Thirty years ago, there was such a thing as “the media.” The daily paper was dropped on everyone’s doorstep in the morning. When dad came home from work, he’d switch on the television and watch the nightly news on one of the big three networks while waiting for dinner.
We got our news from the same places, so while people would occasionally complain about some type of bias, at least all of America was looking at the generally the same content. Like the sky. Maybe it was light blue, maybe it was a pastel blue, but no one claimed the sky was green and that it was the result of a secret United Nations plot to use chemtrails to change the color.
Famously, the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan reportedly once said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” It used to be that American society generally agreed on the facts at hand, even if their individual values and beliefs led them to draw different conclusions from those facts.
Today, though, that seems to be less of the case. Whatever version of the “facts” audiences want are available on the internet. For better or worse, anyone can establish a semi-professional-looking news website, even if his only professional qualification is having a few dollars for a domain and an axe to grind. No matter what crazy view one is already predisposed to have, one can find a “news” outlet willing to back it up. As one researcher wrote, the media has become fragmented, which ultimately feeds polarization.
Social media platforms proliferate this practice. Many people today get a substantial portion of their news exclusively from social media, specifically Facebook. Everyone “likes,” “shares,” and “favorites” those articles expressing points of view they agree with. Social media platforms exist to make money from keeping people’s eyeballs on their sites, so they respond by giving the viewer more of the same, reinforcing existing preconceptions even more.
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In the course of many discussions, civil and otherwise, I often link or quote sources that would have been unimpeachable before–stories from some of the premier news sources in American journalism, like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, etc. All dismissed as biased. The problem with this is that all too often, “biased” just means that the news consumer doesn’t like what he’s being told. Even articles that are impeccably sourced are disregarded simply because they’re from the “mainstream media.”
By way of retort, someone will post something from a website that doesn’t even make a cursory attempt at neutrality, often from online sources that solely traffic in rumors and conspiracies. The standard retort to this is usually something like “at least they acknowledge their bias.” That’s true, for what it’s worth, which isn’t much. The problem with it is that most people who point it out don’t try to balance it out with views from the other side, much less try to find a more impartial source. They find a site that buttresses their beliefs and stop there.
The alternative is some type of government-operated news service like the BBC, or a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine — a policy abolished in 1987 that called for public broadcast license-holders to present important issues through multiple perspectives — either of which would undoubtedly elicit even worse claims of bias than the present system. It’s up to news consumers themselves to reward good news outlets with their business — that’s what will improve the news media, not the government or a crisis of conscience in the boardrooms of media conglomerates.
Prior to the internet, market forces worked as a pretty good check and balance. If a network or newspaper went too far astray, it lost viewers to one of its competitors, which eventually pulled it back to the middle. With the fracturing of the market into micro-targeted segments, that centering function is gone. Now viewers just leave to one of a thousand information sources each trying to generate inflammatory clickbait headlines. Whereas once the choice between news sources was Wheaties or Cheerios, today the traditional news media is trying to sell Wheaties while some of its digital competitors market Oreo cookies, and others are selling straight crystal meth.
As long as the media in this country remains free, which it should, it’s the responsibility of every informed person to eat his Wheaties. If you’re a citizen who considers yourself informed, whether liberal or conservative, you need to have a foundation of general news from an established news source, e.g., an organization that has actual reporters with bureaus in major cities or that at least uses major news wires like Reuters or McClatchy, not just a sketchy aggregator site. Only after that should you rely on opinion-oriented sites or sites with well-established angles on the news. You’ve got to eat a balanced meal before you eat dessert. Feed your mind nothing but garbage and it will become fat and lazy.
And as far as educating yourself, do yourself a favor and follow some that run counter to your own inclinations. Follow both Mother Jones and National Review, Fox News and MSNBC. It’s not only a good way to fact check both sides, but it will also serve to remind you that the other ideological side isn’t trying to destroy America. Most of either side sincerely wants the best for this country. They just happen to have a different perspective than you. Too many people dig into their ideological fighting holes and consume media only to throw derogatory news grenades at the other side.
Finally, for the love of all that’s holy, stop clicking on conspiracy-theory sites. You’re just feeding their cancer on society with your traffic and shares. You should know them when you see them. Gaudy banner headlines and words like “REVEALED!” and “EXPOSED!” in all caps should ring alarm bells in your mind.
Blaming the news media at large for the state of today’s civil discourse and polarization is like blaming Taco Bell for the obesity epidemic. Sure they could do more to help, but really they’re just giving the people what they want.
The solution lies in each and every one of us — stop consuming junk media before it consumes us all.