News and Fake News What to Believe?

Updated 2 years ago by Rene A. Henry
Every day we are inundated with information – perhaps even too much information – but what can we believe? What is real news or fake news? Fact or fiction? Truths, half-truths or lies? Or even so-called alternative facts?

            With the proliferation of television news channels and social media on the Internet we live in an information overload society with a world of conflicting information. Because of the competitive rush to be the first with breaking news, all too often the first information about a crisis has been wrong and corrected hours or days later. We know from Ken Burns’ outstanding television series on Vietnam that the federal government repeatedly lied to the American public and more than likely continues to do so regarding Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

            On October 7 President Trump told Mike Huckabee that “the media is really, the word, one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with, is ‘fake.’” But according to Jack O’Dwyer’s Newsletter, the producers of POP-TV’s The Daily Buzz said the term has been used for at least 25 years and cited a TV Guide cover story in 1992 titled “Fake News.”

When is the news the news?  Can you always believe the report or exposé you see on a television magazine show? Are 60 Minutes, Dateline, 20/20 and other programs completely unbiased? All have been sued for libel.


There are few broadcast and print media today that I can trust. Because so many in our society today get their information in soundbites we’ve had newspapers and news magazines go out of business and all media organizations have decimated their investigative reporting staff.


I no longer have the trust in broadcasters today as I did when I listened to Paul Harvey, Bob Trout or H. V. Kaltenborn on radio and anchors including Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. We don’t have investigative reporters in the media that compare to Mike Wallace, Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. Recently some leading television anchors and reporters have been replaced, suspended or reassigned for now telling the truth.


Kaltenborn may be best known for making an early wrong projection on election night in 1948 calling Thomas Dewey the winner over Harry Truman. Later, in the early morning, Kaltenborn retracted his original projection and announced Truman as the winner. When he was president, Truman loved to do an impersonation of how the journalist described how he was losing the election. Kaltenborn later stated, "We can all be human with Truman. Beware of that man in power who has no sense of humor.”


Lowell Thomas hosted the first regularly scheduled television news program in 1940 which was a simulcast of his nightly NBC network radio program. Then it was seen only in New York City. The first serious attempt at a dedicated television news broadcast was by CBS in 1941 that had daily news programs at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. weekdays. In 1948, John Cameron Swayze hosted NBC’s first evening news program, the 15-minute long Camel News Caravan.


            I also have concern today with network anchors and reporters who cannot properly pronounce names, especially Cannes, Caribbean and Leeward Islands, or who talk about a first annual event or a new record. If they can’t get the simple and obvious correct how can I trust any fact is a fact?


Issues-oriented organizations involved with the environment, abortion, healthcare, racial injustice, foreign or domestic policy and other sensitive and controversial issues look to Hollywood to help tell their story. Primetime drama and comedy programs have become a new editorial forum where the producers, directors, writers and even actors advocate their own issues.


Screenwriters are taking current news events and issues and quickly dramatizing them in episodes of drama series including Bull, Law & Order, NCIS, Blue Bloods, Scandal and other popular programs and even Saturday Night Live. More people may be watching primetime series than the evening news. In the 1980s the average audience for the evening news ranged from 11 to 16 million depending on the network, but today only between 6 and 8 million viewers are watching the news on ABC, CBS or NBC.


Compare this with nearly 20 million watching NCIS or more than 17 million watching Bull. A recent episode of Bull involved the trial of a dozen fraternity brothers being held responsible for the hazing death of a pledge. We have seen similar stories in the news and on news magazines. Average viewers of Walking Dead, NCIS New Orleans and Blue Bloods have more than double the audience of the highest rated evening network news program. Super Bowl 50 had more than 112 million viewers and the Oscars more than 35 million.


For more confusion, add to this the fact that companies seek to place their commercial products on primetime television programs and in feature films. A few seconds of exposure on a popular drama or comedy series can be worth as much as $500,000 or more based on the cost of a 30-second commercial. When actors drink or use a product on a television comedy or drama or movie it was through product placement. Even publishers of legal books have had their publications appear in series.


The military armed forces have long recognized the influence of television and staffed offices in the Los Angeles area to work with Hollywood to get the best possible exposure for their respective branch of service.


The degree of exposure varies by network. Each has its own regulations. The FCC’s standards and practices do not allow cash transactions for product placement because it would be considered paid advertising. Companies provide the products free in exchange for a few seconds of exposure. Just as important as getting a product hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of exposure, organizations with critical issues believe that they must build Hollywood relationships to get exposure for their special interests. What’s next? Stories on immigration, border and airport security, environmental disasters, more oil spills?


Few broadcasts have created created panic as when Orson Wells narrated an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds on NBC radio in 1938. The first two-thirds of the broadcast was a series of simulated news bulletins and the first interrupted a program of dance music to reports of aliens invading the U.S. and the world. Many listeners believed it was real news and thought Earth was being invaded by aliens!


With so much information coming at us from different directions it is important to know where the specific information was obtained. Otherwise, fiction can become fact. Even an honest mistake or typographical error can become a “fact” if it is not immediately corrected and is repeated over and over. In doing research for other projects I found that I cannot depend on Snopes or Wikipedia to always be correct. This is when we need Sen. Al Franken, author of Lies and the Lying Liars to call out the lies of liars.


Rene A. Henry is the author of 10 books and writes on a variety of subjects, many of which are posted on his website at He has been a member of both the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for more than 40 years. 
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