Opinion: Random Guy Noticing Stuff

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Information Rich, Information Poor – Your Choice

By Gary Stewart

In last week’s edition, Indy columnist Tom Osborne described a recent event providing information about home electrification.

The keynote speaker, Peter Marsh, spoke about numerous aspects of what benefits home electrification offers, what it entails, and how to personalize an electrification plan for whatever makes sense for your home. In addition, the organizations that also participated (Quit Carbon, OC Goes Solar, and Switch Is On) provided excellent resources to anyone contemplating electrification upgrades to their home.

Quit Carbon, as one example, is a non-profit that offers a free in-home consultation to analyze the electrification options and makes referrals to contractors they have vetted. If the homeowner has work done by one of the named contractors, the non-profit gets a finder’s fee. OC Goes Solar is all about “simplifying the process of going solar for residents.” It provides relevant instruction, pre-selects equipment, negotiates prices and warranties. They have partnered with the City of Irvine. Group purchasing reduces prices for the homeowner, both for solar panels and battery storage.

This event was information rich.

I recently had occasion to watch an hour of CNN, which allegedly is a major source of information in the world. That was not my experience.

For a non-TV watcher, the amount of advertising was jarring. Secondly, the programming was extraordinarily narrow. What I watched was so obsessed with every minuscule detail and rampant speculation about Donald Trump’s election interference trial that it might as well have been renamed DonaldTrump’sTrial.com.

What most consider “normal” advertising stood out as bizarre. The hyper-reality of idealized colors, textures and smiles. People constantly smiling, even when the pharmaceutical ad voice-over is talking about medication side effects that “can be fatal.” Super-quick edits, innumerable details that emerge upon repeated viewings, the sad tail end of celebrityhood (yes, Martha Stewart selling kitty litter), cutesy last-second endings, and always, always, the honed messaging music, down to the millisecond.

CNN.com explains that its goal is to provide “ads that are relevant to you.” And yes, there is a world of difference compared to what is advertised during the Super Bowl: Cars, trucks, movies and the latest technology. CNN viewers are apparently people whose eyes, ears, teeth, skin and erectile function are failing, obsessed with their pets, their appearance, and being clean, but still love a good snack now and then, like a foot-long cookie from Subway. How often did I hear the phrase, “Ask your doctor about…” some cutting-edge (and expensive) medication? Plus, never forget that you can get a monetary settlement if you have mesothelioma.

The advertising on a Perry Mason rerun was so similar that you could switch from Trump’s real trial to a Perry Mason fictional trial without missing out on your favorite smiling actors. (Full disclosure – I won the Perry Mason Find-The-Murderer sweepstakes that my friends and I held over a semester – four points if you correctly name the murderer in the first 15 minutes, down to one point if you name the murderer right before they break down and confess. I acknowledge that my willingness to sit through these OMG-ads was greater, but even so, I don’t think I could last more than a few shows.)

One way to identify that an information desert is posing as an information fountain is that the small amount of information is endlessly repeated. This is bipartisan. The Substack blog Decoding Fox News compares each week’s content on Fox News shows and NPR and lists major news stories that Fox News did not mention. For the week ending March 22, there were 33 unmentioned topics, which included updates about the violence in Gaza and the war in Ukraine and articles about climate change, corruption, and things making life more difficult for millions of Americans, such as shrinking federal housing assistance.

Takeaway: If you want to inform yourself without becoming the product that the media outlet is selling to advertisers, you have to look. Consider: Our local library has 539 items related to “Global Warming,” including numerous books and DVDs, which are free of ads for hearing aids or snack foods. To identify podcasts that are providing valid information, not disinformation, take the free online course Checkology from the News Literacy Project.

Get informed, not sold.

Dr. Stewart, a native of St. Petersburg, Florida, stopped in Nashville and St. Louis for education before arriving in Southern California in 1977. A happily married internal medicine physician with three accomplished children, he is equally enthusiastic about the arts (piano player, art collector, bachelor’s in English, widely read), the sciences (physician, climate activist with Citizens’ Climate Lobby) and fun.

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