We have justly recognized Donald Trump as the leader and the primary inciter of the failed insurrection attempt on our democracy; but we must confront the reality that he is only the tip of the iceberg, go deeper and recognize not just the man who incited it but the system that propped him up in the first place, the system which sustained him and all those like him for years, long before 2016.
The system is the modern infrastructure through which we access our information, comprised mainly of social media outlets and cable news.
With the accelerated rise of each over the last ten years, Americans now essentially occupy different realities. I have no doubt that the men and women who broke into the Capitol believed they were doing the right thing. According to the information they are constantly fed through Fox News personalities or any of the various fringe outlets they follow on social media, Donald Trump won the election and their government is therefore being stolen from them by culprits ranging from a broad covert socialist movement to Bill Gates.
Yet the fact that Trump was even able to ascend to power in the first place, mostly by lying and stoking paranoia proves that he must have had a platform, multiple in fact, that gave him the stage. I recall in 2011 how every cable news network—whether allegedly right or left leaning—was perfectly willing to have him on as a guest, while he spouted out baseless conspiracy theories that Barack Obama wasn’t born in America, that he therefore snuck in and unlawfully became President.
Why did they have him on in the first place? Was he an expert on anything? Had he been conducting any sort of hard reporting on the ground and thus been able to provide some kind of groundbreaking news relevant to the public? The kind based on actual evidence?
No. He was entertaining. A personality who was good for ratings. Who liked attention and who knew how to wield it, as demonstrated since the 1980s throughout his many public feuds perpetuated by New York tabloids. When it came to playing the media to boost his profile, Trump was a true maestro, and he would prove to remain so for years into the future.
A liar needs a stage to consolidate power and Trump’s success is owed to the pervasive entertainment culture of our modern news media and to his mastery of it.
In their eagerness to follow him, driven by their need for high ratings, the cable news networks became his all-too-willing accomplices. In the meantime so did we, all of us who continued to watch these programs and give them our viewership.
We created this monster and now we’ve seen the consequences quite literally breaching the walls of our institutions and our very system of governance.
In answering the inevitable question of what we do from here, it’s worth noting that We the People can still exercise our power by simply making different decisions on how we get our information, on what we will and will not watch, or read. In making these personal decisions, it’s worth asking ourselves the following questions:
Why do I trust this program/person? Are they providing evidence to back their claims? Can I access the evidence myself and if so, am I even willing to investigate the evidence myself? Have they made a claim in the past, one that was initially disregarded, dismissed or considered outrageous, that turned out to be true? Is what they’re saying backed up by other reputable sources? How do I define reputable? Am I watching this because I want to be informed, or because I want to be entertained and merely feel informed? Do I like this person’s personality? Should their personality be relevant? How would I react if they were merely reporting news and facts without adding their opinion?
Any broader political or legal action, beyond these personal decisions each of us can and should make, naturally raises new questions concerning free speech.
Or does it? Maybe all we need to do is study history, and remember the federal regulation which existed for nearly forty years before it’s revocation in 1987: the Fairness Doctrine. It required that TV and Radio stations present all sides of an issue for the sake of an informed electorate. The Reagan administration revoked the policy, believing that such considerations were better left to the will of the free market.
If at face value that seems sensible, consider whether the evolution of our media over the past 30 years tells a different story. In the mid-nineties, conservative talk radio took off with leading personalities (not reporters or journalists) like Rush Limbaugh. Shortly thereafter, perhaps picking up on radio’s cue, two competing cable news networks debuted within the same year–Fox News and MSNBC. Perhaps at first, the coverage on either network seemed straight enough and relatively light on its editorializing. That would change as other personalities like Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Chris Matthews proved better for ratings, people less known for their reporting than for how they reported, for their personality and manner.
Today the cable news landscape is dominated by these prototypes, whether it’s a show’s host or the rotating usual suspects of spin doctors they consistently invite to speak, the talking heads telling us how to think and how to feel.
Editorializing is nothing new, nor is it particularly dangerous. What is dangerous is the editorializing being disguised as news, television shows–governed by the rules of entertainment before journalism–being equated to news programs that report facts absent of spin or opinions. Put it this way, if you’re wondering why we don’t have any more Walter Cronkites, David Brinkeys or Tom Brokaws, it’s not because they don’t exist. It’s because their modern equivalents have been overshadowed by the people who bring in more money for the networks.
So while most of us think we’re getting informed, we’re really just getting amped up with more of what we want to hear–not from reporters who report facts, but by people who think like us and present information (or don’t present it) in a way that will keep us in our own ideological bubble.
It frankly astonishes me that people remain perplexed as to why we’re so divided in this country. And while it might be too late to close Pandora’s box or fully reinstate the Fairness Doctrine in a modern media landscape so vast and diverse–at least without provoking mobs of people rallying against what they view as some ominous government censorship–we do need to begin properly distinguishing the news from propaganda.
Laws decree that motion pictures and television shows are given content ratings, that music with any profanity be labeled explicit. It might be time to issue similar regulations for television shows or internet channels posing as news, for personalities quietly reassuring us that we can count on them to provide all the facts we need, so long as they reserve the right to tell us how to feel about them.
Unless we take serious steps in regulating our media and information infrastructure we should expect our country to grow more divided, the mobs more frequent, and We the People to become a greater danger to ourselves.