Reflections On Our Neutered Media, Who Seem Less Essential—and Trustworthy—Than Ever

Politics Features Election 2016
Reflections On Our Neutered Media, Who Seem Less Essential—and Trustworthy—Than Ever

More than ever, the next four years will require a strong watchdog media to hold accountable the presidential administration of a practiced liar. It’s too bad we don’t have one.

OK, that’s not entirely fair. Reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post (especially David Fahrenthold) and The Intercept, among others, have been digging assiduously into Donald Trump’s affairs for months. Their findings have been illuminating and deeply troubling on topics including Trump’s business activities, his taxes and his false claims about charitable giving. Their work has been dismissed by the president-elect as dishonest reporting by crooked journalists helping to rig the system in favor of Hillary Clinton. Tuesday’s results tell us that’s bullshit, of course, but a huge swath of the electorate either believes him or simply doesn’t care.

Both reactions speak to one of the political right’s most successful, and insidious, long-range campaigns: demonizing the press. A decades-long practice of decrying liberal bias in the so-called mainstream media has seeped into the national consciousness so completely that it has become an article of faith. And as conservative media has risen over the past 20-odd years, and social media has made it easier to self-select the content we consume and whom we interact with, “the media” is now more properly defined as an individualized algorithmic feedback loop that reinforces whatever we already thought in the first place.

While conservative ideologues have been working to neutralize the press, plenty of news outlets and pundits haven’t been helping their own cause. Fawning notes from reporters included among the Wikileaks trove of Clinton campaign emails didn’t dispel the suspicion that the press was in her pocket, even if those notes basically just revealed an unseemly amount of ass-kissing in hope of gaining access. The polls and probability models touted by FiveThirtyEight, The Upshot (the New York Times’ insufferably smug data desk) and others turned out to be woefully inadequate in predicting what actually happened Tuesday night, which understandably feeds into the sense among many Trump supporters that the establishment they resent has overlooked them and, by extension, the issues they care about. Most damning, though, is the way many news outlets treat elections like entertainment, emphasizing the gossip-column details, juicy rumors and horse-race handicapping at the expense of meaningful analysis of policy proposals—or even simply calling out the most egregious lies. It’s a longstanding problem that is especially significant this election.

“Corporation television funded by corporate ads will never, ever hold political charlatans accountable. That’s not part of their business model,” writes Jon Schwarz for The Intercept. “The core problem is that accurate news isn’t profitable. It never has been and it never will be. Newspapers made it seem like it could be for about 30 years after World War II, but that was an illusion: The news just piggybacked on what people cared about more, like sports and classified ads. As soon as technology made it possible to deliver it all separately, the news business collapsed.”

Facebook is never going to hold politicians accountable, either, but they’re more than happy to monetize your political outlook. The social media platform already knows whether you’re conservative or liberal, and its algorithms tailor the content you see based on the preferences it has assigned to you. Though you can change them, most people don’t, and that’s a big problem, given how easy it is for trolls to trick Facebook’s news feed into displaying hoaxes and fake stories that play into Facebook users’ preconceived notions. “Facebook has built a platform for the active dispersal of these lies — in part because these lies travel really, really well,” writes Joshua Benton of NeimanLab.

The media, and especially television, also love a spectacle, and Trump is nothing if not a spectacle. He’s loud, vulgar, off-the-cuff and a firm believer in Oscar Wilde’s epigram that “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” It’s not just coincidence that even many negative stories during the campaign included comments from Trump—all publicity is good publicity in his world, even if he had to stir it up himself under an assumed name.

The press comes under routine, and justified, criticism for the way it covers elections. This year, though, the click-bait frivolity that characterizes the media as a whole couldn’t handle the potent combination of a media-savvy reality-TV star and an opponent with the counterintuitive disadvantages of being a woman and having 30 years of experience in public service. Lost in the noise is the hard truth that reality-TV and actual reality are not the same thing, and that looking like a tough, astute businessman while firing Gary Busey on Celebrity Apprentice does not impart the ability to bring back manufacturing jobs that are simply gone. But news and entertainment blur into one indistinct mess, and discerning the difference requires a degree of media literacy that most people have never developed, or aren’t willing to exercise. “People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you,” read a 1970 White House memo titled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV.” (The memo, discovered a few years ago in the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, includes handwritten notations by ousted Fox News head Roger Ailes, who was then a media consultant for Nixon.)

Even the dwindling number of outlets still able to spend the money that thoughtful, probing journalism requires are frequently dismissed for their supposed elitism and bias. So what happens to the way our country functions when one half of the populace can’t agree with the other half about anything beyond basic facts—and sometimes not even those? Well, for one thing, it clears a path to the presidency for a candidate with a penchant for authoritarian rhetoric, who has bragged about groping women and received the enthusiastic endorsement of avowed racists. It’s also an opening for misinformation, conspiracy theories, condescension and recalcitrance, on every side. After all, there’s no reason to acknowledge you’re wrong when the internet keeps reinforcing the conviction that you’re right, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

If the Washington Post is right that “the only true winners of this election are trolls,” the media, and especially data journalists and the political punditocracy, are among the biggest losers. Instead of proving their worth at a crucial time in our republic, they mostly got it wrong by treating Trump as a joke catering to ignorant malcontents and failing to rigorously examine their own preconceptions about the candidates and the race. The result is not only that the political press seems less trustworthy than ever, but less essential, when it should be standing as a bulwark against whatever regressive agenda Trump and his allies in a Republican-controlled Congress have in store. If they’re not up to the task, we’ll have to do it ourselves.

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