When I was a kid, there was a legitimate purveyor of fake news. It was a periodical called The National Enquirer. My mother was a rabid fan – she waited breathlessly for that rag to hit the stands at the local supermarket each week. My mother read a lot, so it’s not like she wasn’t smart. But lemme tell ya, she loved that paper.

The Enquirer has been out there for decades in various incarnations. For a while, they were the masters of putting two and two together when things didn’t add up to start with. Over time, coupled with a series of prominent lawsuits, they got pretty slick with their ways of spinning stories.

They got really good at creative lying.

It’s like when old Father Merrin in The Exorcist warns the younger priest that you can’t listen to the demon, because the devil mixes truth with lies.

The Enquirer excels in that arena.

Years ago, I met a man at work named “VJ.” He was one of 2 survivors from a 1970s’ plane crash in Viet Nam.

VJ was an Air Force guy. Surfer type with blond hair. Aircraft maintenance. On his flight home, their plane was engulfed in fog. Flying blind with bad coordinates, roughly 10 minutes into the flight, the plane exploded into pieces big and small when it flew directly into the side of a mountain deep in the jungle.

It took a week for rescuers to locate and retrieve the bodies. During that week, VJ and the other survivor were trapped in wreckage. Both of them were badly injured, unable to walk on their own.

No food, no water – except when it rained. Hot steamy jungle. Rotting corpses. And what to VJ was the most terrifying thing: The random snapping and falling of trees that had been compromised when the plane’s wings clipped them prior to impact.

He’d hear cracking and wait to see if he was going to be snuffed out by a falling timber. It was particularly frightening when it was dark.

VJ was delirious during some of this period – hallucinations to include getting in the ring with Muhammad Ali. As VJ recalled, “Hey, I sucker-punched him in my dream!”

VJ spent many months in hospitals and lost a staggering amount of weight. He is lucky and happy to be alive.

And he acts like it.

I had the privilege of making a short documentary about VJ. When it was done, the movie turned out to be a distillation for his kids. They knew he’d been in a serious crash where he came close to losing an arm and a leg. They knew he had lasting injuries. He’d talked to them about it. But according to VJ, seeing their Dad’s story in a film was what filled in the gaps. It was the media that best told the story for them. Watching a movie helped them understand.

I was really happy to have been a part of that process. I was really happy to have gotten it right.

One afternoon when I was cutting the doc together, VJ called me. He’d Googled his name and came across a CBS newscast about the crash and VJ’s survival, presented on the CBS evening news by anchorman Roger Mudd. The existence of this broadcast was, pun intended, news to us.

Back in the day, news anchors were trusted – certainly the ones on the nightly news were.

Here’s some names you might or might not know: Chet Huntley. David Brinkley. Walter Cronkite. There are certainly others, but those were the 3 my mother watched the most. Walter Cronkite and the Huntley-Brinkley Report.

The news in the 1960s for kids was a non-starter. We were aware there were anchors and we knew their voices and names, but the news itself was mostly pretty dry. Boring.

Walter Cronkite was known as the most trusted man in America. He was authoritative. He was confident. People looked to him as a barometer.

News was presented by people sitting at desks with a simple projection screen behind them. Evening newscasters never revealed their politics and they did not try to sell the news with sensationalism or their personal opinions. Facts were presented. Viewers made up their minds after hearing the facts.

Getting the facts right was important to news groups. Just like getting VJ’s story straight was important to me.

Roger Mudd was considered one of the last great anchors from that period – he took over the mantle often when Walter Cronkite was unable to broadcast. That’s how much Roger Mudd was trusted.

VJ and I met Roger Mudd in 2008 at the Virginia Festival of the Book. He’d come to speak about his news memoir. It was so opportune because I was still editing VJ’s story. It would be a perfect full-circle moment to not only include the original CBS broadcast in the doc, but also to have footage of VJ meeting Roger Mudd many decades after the fact. Full circle gold.

I made a call to a friend who put me in touch with the woman who ran the book fest. The woman who ran the fest hooked me up with Roger Mudd’s folks who quickly arranged for us to meet after his presentation.

Mr. Mudd’s hour-long talk was incredibly illuminating. He gave us a short history of television news that explained a lot about why so many current media-driven stories are crap.

The last 40 years have been a perfect storm of sorts. Here are some things he pointed out:

Prior to the 1980 launch of CNN, television news was not done with money in mind. In the days before 200-channel cable bundles, there were only a handful of major TV networks and every network considered their news department to be a prestigious pursuit. The nightly news was something networks were proud to produce on a non-profit basis and network heads were fine supporting that concept. Networks wanted to be known as having the best news department.

The advent of a 24-hour news cycle vs. an hour in primetime split between local and world news required content. People got bored seeing the same stories over and over when it was only news.

Studies were done. In today’s society, the average viewer turns off their mind after 6 minutes of hard news. That’s why when you watch news shows now, the stories shift in the broadcast from actual news to entertainment to human interest stories.

You can see how actual news getting in the way of a 24-hour news channel might be a problem. Content was adjusted.

As late as the 1970s, Roger said news outlets triple-fact-checked every story they ran. They did the legwork themselves. Then when CNN fired up, and subsequent imitators followed, speed became the number one priority vs. truthfulness. Accuracy began to play second fiddle. News shows began to check little on their own, and in the interest of speed, put up stories with caveats like “as reported by…”

In today’s news cycles, outlets work in such haste, they can’t even be bothered to fix glaring misspellings on the banners at the bottom of the screen.

News used to be delivered in low controlled tones without physical accentuation. The only time I remember seeing Walter Cronkite waver during a newscast was the day he had to announce that President Kennedy had been assassinated. In one small moment, he wiped a tear away. His voice bordered on cracking. Back then, that was the only time I ever saw emoting on national news.

If you want to see a glimmer of what nightly news used to be in America, tune into the BBC international news – it’s probably available on your 200-channel bundle. The BBC newscasters deliver the news straightforward. They dabble a little in pop culture and human interest stories, and they do employ a modicum of visual aids, but for the most part, they sit calmly behind a desk and bring you solid news from around the world.

When I watch the BBC report, they include major events in the world that most of us are ignorant of.

Why is that?

Because our news is often guilty of the sin of omission. And then if you can put a slant on incomplete reporting, well, then you’ve got something.

I bounce around the news channels on a regular basis. I watch the opinions of the news being spread and I see who spreads what and where they spread it. I used to wonder why friends of mine who watch only one channel (insert yours here) seemed to have gaps in their news feeds. But then when you spend some time on that person’s channel, you see what they’re exposed to and there are indeed some major missing parts.

The news credo used to be “Give them what they need, not what they want.”

Yeah, TV news used to be dry, but it was also unfettered by showboating.

I kinda miss what I was bored by as a kid.

Paddy Chayefski won an Oscar for his screenplay for the movie Network which came out in 1976. Many modern day screenwriters consider it one of the 10 best screenplays ever written.

Network is a scary story on a lot of levels, because what was supposed to be a satire so accurately predicted what we became.

Its initial plot thread begins with a failing network giving their lead news anchor Howard Beale his 2 weeks notice. He’s old, tired. Done. So the next time Howard goes on the air, he announces on live TV that he’s going to kill himself in front of his audience at the end of his run.

There are some at the network who immediately want Howard’s plug pulled. But there are other network power players who see the potential for a ratings bonanza. Howard killing himself will single-handedly put their failing station back on the map.

As his newscasts press on each night, Howard is allowed to rant about anything he wants to. No script required. The evening broadcasts rapidly devolve into an unhinged sideshow.

Howard Beale’s tag line is “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

It becomes a catch-phrase for his many fans.

The ratings for the show skyrocket. Deranged behavior and opinions trump straight-forward reporting. And Howard’s followers become a force all their own, spun on by their hero’s unbridled anger.

But it’s still called a news show.

Howard doesn’t kill himself when his 2 weeks are up. Rather, the network offers him an alternative to suicide – how about we just give you your own talk show and you can yell at whatever you want to.
Just as long as everyone’s making money. That’s key.

In real life, a newscaster dying on-air was not novel when Network hit the big screen.

Two years before Network came out, Christine Chubbuck committed suicide on live TV in Sarasota, Florida. The news anchor had been severely depressed and suffered from loneliness. Co-workers said she distanced herself. A week before she put a .38 behind her right ear, she told a co-worker she’d bought a gun and was considering waxing herself on her show. The co-worker didn’t believe her and told no one.

The day Christine took her own life, one wonders why she didn’t simply kill herself in the privacy of her own home. Why on TV? Whatever reason she took it public, she knew the power of TV. She knew its pull.

I know the power of television on a very small level. Many moons ago, I got tapped by a local director to be in a commercial for PLAN 9 which at the time was the go-to record/CD store in Charlottesville. We filmed at the director’s house followed by filming inside of a PLAN 9 store. It took us 3 hours to film a 30-second commercial.

IT folks can be funny and not in a ha-ha way.

There is a whole niche of IT people that wouldn’t give you the time of day if they were pushing around a wheelbarrow full of alarm clocks. There are IT people who will blow past you without making eye contact every single day when a “good morning” is offered in passing.

A couple of weeks after the commercial was shot, it started making the rounds on TV during primetime.

Then at work over the next several weeks, I was stopped repeatedly by people who had previously walked by me with their wheelbarrows.

“Oh, my God! It is you! We were watching TV last night and I told my husband, ‘That’s him! That’s the guy from work!’”

Then they look at you differently. Not for any reason except they know somebody they saw on TV.

People were horrified about Christine. Shocked. For the moment.

The mantra of the press has always had an element of “If it bleeds, it leads.” I get it. A fender-bender is nowhere near as interesting as a 100-car pileup. And let’s face it – people have a tendency to gawk at the scene of an accident. It’s sort of like when I was a kid, if you happened upon 2 dogs mating, people stood around and watched. Pointed. Laughed. They just did. We humans can be curious creatures.

100-car pileups and dogs humping is not necessarily news I need. However, I find myself staring. And modern purveyors of TV news know that well.

The overriding criticism of today’s TV news is that it’s fake, augmented with insincere hysteria. Yep. On occasion. But sometimes breaking news is just that.

I have been accused of providing fake news to the public.

There used to be a male belly dance celebrity named Bert Balladine. He was known for his sparkling personality, his highly successful teaching methods, and above all, I think all the belly dancers I knew back in the day had a crush on him. That includes my wife Judy.

In the mid-1980s, Bert came as a guest to our house in Massenheim, Germany. In between all the dancing and whooping that went on with a houseful of dancers, I managed to corner Bert for a couple of hours and interview him on videotape. He immediately disarmed me with his charm. He and I got on right from the start. I got a terrific in-depth interview. And he was thankful for that because I asked him questions he wasn’t used to getting.

He was candid. He was funny. He was fascinating. I saw why all the girls had a crush on him.

Over the next few weeks, I painstakingly transcribed Bert’s interview into print. I loved the piece, but there was no outlet for it at the time.

Years later, Judy met Bert at a dance festival and she gave him a copy of the transcribed interview.

He read it. He liked it. He thought it was a detailed and honest representation of himself. But when Judy asked if I could release the interview publicly, he pulled back a bit. He told Judy he felt it was too personal while he was still alive.

I get it. But then years later, Bert passed away.

A premiere dance magazine wanted to publish the interview. I agreed as long as the interview was not cropped. I wanted every word in there. That was a big ask because it was a lengthy Playboy-like interview. The publisher understood not wanting to be edited, plus she loved the interview, so she split the piece in half and published the entire transcript in 2 issues back to back.

Not too long after the interview landed in dance circles, Judy was accosted at a festival by a woman who knew Bert. The woman was not happy. “There is no way Bert Balladine said any of those things!”

I’d made it up. Or so this woman thought.

Judy tried to tell this person that the interview was legit.

No, it was lies as far as this woman was concerned. Doug Bari should be ashamed of himself.

Fortunately, I live with a woman who is quick on the uptake. Judy didn’t hesitate.

“Well, tell you what. That interview is taken directly from a video my husband shot in our living room. Maybe you should come over sometime and I’ll show it to you.”

The offer was spurned.

The point of the story is that you hear what you wanna hear and you see what you wanna see – sometimes whether it’s the truth or not.

We hear a lot about fake news nowadays. And there is definitely a host of that going around. But not all the news is fake. And that’s a problem. There are some people so fired up about news being fake, they can’t discern when it isn’t.

The Holocaust comes to mind. Millions of people were rounded up, tortured, and killed during the second world war because of their ethnicity. Yet to this day, there are Holocaust deniers who openly and adamantly insist it didn’t happen.

It’s a hoax the Jews came up with so the survivors could end up running the entertainment industry.

That would be almost comical to even conceptualize, except I’ve read too many posts on Facebook that confirm the ignorance out there.

I’ve been to Dachau. Twice. The facilities are there. The Nazis were great at accounting, so they made tidy lists of everyone they processed. Oh, and then there are the films, many that Nazis took themselves to document their work.

There are also personal witnesses to the atrocities. I am friends with a woman whose father was a 10-year-old child when he lost his entire family in a camp.

As my wife likes to say, “If you don’t believe the Holocaust happened, then I need to know where you got the stand-ins for all the bodies.”

Our American soldiers knew it was real. They liberated many of the camps.

When I sat down to watch the short clip from CBS news about VJ’s accident, I got nostalgic for how news used to be presented. No flashy graphics or headlines constantly popping up taking over corners of the screen. No crawl at the bottom.

Nope. Just a guy sitting behind a desk with a projection screen on the wall. No music. Low controlled tones. Just like when it bored me as a kid. Except as an adult, I wasn’t bored at all. I was aching to go back in time to the simplicity.

“Just the facts, ma’am,” as Jack Webb used to say on Dragnet.

I don’t always feel safe watching the news now. There’s a reason for that. A systemic reason.

In Network, Ned Beatty gives an Oscar-nominated performance in one scene that clocks in at less than 5 minutes. He plays corporate head Arthur Jensen.

Once Howard Beale gets his own rant show, he spirals severely into the depths of mental illness.

He mixes in truth the network does not want to hear including railing against massive corporate network business deals.

Howard has become “the mad prophet of the airwaves.” Popular as hell. Arthur Jensen is sent in to advise Howard that it’s okay to spout off about anything he wants, because the viewers love the hair-on-fire approach, however, talking about back room network deals will not be allowed.

Jensen tells Howard:

“You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs.

There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels.

It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today.

You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.”

Howard is confused. He asks Arthur, “But why me?”

Arthur replies, “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

It’s not all fake news out there. You have to ferret out nuances, but there are still plenty of journalists who endeavor to get it right and pride themselves on giving you nothing but the facts. I know, because I am friends with some of them.

Are there anchor people that delight in giving you their slant? Tons. You might even like some of them. But remember Arthur Jensen’s words – news is about money now. Not facts so much. Bucks.

It’s about drawing you in. Baiting. Whether it’s real or fake. Doesn’t matter. Are the ratings good?

I get concerned when I see people not read and just rely on their favorite shows for a take on reality. Hey, if you like to watch a pet show to get your main bits of news, go for it. But feel free to check your stories out. Look them up. Stay with the stories until you get to the end paragraphs where all the good stuff is. The meat is always somewhere down around paragraph 6.

For instance, when I read a story about a thug beating up his girlfriend in a parking lot, of course I want the happy ending that the thug is stopped by a smaller guy who just happens to be passing by. And that the thug wants to beat the little guy up too. Except the smaller guy is a mixed martial arts instructor on his way home from a match. Get down to paragraph 6 – that’s where it will say something like “The mixed martial arts instructor waited patiently as paramedics loaded his attacker onto a stretcher.”

See how I get sucked in? I just love stories like that, but it’s not really news. It’s just something someone thought I would like to know about. They know Doug Bari will not flip when that story’s on.

In 2000, Steven Spielberg was given a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award. He did not waste his speech. He said you might expect a director who works with visuals would prefer the movie medium over all others. Not so fast. He said reading was what fired his imagination and made him think different ways. He encouraged people to READ.

In his excellent non-fiction book On Writing, Stephen King passes along a piece of advice to budding writers. If you show your manuscript to 3 people who hate it, follow your heart, but if you show it to 3,000 people that hate it, perhaps it’s time for a rewrite.

I would almost put the news into the same category.

If only a few tell you what you’re seeing and hearing is fake news, okay, maybe. But perhaps you owe yourself a visit to snopes.com.

Get those fake news facts right.

As old Soren Kierkegaard once lamented, “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”

I was reminded of Soren’s words a couple of weeks ago when I saw angry coronavirus protesters shouting down health workers and police.

Anytime a “news” host or pundit raises their voice, wags a finger at the camera, or flashes a wily smile during a gotcha moment – especially when the subject is important to all of us – be cognizant you are being worked. Steered. Bent. People who pose as journalists are happy to deal in caricatures devoid of gray areas. It makes issues simpler for you and them.

In general, we are happy to dial it in. We glam on to things that incite us, often by choice. We all have our little prisms we use to filter information. I do it all the time. But I try to use those cartoon pundit shows as a jumping off point. Go ahead and entertain me with your reporting, but be aware Doug likes to fact-check.

I wish we could go back to when news wasn’t profitable. I wish outlets were still triple-checking their stories, but a lot of ‘em aren’t. It would be nice to take a stroll down integrity lane.

So I end up having to research, which isn’t always bad. Getting smarter has its moments. I end up stumbling over all kinds of interesting info.

When I cut together VJ’s story and transcribed Bert’s interview, I endeavored to get the stories right. I felt like I owed that to my subjects. I owed it to me as well.

There are journalists I follow who seem to take their calling seriously. I just wonder why they’re not all like that. I see stories get perverted. And I see people get perverted based on what they ingest.

Back in the day, everybody knew the Enquirer was a mockery of real news. Now we’re blending it all together. Mixing the truth with lies.

Father Merrin’s cautionary words In The Exorcist go like this:

“The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological…and powerful.”

Maybe we all need to heed that warning before we step into our living room to watch the “news” again.

I am reminded of Richard Pryor’s words in Paul Schrader’s film Blue Collar.

“They’ll do anything to keep you on their line. They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white— everybody—to keep us in our place.”

Take Spielberg’s advice. Read more. And don’t forget, the best stuff is always near the end down around paragraph 6.

I am a self-professed news junkie. But even I get sick of the onslaught sometimes. I have to turn it off because so much of what passes for news now is calculated to make my head explode. And let’s beat this dead horse – this is by design.

Back in the middle of the last decade, I had a period where I’d had my fill. I did not feel good being upset by world events I couldn’t control. I was swimming in awful stories. Back in the Huntley-Brinkley days, world events were certainly momentous, but the calm din of the newscasts in the living room background always made me feel that nothing was actually kicking down the front door.

So I took a break. An experiment, if you will.

I stayed away. For weeks. I didn’t read news articles. I didn’t watch news on TV. I didn’t even want to talk about news.

It took a couple of days for me to allow my mind to relax and give up the hysteria. And after a week, my shoulders were down, and I found myself singing to tracks in the car.

Arm hangin’ out the window.

I liked me better when I wasn’t all jazzed up.

I haven’t done that for a while. Maybe I need to revisit because I’m starting to feel the squeeze again.

We’re not always getting what we need.

It appears we are overdosing on what we want instead.

Here’s my real want. I want to go back to a time when people were smart enough to recognize what the Enquirer was.

I want to feel safe again watching the news.

Where the hell is Walter Cronkite when you need him?