//Advice to News Consumers: Keep Your Head on a Swivel

Advice to News Consumers: Keep Your Head on a Swivel

President Trump speaks to reporters outside the White House, April 5, 2019. (Joyce N. Boghosian/White House)

It is hard to differentiate between truth and falsehood.

Recently I had occasion to speak to a group of high-school students about how to consume news. Young people inhabit a very strange universe — completely unfamiliar to those of us aged 35 or older. Most of these kids get their information about the world from YouTube, Instagram, or Twitter, and it is often of very dubious quality (a recent article from The Atlantic offers a chilling example). My advice to these students was to keep their heads on a swivel. The media landscape has changed dramatically over the last quarter century, it is still obviously in flux, and right now it is hard to differentiate between truth and falsehood. That is especially true for young people, who do not have the experiential compass to point them in the right direction.

Young people are suffering from a more acute version of a chronic problem that is plaguing all of us. Where do we go for reliable information? The mainstream press has touted itself as the tonic to President Donald Trump’s tendency to misrepresent the truth, but as we have seen time and again over the last two years, the press is prone to hyperbole, bias, and yes, lies of its own.

A case in point came from the ironically titled “Reliable Sources,” CNN’s show about the news business. David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun derided Trump for spreading mistruths, which “drives” the press “to exhaustion,” which is the “way dictators win.”

Nonsense on stilts. It should go without saying that “dictators win” by imprisoning or murdering their political opponents, denying citizens their natural liberties, and suspending free elections — none of which Trump has done.

This sort of hyperbole is common on the cable networks — on both sides of the ideological spectrum. It’s also a regular subtext of the New York Times (which by the way is doing pretty well amid the dictatorship of Trump) and the Washington Post, outlets that continue to claim to be neutral arbiters of capital-T Truth.

It is easy to cast aspersions upon biased journalists who claim to be unbiased, or on commentators like Zurawik who seem to have lost their wits in the Age of Trump. And no doubt: Liberals can point to just as many examples of tendencies on the right. Hypocrisy and irrationality are easy targets for criticism, regardless of your ideological preferences. But I think all of us — conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats — need to reckon with the underlying problem driving the news industry: Nobody has much of an economic incentive to offer truly straight reporting anymore. Instead, most of the major players are trying to appeal to a niche, even as they continue to claim to be offering news for everybody.

Market niches can be very useful. They encourage specialization among suppliers and greater satisfaction among buyers. But news niches built around ideological preferences undermine the larger goal of the industry to hold power accountable. Certain facts are emphasized, others are elided, conjecture is used to fill in the spaces left between facts, panel discussions are one-sided, and so on. All of this is done to appeal to the target audience, which makes sense economically but creates the negative externality of a national discourse devoid of a common set of facts and a reliable judge of what is and is not True.

The world in which many of us grew up, one where the news industry was taken as basically objective, looks in retrospect to have been a wrinkle in time — a brief era after World War II when newspaper consolidation in the major cities and the rise of the big-three networks limited the number of suppliers, and created a market environment in which the best economic strategy was to appeal to people of all ideological stripes. That just doesn’t exist anymore. The proliferation of media suppliers means that any consumer can get his news presented in a way that appeals to his ideological priors, and while slogans trumpeting ideological neutrality (“Fair and Balanced,” “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” “All the News That’s Fit to Print”) persist, hardly anyone takes them seriously — and those who do tend to think that half the country is a bunch of anti-American lying liars who need to be defeated.

Over the last decade, nobody has understood this media environment better than Trump himself. He adroitly intuited the political opportunities to be had in playing one media silo off another and used his knowledge as a springboard to become president. It is really quite extraordinary to witness — for still to this day, he intentionally offers himself as a hero to Fox News and a villain to CNN and MSNBC.

Where do we go from here? I have no idea. Maybe the media will reorganize themselves in a way that promotes a reliable and common set of facts. Maybe they won’t. In the meantime I’m just trying to do what I told my high-school kids — keeping my head on a swivel.

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