to offer.
Boy, do I have some stories for you on this one. My favorite short nugget I like to share involves a bar in a town maybe a hundred miles out of Reno where if you can prove to the bartender that you are indeed extra-terrestrial, your third cocktail is on the house. Fascinating stuff.
I bring this up because a scientist I spoke to at UCSF before canvassing alien enthusiasts in the Nevada desert had a great recommendation on how to process the 'true' stories from these well-meaning but often out-there conspiracy theorists: Keep asking questions.
This simple journalistic tack proved to be a breakthrough for me as I interviewed my subjects. These folks' premises and apparent attention to detail invariably inspired an air of mystery that was compelling often to a fault (I wanted to believe!), but sure enough, once I took the measure of asking follow-up questions to follow-up questions, I chipped away at the fictions surrounding what were ostensibly true stories.
It feels appropriate to place this same effort on media: keep asking questions. A lot of folks tune in to specific networks to catch up on events of the day in a reliably familiar manner, which for the sake of entertainment, is all fine and good.
But with so many imperative elements at play in this election cycle, it feels more important than ever for voters to not settle for a story that can be boiled down to a twenty-second snippet.
As November gets closer, I'll be flipping through news channels rather than settling for one network over another. I usually start with Rachel Maddow, who I've followed since the Air America days, and she is happy to call herself a "commie pinko" liberal, which is how I'd identify myself, but as consummate as her program is, I'm now compelled to investigate issues and candidates in ways I haven't in the past.
None of these networks or anchors will provide a definitive take on any given story, but if I can cobble together enough background on a story like the NBC forum from last week from as many sources as I can, as a proud Democratic voter, I can deduce for myself what's at stake, what's fair, where I stand.
After I do that I should think about taking a road trip and see if anybody's claimed that free third cocktail since I was there last…
Mike Restaino is a writer and filmmaker based out of Incline Village. He is also a Vice Chair of the North Tahoe Democrats. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.