Is our current media environment to blame for America’s social dysfunction? Two critical questions:
In a large and diverse country, the ability of citizens to participate in the democratic process on the basis of informed decisions is heavily dependent upon the quality, factual accuracy, objectivity and completeness of the information available to them. Do Americans have the ability to select credible information from the incessant competition for eyeballs and clicks?
In a world where the news and entertainment environments are increasingly fragmented, where a media landscape populated with broadly shared information and common cultural references is disappearing, can Americans even conduct a truly public conversation?
Our ability to devise answers to these questions is constrained both by America’s commitment to freedom of speech and press—a commitment set out in and protected by the First Amendment—and a recognition that efforts by government to control what citizens can access online would be more dangerous than the current situation (assuming such control would even be possible in the age of the Internet).
So how did we get here? And far more importantly, how do we get out?
A series of new technologies challenged and ultimately defeated journalistic norms that had developed over the years. Cable television ushered in a virtually unlimited number of channels, upending government rules created for an era in which the federal government owned and auctioned off the limited number of usable broadcast frequencies. The numerous new cable networks made possible by the new technologies were unconstrained by the earlier requirement that their use of the airwaves be consistent with “the public interest.” The subsequent development of the Internet greatly reduced the costs that had previously prevented the entry of numbers of would-be publishers by dramatically reducing the investment needed to compete with established newspapers and magazines. Suddenly, virtually anyone with a computer, an internet connection and the ability to generate content could claim to be news sources. Professional journalists found themselves competing for readers’ attention with thousands of webpages, in many cases produced by persons and organizations unacquainted with and unrestrained by professional norms and ethics.
By the time the digital revolution took hold, much of cable news (and virtually all of talk radio before it) had already reverted to the explicit partisanship of earlier days. Fox News may have been the most effective; it shrewdly attacked and undermined the ethic of objectivity by elevating balance as the metric by which journalism was to be judged. The network’s motto, “Fair and balanced” reconceptualized journalism as stenography: suggesting that only “he said, she said” reporting was “fair,” and that failure to devote equivalent air time or column inches to “both sides” equated to media bias. Efforts to achieve “balance” (and thus “fairness”) led to reporters giving equal time to arguments for and against settled science or law; the reality of climate change, for example, was portrayed as an ongoing debate, despite the fact that some 97% of scientists are on one side of that debate and only a few outliers (mostly financed by fossil fuel interests) continue to take an opposing view. Such an approach to reporting leaves readers with the impression that matters of established fact are still unresolved. Balance so conceived does not require objectivity; worse, the pursuit of balance perversely operates to relieve journalists of a vital part of their job: determining, verifying and reporting what is and is not factual, so that the public can make genuinely informed decisions.
The great promise of the Internet was that it would make much more information available, and that Americans’ access to information would no longer be limited by the gatekeeping function of the legacy media. Online, many more stories could be told and they could be told in much more depth. Those undeniable gains, however, have come at a considerable and largely unanticipated cost—notably, the return of an intensely partisan media, wide dissemination of spin, conspiracy theories and outright propaganda, a massive loss of local reporting (especially about local government), the hegemony of new and enormous online platforms (most prominently Google, Facebook and Twitter), growing and corrosive public uncertainty about the accuracy of all news, and the near disappearance of a truly mass media.
It’s one thing to disagree about something that everyone can see. Different people can look at a photo, a piece of art, or a draft of a pending bill, and disagree about its meaning or, in the case of proposed legislation, whether it is a good idea, or would be effective in achieving its purported purpose. In a fragmented media environment that gives disproportionate time and space to assorted “pundits” of varying philosophies and degrees of probity (talking heads are much cheaper than investigative reporters), however, the American people are far too often not seeing the same thing, hearing the same analyses, or occupying the same reality.
Today’s media environment is reminiscent of the time before cellphones when a friend and I agreed to meet for lunch at “the tearoom.” Back then, two department stores in our city had tearooms; I went to one while she went to the other. This made conversation impossible, in much the same way that our current media environment, which places citizens in different “rooms” or conversations, impedes genuine communication.
There is a difference between an audience and a public. Journalism is about more than dissemination of news and other information; it’s about the creation of shared awareness. It’s about occupying the same reality (or eating at the same tearoom). It’s about enabling and facilitating meaningful communication. As the information environment continues to fracture into smaller and more widely dispersed niches, Americans are losing the common ground upon which public communication and discourse depend. When cities had one or two widely-read newspapers, subscribers were exposed to the same headlines and ledes, even if they didn’t read through the articles. When large numbers of Americans tuned into Walter Cronkite’s newscast or to one of his two network competitors, they heard reports of the same events. Recent research showing that political polarization increases after local newspapers close shouldn’t surprise us.
If today’s citizens do not share a reasonable amount of accurate information, if different constituencies access different media resources and occupy incommensurate realities, what happens to the concept of a public? To the ideal of informed debate? How do such citizens engage in self-government? If I point to a piece of furniture and say it’s a table, and you insist that, no, it is a chair, how do we decide how to use it? Worse still, if my description of the furniture goes to one audience, and your contrary description goes to another, to whom do we transmit a correction? How do we counter spin, propaganda or even honest mistakes when we have no way of determining who received those original, erroneous messages?
If the ultimate effects of our current information environment are unknown, the intermediate effects are less ambiguous. Citizens who choose different sources for their news and information tend to choose sources that solidify and confirm their tribal affiliations, reinforce their fears, and make it more difficult to understand the perspectives of those with whom they disagree. Worse, the growth of uncertainty about the validity of what we encounter online has undermined trust in a wide variety of social and governmental institutions. Today, the most effective way to censor something is to sow distrust rather than by suppressing or muzzling the speech itself.
In the November, 2016 election, top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined. The ability of social media platforms to target recipients for information based upon sophisticated analyses of individual preferences threatens the very existence of a genuinely public sphere in which a true marketplace of ideas could operate. We are clearly in uncharted waters.
The obvious question is: what can be done? How can Americans take advantage of the substantial benefits that come with access to virtually unlimited information while avoiding the pitfalls of atomization, inaccuracy and outright propaganda? How can we ensure that enough citizens share enough information to engage in informed debate and political conversation?
It’s too late to put the genie back in the lamp.