Paul Oestreicher
Paul Oestreicher

There have been many inflection points in US history—events that significantly changed our future and behaviors—in the last hundred years.

Throwing out some key dates affecting the trajectory of US history—1929, 1941, 1945, 1954, 1955, 1957, 1963, 1964, 1968, 1969, 1973, 1974, 1981, 1991, 2001, 2008, 2020—I'm betting most of you will understand their significance. (This is a small, subjective sample and my rationale is at the end.)

What about 1980?

My "This Day in History" email from the HISTORY Channel this past week reminded me of a lesson I covered when I taught Strategic Communication at NYU. In a discussion about crisis management, I said public relations tactics could only help rescue a reputation if systemic problems were addressed. I used the catastrophic explosion on BP's Deep Water Horizon oil drilling platform as an example. (The same situation when then-CEO Tony Hayward famously, selfishly said, "I want my life back.") After discussing how PR Band-Aids wouldn't fix the underpinning safety issues, we pivoted to a related topic—how the media covered the story and how people consumed the news. I projected a multiple-choice question on the classroom screen:

After Deep Water Horizon in 2010, what was the biggest ocean oil spill in history?

  1. Ixtoc 1 oil well, Gulf of Mexico, Mexico
  2. Atlantic Empress – Aegean Captain collision, Trinidad and Tobago
  3. Exxon Valdez grounding, Prince William Sound, Alaska

This was repeated in at least a dozen classes and every one of the graduate students chose the Exxon Valdez. The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is A) the Ixtoc 1 disaster in 1979. 1979 also saw the collision of the two oil tankers. The Exxon Valdez, occurring in 1989, didn't even make it into the global top 10.

Why the outsized memory of the Exxon Valdez? One could speculate on the recency effect, but I'm going with CNN. CNN was born in 1980 and without its real-time, continuous, global coverage, the world missed a lot of news.

Impact on Public Perception and Behavior

Exxon (now ExxonMobil) stayed in the news because we were wired in—the impact on the Alaskan ecology, the investigation into the company and the ship's crew members, the months of tracking the clean-up progress, the lawsuits, the push for new regulations. It had an impact on legislators, policies, and public opinion. Several scholars called this and similar constructs “The CNN Effect.”

While the constant stream of news can shine a megawatt light on important issues, the effects on the public can vary. It can sharpen the focus for some and lead to positive interventions during natural or human-shaped disasters. But sensationalized headlines and the onslaught of breaking news alerts can create anxiety in others. How many have turned off the news because we wanted to limit the amount of negativity in our lives? As psychologist Mary McNaughton-Cassill noted, "The relentless exposure to distressing news can elevate stress levels and lead to a state of learned helplessness."

More Can Lead to Less

CNN, obviously, was on to something. Other dedicated cable outlets followed, with some focused on news while others honed in on sports, finance, cooking, the weather, etc.

However, any network with a strong partisan bias can create echo chambers where some viewers are only exposed to information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. Matthew Levendusky, a political scientist, has argued that this kind of selective exposure can exacerbate partisan divisions, increase hostility toward opposing viewpoints, and undermine democratic discourse.

Projecting news through an ideological lens can also lead to increased disinformation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Fox News personalities frequently downplayed the severity of the virus and questioned the efficacy of vaccines and public health measures. Viewers were guided to mistrust the science and its messengers. This misinformation likely contributed to lower vaccination rates among its viewers and may have exacerbated the public health crisis. A research study found that regions with higher viewership of Fox News had lower compliance with public health guidelines, illustrating the real-world consequences of its editorial stance.

This decline in trust is problematic for a functioning democracy, as a well-informed citizenry is essential for making informed decisions on policy and elections. Professor Jon D. Miller, now at the University of Michigan, warned us nearly 20 years ago that "people's inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines their ability to participate in the democratic process.”

Further Into the Unknown

Like so many inflection points, it's difficult to forecast where this arc of history will ultimately take us. CNN's arrival in 1980—and the model it pioneered—has undeniably transformed news consumption and its impact on society.

The world is broken in so many ways and the society that needs to repair it seems harsher and more divided. But I'm hopeful the state of journalism can one day return to the sentiment founder Ted Turner expressed at the network's launch. Call it woke or naïve, but he wished CNN would "bring together in brotherhood and kindness and friendship and in peace the people of this nation and this world."


1929—stock market crash

1941—invasion at Pearl Harbor

1945—end of WW II, liberation of Nazi death camps, first atomic bomb

1954—Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

1955—polio vaccine


1963—JFK assassinated

1964—all in on Viet Nam, Civil Rights Act

1968—RFK and MLK assassinated

1969—men land on the moon

1973—Roe v. Wade

1974—Watergate, Nixon resigns

1981—CDC publishes first report on AIDS

1991—Gulf War

2001—9/11 attacks

2008—Barack Obama, first Black president elected



Paul Oestreicher is a renowned public relations and public affairs professional. He is a trusted advisor and mentor known for strategic communications, thought leadership development, crisis and reputation management, and third-party relationship building. Oestreicher is the author of Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table. You can follow him on Threads @pauloestreicher.