Tag Archives: media

The Year of Lost Trust

Tomorrow, we will welcome a new year. It will come with significant challenges, among them, pervasive suspicion of our social and governing institutions.

Ask the person on the street, who do you trust? and increasingly, at least in America, the answer is “no one” or “very few.”

We can debate the reasons for our sour national mood and pervasive distrust of our institutions and fellow-citizens, but the cynicism and skepticism are not debatable.

One reason: the Internet has exponentially expanded our ability to live in a “filter bubble”—a reality of our own creation, where (in defiance of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous dictum) we can indeed choose our own “facts.”

Convinced that Obama is the anti-Christ? Watch Fox News, visit right-wing websites and listen to talk radio for confirmation. Positive that bankers and evil corporations are intentionally crushing the “little guy”? Subscribe to lefty blogs, read conspiracy websites and respond to hysterical emails.

Political psychologists call this behavior “confirmation bias.” We used to call it “cherry picking”—the intellectually dishonest process of picking through information sources from the bible to the U.S. budget looking for evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.

When the realities we have constructed encounter an inconsistent “real world,” the resulting cognitive dissonance makes us uncomfortable, angry and wary.

And thanks to a media environment that no longer includes news sources with widespread credibility, non-ideological Americans who just want to know what is happening in their cities and country no longer know what or whom to believe.

As we are seeing, one of the most dangerous consequences of this widespread distrust is a growing acceptance of demagoguery.

When citizens no longer share a reality, they are susceptible to messages confirming their worst fears and most pernicious biases—and human nature being what it is, there is no scarcity of opportunists, megalomaniacs and unhinged bigots prepared to sell us their particular snake-oil.

(The willingness of high-profile political figures to make untrue, outrageous and frequently ridiculous allegations is undoubtedly one reason so many people think satirical articles posted to social media are real. Gee—it sounded like something Sarah Palin would have said…)

This retreat into an “us versus them” worldview isn’t confined to traditional bigotries based upon race, religion and sexual orientation. It is glaringly evident in our political life. In our increasingly dysfunctional Congress the villain is partisan distrust; these days, ideas are rarely considered based upon their merits, but accepted or rejected based upon who proposed them, and both parties are guilty.

A few years ago, I wrote a book titled “Distrust, American Style” in which I explored the importance of social trust to democratic self-government. One conclusion: We live in a world where globalization and technology have combined to create a complex environment in which no one person has the knowledge needed to independently evaluate foreign, regulatory or environmental policies. We have no choice but to rely on experts—and that means figuring out which experts–and which information and media outlets– we can trust.

There are many reasons for our current “trust deficit,” but as the saying goes, fish rot from the head.

When citizens don’t trust their social institutions, they become suspicious of each other. When government, especially, no longer works—when authority figures from Congress-people to Governors to Mayors to police officers are seen abusing their powers and ignoring the common good—the resulting distrust infects every aspect of our communal lives.

Add in economic inequality and rapid social change, and you have a dangerously destabilized polity—a recipe for extremism, division and constant discord—and a nearly irresistible invitation to blame it all on “those people.”

Let’s hope that 2016 is the year we begin to inch back from the precipice.

Happy New Year…..

 

 

How Long Can This Continue?

I teach an undergraduate course in Media and Public Affairs. It’s a challenging course to teach, because every year, the definition of “media” changes, and the erosion of the part of the profession called “journalism” becomes more pronounced.

In a recent New York Times column, written in the aftermath of the uprising at the University of Missouri (and the indefensible conduct of a journalism school adjunct professor during that uprising), Timothy Egan addressed the current environment:

I’d like to believe that this video snippet was just another absurdity of campus life, where the politics are so vicious, as they say, because the stakes are so small. But it goes to a more troubling trend — the diminishment of a healthy, professionally trained free press.

For some time now, it’s been open season on this beaten-down trade, from the left and the right. Into that vacuum have emerged powerful partisan voices, injecting rumors and outright lies into the public arena, with no consequence. At the same time, it’s become extremely difficult for reporters who adhere to higher standards to make a living. Poverty-level wages have become the norm at many a town’s lone nonpartisan media outlet.

More than 20,000 newsroom jobs have been lost in this country since 2001 — a work force drop of about 42 percent. The mean salary of reporters in 2013 was $44,360; journalists now earn less than the national average for all United States workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With the loss of the traditional business model, a new media has emerged–providing celebrity gossip and “infotainment,” pandering to partisan loyalties and pre-existing prejudices, and–rather than competing to tell us what we need to know about our government and society– vying to see what words and phrases will trigger the most “clicks.”

As I told my students at the outset of the current semester, it is no longer possible to teach this course in the conventional way–a professor introducing students to a body of agreed-upon scholarship. Instead, the class has become a joint expedition into a wild and wooly information environment that is evolving on a weekly basis– and a joint exploration of the ways in which the loss of that quaint thing we used to call “journalism” is affecting our ability to engage with each other in a democratic system.

How long can this continue before we no longer share a common vocabulary–or reality?

 

The Perils of “Balance”

I love Paul Krugman. Unlike most economists (apologies to certain of my academic colleagues), he writes clearly–as if he is actually interested in communicating, rather than impressing–and more often than not, he hits that proverbial nail squarely on the head.

Even for Krugman, though, “The Crazies and the Con Man” was exceptional. Krugman’s subject was the GOP effort to get Paul Ryan to accept the Speaker’s gavel. You really need to click through and read the entire column, but I’ll share a few of the gems:

What makes Mr. Ryan so special? The answer, basically, is that he’s the best con man they’ve got. His success in hoodwinking the news media and self-proclaimed centrists in general is the basis of his stature within his party. Unfortunately, at least from his point of view, it would be hard to sustain the con game from the speaker’s chair.

To understand Mr. Ryan’s role in our political-media ecosystem, you need to know two things. First, the modern Republican Party is a post-policy enterprise, which doesn’t do real solutions to real problems. Second, pundits and the news media really, really don’t want to face up to that awkward reality….

After offering several examples of the GOP’s lack of policy seriousness (where is that alternate health plan??), Krugman hones in on the real problem:

Most of the news media, and most pundits, still worship at the church of “balance.” They are committed to portraying the two big parties as equally reasonable. This creates a powerful demand for serious, honest Republicans who can be held up as proof that the party does too include reasonable people making useful proposals….

But Mr. Ryan has been very good at gaming the system, at producing glossy documents that look sophisticated if you don’t understand the issues…He is to fiscal policy what Carly Fiorina was to corporate management: brilliant at self-promotion, hopeless at actually doing the job. But his act has been good enough for media work.

Krugman attributes Ryan’s reluctance to take the Speaker position to a recognition that his  “con” wouldn’t survive the additional scrutiny.

Predictions aside, however, the Ryan phenomenon tells us a lot about what’s really happening in American politics. In brief, crazies have taken over the Republican Party, but the media don’t want to recognize this reality. The combination of these two facts has created an opportunity, indeed a need, for political con men. And Mr. Ryan has risen to the challenge.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but this analysis–like so many others–points to the  American media’s major contribution to the cluster-f**k that is our current national legislative branch. Until the media and those of us who depend upon it for essential information understand and appreciate the difference between balance and accuracy, we will continue to be disappointed by con men.

And wonder why our government doesn’t work anymore.

 

Why News Matters

Regular readers of this blog know that I am semi-obsessed with civic literacy–with the level of civic knowledge necessary to the operation of a representative democracy. And it could hardly have escaped notice that I’ve been pretty hard on what passes for media these days.

The two issues are inextricably entwined. We depend upon verifiable, credible journalism to inform us about our government and to allow us to hold our elected officials accountable.

My belief about the importance of this relationship has recently been confirmed by Pew.

The relative decline of local news — a result of slashed budgets and staffs at newspapers, where the majority of original reporting is still generated — has been an area of grave concern for members of the media as well as everyone who cares about civic health, from policymakers and social scientists to community groups and citizens. A lot of inputs are required to keep communities vibrant, and widely disseminated factual information — a common set of issues and understandings — turns out to be a key ingredient. The Federal Communications Commission spelled out some of these dynamics in its comprehensive 2011 report “Information Needs of Communities.
Academic research backs up these concerns, too. A 2014 study by Lee Shaker of Portland State University, “Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement,” finds that at the national and local level there is a positive relationship between newspaper readership and civic engagement as measured by contacting or visiting a public official; buying or boycotting certain products or services because of political or social values; and participating in local groups or civic organizations such as the PTA or neighborhood watch. Likewise, a recent paper by Danny Hayes of George Washington University and Jennifer L. Lawless of American University, “As Local News Goes, So Goes Citizen Engagement: Media, Knowledge and Participation in U.S. House Elections,” notes important implications for democracy: “Citizens exposed to a lower volume of coverage are less able to evaluate their member of Congress, less likely to express opinions about the House candidates in their districts, and less likely to vote.”
The million-dollar question, of course, is: What do we do about this situation?

 

Pogo Was Right

The long-discontinued cartoon Pogo was famous for one particular insight that Pogo– an amiable, philosophical opossum–shared with his friend Albert the Alligator: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

No kidding.

Is the American public ill-served by a media that has abandoned journalism for propaganda and celebrity? Whose fault is that?

Who clicks on the links about missing blonds in Aruba or Kim Kardashian’s latest selfies while ignoring well-sourced, comprehensive news reports? Who tunes in to talk radio and Faux News in order to have urban legends repeated and prejudices reinforced? America’s media is a business; it responds to the market and gives us what we demonstrably want–entertainment, not credible, verifiable information.

Are the interests of voters and citizens alike ignored by the squabbling fools in Congress? Who elected them?

And whose apathy will re-elect most of them, even after ongoing demonstrations of their inability to compromise, negotiate or do the public’s business. Even after it becomes embarrassingly clear that many of them have zero understanding of the Constitution they’ve sworn to uphold. Even after it becomes abundantly clear that they are doing the bidding of their donors rather than concerning themselves with the interests of their constituents.

Yep. We have met the enemy, and it is most definitely us.