A (not bad) New York Times headline informs us that “‘A Perpetual Motion Machine’: How Disinformation Drives Voting Laws.” But a better summary of what the story tells us would be: “Our democracy is being destroyed and the groundwork for fascism is being laid by our political system’s tolerance—nay, embrace—of the Republican Party’s unending avalanche of lies.” You are never going to see or hear those words from a mainstream news source, but if nothing changes, it will be the thesis of many a history book.
Two phenomena are occurring at once that make it difficult to see what’s actually happening in real time. The first is that the Republican Party has committed itself to an orthodoxy made up of bald-faced lies, racism, the encouragement of political violence, and the purposeful undermining of democracy. The second is that the ongoing existential crisis of journalism is making it impossible to report the above clearly.
Journalism’s crisis has many, almost impossibly entangled roots. The collapse of the print business model is the most obvious one. Back in 2007, 85 percent of U.S. newspapers reported making cuts in their editorial staffs, eliminating a total of 3,000 jobs and continuing a steady trend that had begun years earlier. Digital behemoths Facebook and Google gobbled up almost all of the advertisements that newspapers had historically relied upon to support the costs of reporting. Craigslist, meanwhile, pirated away what had been the financially crucial business of classified advertising in local newspapers. Then came the 2008 financial crisis that robbed those newspapers of what advertisers had remained. Since then, U.S. newspapers have lost half their editorial employees.
But the news is actually far worse than the numbers let on. Many of the “newsroom” jobs today have nothing to do with gathering “news.” They are in graphics, podcasting, newslettering, video-making, and other things that leave little time for doing the job of journalism. Second, there has actually been a lot of hiring on the coasts in media. The Washington Post and The New York Times are incredibly well stocked these days. This masks the fact that almost all of the newspapers in the middle of the country have been hollowed out.
The big mistake occurred back in 1996 when journalists and politicians decided to treat Fox News as a legitimate news source.
Among the most prominent villains in this process is the New York–based hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which buys up newspapers, pays its own executives exorbitantly for implementing policies that load the new properties with debt, slashes jobs, and sells off anything anyone will buy for a short-term profit that goes right to those executives. These “vulture capitalists” just succeeded in buying up the Tribune Company, which includes the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News, and major metro papers from Hartford, Connecticut, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. That likely spells “30” (old newspaper-ese for the end of the story) for those papers. Politicians in those places will henceforth have a much easier task when it comes to fooling most of the people most of time.
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Economics, though, is hardly the only problem. I hate using the word “obviously,” but obviously, the rise of right-wing media is also a fundamental problem that the rest of the media do not know how to handle. The big mistake occurred back in 1996 when journalists and politicians decided to treat Fox News as a legitimate news source. Everybody knew that the clowns on talk radio weren’t doing journalism. They were rabble-rousers and carnival barkers who riled up the yahoos to complain to journalists (and politicians)—but no intelligent, well-informed person took them seriously. Then Roger Ailes dressed these clowns up in nice clothes and Rupert Murdoch handed out checks, and suddenly their lies, racism, and ethnocentrism were setting the agenda for our politics. (For details, see Brian Rosenwald’s Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States.)
The right had been “working the refs” for decades, but once Fox was launched, the danger came from inside the room. Ailes smartly hired a few real journalists for window dressing, just so the rest of the profession could not write Fox off entirely. Plus, the company made billions of dollars, and so the moguls who ran its competitors lusted after its viewers and did what they could to attract them, farming out part of their broadcast time to faux Foxes. (This explains why literally every cable company and even PBS has felt it necessary to employ Tucker Carlson at some time or another.)
Other fundamental threats to journalism also abounded, the most obvious being the fact that more and more people get their news not from the “legacy” media but from Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, places that don’t even pretend to have any standards of truth and where profits are often determined by the ability to incite extreme reactions among those doing the clicking (as is happening today vis-à-vis Israel-Palestine).
How can you show you are being “fair” to “both sides” if you consistently point out that just one of them is lying to you and doing so to destroy your country’s democracy?
Then there is the age-old problem of journalistic objectivity. The idea has a lot to recommend it, and it worked reasonably well in the past, but again, there’s a fundamental problem: Objectivity has no bias in favor of truth. If one side pays attention to facts and tries to do a reasonable job of respecting all people regardless of race, creed, color, etc., and the other lies all the time, promotes racist lies, and incites its followers to violence, then journalistic objectivity has a lot of trouble telling one from the other. Joe McCarthy knew this and used it to his advantage. But he was something of a lone wolf, and his drunken, ultimately ridiculous antics discredited his tactics, at least until the same paranoid right-wing conservative movement that so adored him began to take over the Republican Party. Beginning with Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, then going into overdrive with Donald Trump, Republicans realized that, owing to the unwillingness of mainstream reporters to tell their readers, listeners, and viewers when they are passing along a politician’s lies, they could game the system to their advantage by creating a imaginary version of reality to which sensible politicians and pundits would have no choice but to respond.
This time, the neo-McCarthyites were supported by an intellectual superstructure, funded by the Koch network, among others, that mimicked academic research but whose “senior fellows” and the like were actually just making shit up. These investments helped to create what a team of scholars at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab termed “an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenged it.” The Berkman Klein Center researchers named this phenomenon a “propaganda feedback loop,” defined as a “network dynamic in which media outlets, political elites, activists, and publics form and break connections based on the contents of statements, and that progressively lowers the costs of telling lies that are consistent with a shared political narrative and increases the costs of resisting that shared narrative in the name of truth.”
Alas, the people left in the mainstream media had, and still have, no idea how to handle all this. How can you show you are being “fair” to “both sides” if you consistently point out that just one of them is lying to you and doing so to destroy your country’s democracy? It may be true, but it sure doesn’t sound as if you are reporting the news in unbiased, “bipartisan” fashion. There is also the problem—again I have to say, “obviously”—of sourcing. How many times can you expect to get the quotes you need from Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy when you’ve mentioned how full of crap they are the last time you quoted them? The net result, as the political scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson observed in their book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (back when the problem was not nearly as bad as it is now), is that “America has right now a thousand-pound-gorilla media juggernaut on the right, operating nineteenth-century style, coexisting with other news outlets trying to keep up while making fitful efforts, twentieth-century style, to check facts and cover ‘both sides of the story.’”
ONE REPORTER, BY THE WAY, who has outshined all others while covering Trump, and put not only every White House reporter but also every professional fact-checker to shame, is Daniel Dale, originally of the Toronto Star, who (a) tells you when a politician, usually Trump, is lying, and (b) most unusually but also most usefully, puts that lie in context, both for how often it is being told and why it matters. Here is a great recent example of his reporting, and one can only wish that CNN President Jeff Zucker would have the guts to turn Dale loose on the nonsense CNN regularly broadcasts.
Odds and Ends
I was thrilled recently to go back to the movies to see the 1969 film La Piscine at the Film Forum. It turned out to be the original version of 2016’s A Bigger Splash. I recommend both.
It’s Bob’s 80th birthday this week: Here is 16-year-old Stevie Wonder singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and here is Stevie again, this time singing it with the late, great Glen Campbell in 1969. Here is a luminous Joan Baez in 1972, making fun of her former protégé. Finally, here’s the great man himself, at Newport in 1965, blowing people away with Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, and “Like a Rolling Stone.”
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