In a divided country with views on almost everything colored by political leanings right or left, it’s time to seriously ponder whether U.S. journalists lived a decades-long delusion of objectivity into which they for a time sucked much of the country.
The question appears unavoidable as America becomes ever more partisan, and the reporting of today becomes more and more like that of yesteryear when “fake news,” or some version thereof, was the only news.
“The power of the press consists not in its logic or eloquence but in its ability to manufacture facts or to give coloring to facts that have occurred,” the late historian William Gienapp quoted a journalists of the mid-1800s once observing.
It wasn’t any better before then in the newly formed democracy, either. The 1780s to 1830s are historically known as the “Party press era.” “The yellow press” followed in the 1890s and continued well into the Twentieth Century.
Substitute the phrase “fear mongering” for the word “sensationalized” and the word “clicks” for “circulation,” and you’ve pretty much defined where we are today in the Internet Age.
Were Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United State to return today, he’d probably feel right at home. He might be even be Tweeting his anger late at night in the style of President Donald Trump.
Not to compare the two in any way – the record shows Jefferson could tell true from false even if he wasn’t always totally truthful – but Jefferson was the president who observed that “the man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”
Trump would say the same today of CNN.com, the New York Times and others in the mainstream media.
Were political partisanship circa 2018 limited to politics, it would be one thing, but driven by a media that can find division almost anywhere, it seems to have spilled over into everything.
“It’s not just their public policy positions that seem to differ wildly,” reports Politico. “According to the largest and most comprehensive survey of sexual fantasies ever conducted in the United States, it would appear that there are also political differences in our private sexual fantasies.”
“Engaged Democrats like tennis and the WNBA. Engaged Republicans are really into the PGA tour, college football and NASCAR,” says Business Insider. “Baseball, the NFL and college Basketball are political no-man’s lands, remaining generally moderate, if somewhat right-of-center.”
Let’s stop right there. PGA tour golf and NASCAR? Can anyone find two sports more different from each other?
And “it turns out Republicans and Democrats don’t even like the same foods?” Really?
Obviously no one has told that to McDonald’s, the nation’s leading restaurant by a long shot. It does about $37 billion-a-year in business, almost exactly twice that of Starbucks Coffee at number two.
McDonald’s makes all that money by appealing to a broad cross-section of Americans, but that isn’t how the media sees it.
“Forget about getting consensus on health care reform; liberals and conservatives might never even agree on what constitutes the best french fry,” reports NBC’s Today. “The big takeaways: Conservatives are 38 percent more likely to prefer McDonald’s french fries, and they also opt for thicker steak fries. Liberals, on the other hand, like their pommes frites bistro-style.”
So let’s get this straight. A minority of conservatives are more likely to prefer McDonald’s french fries to other french fries and because of this the country can’t decide on a consensus on health care reform?
As Alaska’s offering to the national discussion – polebrity Sarah Palin, a divider not a uniter – would likely observe: WTF.
If Alexis De Tocqueville were to come back from the grave for a 2018 rewrite of “Democracy in America,” first published in 1835, would he really find himself writing about two distinctive species of Americans, the L-one and the C-one or the D-one and the R-one.
A nation divided
The focus on political difference has become so great Americans have forgotten how much they have in common.
As Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, observed in a column that first appeared in the Washington Post and has popped in newspapers across the country since, “the left and the right have different ways of approaching governance, based on contrasting philosophies. But many of the ultimate goals – economic prosperity, better health care and education, etc. – are the same. We just don’t share the same vision of how to achieve them.”
Crenshaw’s column was directed at Saturday Night Live which had made fun of him for, among other things, wearing an eye patch to cover an injury suffered when he was caught in a bomb blast while serving on a Navy SEAL team in Iraq.
After SNL mocked his appearance – the “line about my looking like a ‘hit man in a porno movie’ was…a little strange” – Crenshaw wrote, a lot of the American right was outraged or professing to be so.
With a one-eyed vision colored by the carnage of actual combat, Crenshaw wrote that he “could not help but note that this was another chapter in a phenomenon that has taken complete control of the national discourse: outrage culture. It seems like every not-so-carefully-worded public misstep must be punished to the fullest extent, replete with soapbox lectures and demands for apologies. Anyone who doesn’t show the expected level of outrage will be labeled a coward or an apologist for bad behavior. I get the feeling that regular, hardworking, generally unoffended Americans sigh with exhaustion – daily.
“Was I really outraged by ‘SNL’? Really offended? Or did I just think the comment about losing my eye was offensive? There is a difference, after all. I have been literally shot at before, and I wasn’t outraged. Why start now?”
What Crenshaw didn’t do, but probably should have done, is point out the role of today’s media in trafficking in outrage culture. There is an awful lot of good and evil these days tied to differing views on how to achieve that goal of “economic prosperity” Crenshaw describes.
And if that isn’t the goal of everyone in this country, well then we’re collectively in a shitload of trouble because living forever on welfare with nothing to do is even worse for one’s mental health than being an idle-rich, trust-fund baby.
University of Chicago psychologist Christopher Hsee has studied idleness and found that it makes people fundamentally unhappy.
“People don’t always choose what’s best for them,” as the Association for Psychological Science notes. “No shock there. But why this confusion over business and idleness? Hsee believes it is rooted in human evolution. Idleness made a great deal of sense for our ancient ancestors, because conserving energy was crucial to survival. We no longer have the same survival demands, so we’re left with a lot of excess energy—which we like to spend in activity, business. Yet that idleness bias still lingers way down deep.”
Thus, given a choice, a lot of people stay true to their genetic programming and opt for idleness no matter how much it messes up their lives.
Those on the American right aren’t wrong for wanting to get people off welfare and working; it is good for them.
And those on the American left aren’t wrong for wanting to provide a safety net for everyone; help is something most of us need at some time, including a goodly number of the idle rich who spend their money on therapy or should.
Somewhere between helping people and sentencing them to work camps for their own good is a happy and necessary medium but you wouldn’t know it from the partisan divisions of the day in a society where political name-calling has become a sad sport:
“Sen. Mike Dunleavy, one of the Mat-Su’s limitless supply of wing-nut Republicans,” as Shannyn Moore, the name-caller-in-chief for the Anchorage Daily News has put it while referencing “Sen. Cathy Giessel, another of Alaska’s self-appointed ayatollahs.”
That newspapers traffic in this sort of throwaway party-shaming undermines serious discussion of the political separations in a fracturing nation. But it has become a norm.
Crenshaw’s high-mindedness is, at least at this time, little more than one of a small number of voices crying deep in the wilderness.
How exactly did we get here?
The writer Telly Davidson argues objective reporting “took off not because news neutrality was always enshrined in American journalistic ethics, but because of how rare it actually was. High-minded notions of ‘fairness’ and ‘objective journalism’ came to the print media largely because the visionary first families of the papers that finally succeeded the Hearsts and Pulitzers in clout and cache—the Ochs-Sulzbergers of New York, the Meyer-Grahams of Washington, and the Chandlers of Los Angeles—made a conscious decision to brand their newspapers as being truly fair and balanced to differentiate them from the competition.”
Much debate ensued about the fairness and balance of “fair and balanced” followed as Fox’s television ratings soared. Fox became the top-rated news network in the country in 2002, and it has stayed there almost ever since.
But it is no longer “fair and balanced.” Fox dropped that motto last year.
Why the switch has never been made all that clear by Fox, but it is possible the network decided market forces were again at work. In the Age of the Internet, consumers have a wide array of websites from which to choose their news.
And how many people really want fair-and-balanced news?
The sheer popularity of fake news, often obviously fake, during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election campaign appears indicative of a sea change in consumer demand. Fabricated stories favoring Donald Trump were shared a total of 30 million times, Stanford University researchers found.
Those stories were liberally spread by true believers bonding with other true believers, or by true believers trying to influence non-believers in a world where journalism increasingly looks like religion:
Pick your church, listen to your preacher, and trust in your faith.
It is a 2018 shift back toward 1818. How long this will continue and how much the journalism of today will come to mimic that of yesteryear will in all likelihood be decided not by journalists but by news consumers.
Journalism, like all businesses in a market economy, responds to the market. Fox News went on air as a more conservative version of other news networks because those other news network were out of touch with a significant segment of America.
Respected ABC News White House correspondent Brit Hume – the first name-brand, mainstream journalist to be hired by Fox in the 1990s – bought into a Fox News pitch that the “news as it was being presented by all the major mainstream outlets was not balanced,” the Washington Post reported in a story years later.
“Since then,” wrote reporters Ellen McCarthy and Paul Farhi, “Fox has become a very real force in America’s culture and politics. It has altered the national dialogue with its different sensibilities and given conservatives a platform. It has become the source of great equity or great evil, depending on your perspective.”
And today the same could be said of MSNBC as television news not to mention online news splinters into so many sources “of great equity or great evil, depending on your perspective.”
How long journalism will continue to fracture along partisan lines remains to be seen, but especially online, partisanship seems to be where the money is to be made. That does not bode well for those who cling to the ideals of those visionary first families of objective journalism.
The new New York Times has admitted to a “Trump bump” in circulation and online traffic due to its aggressive pursuit of the new president.
“Since the election, The New York Times has toughened everything about its coverage of Donald Trump, from the choice of words it uses to describe what he says to the number of reporters assigned to cover and investigate him,” Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the newspaper, wrote at the Columbia Journalism Review in fall 2017.
Her commentary could be read to say she didn’t think the Times as tough on previous presidents, and she offered a warning on this one.
“…In these polarized times,” she wrote, “in which distrust of the media is running higher than ever, it seems to me that every word the Times publishes and what its journalists say about Donald Trump on other platforms should be measured. This doesn’t mean holding back stories, mincing words, or publishing bland journalism that equates both sides or makes false equivalencies. It means not taking cheap shots, not publishing biased headlines (I’ve been keeping a collection of them), and not overreaching, which undermines the Time’s authority and makes people dismiss its coverage.”
The question then becomes simple: Can the Times continue to monetize the “Trump bump” without cultivating that “outrage culture” of which Crenshaw writes or will the market push it in another direction.
See Kristof and “Trump’s Threat to Democracy,” which reflects the sky-is-falling hysteria of too much journalism today both right and left. America survived a bloody Civil War. It survived two World Wars. It survived the divisive Vietnam War.
It can certainly survive Trump.
But the money of the moment might well be in suggesting it can’t, and the money has long colored American journalism.
Thankfully the country has survived that, too.