My last essay on our toxic media environment stirred up a decent amount of interest and comment, so I’d like to follow up with some further observations I didn’t have the chance to make the first time. In particular, I want to flesh out my argument that mainstream media bears some responsibility for its loss of credibility among large sections of the public. First, I want to give a fuller account of where it went wrong. And second, I want to offer a more complete explanation of why it went astray. I argued that competitive pressures pushed it in the wrong direction, and that’s true — but there’s more to it than that.
Thank you for writing this. It’s hard to see clearly. A lot has changed about media other than the organizations themselves.
My father probably consumed about 3 hours of media a week in the 1970s and 1980s. He was conservative. (A Nixon man). I am sure that if he were alive today he would consume 15-20 hours of media in the form of Fox, talk radio, and internet. Perhaps even more than 20, as I have seen with retirees.
That is a massive cultural change - having nothing to do with what is in it.
Key Quote: "Authority isn’t something you’re born with... Authority must be developed, earned, and maintained." To be polemical, this is where progressives and the new anti-objectivity journalists get things wrong: they see legitimacy as a product of top-down diktat when really it develops from social trust and consent.
I also appreciate how well this issue dovetails with the challenges of an abundant society. In this case, the erosion of trust in media writ-large a product of information abundance (in part)
"The traditional style of objectivity, developed in less disordered times, included a strong tendency to treat both sides as acting in good faith and representing reasonable alternatives."
The GOP hasn't acted in good faith for quite some time. One might argue about the reasons for their dissembling: a donor base at odds with its working class constituents (see "saving" social security) or, as I believe, the inconvenient truth of climate change which must be elided at all costs. Whatever the cause(s), MSM will have difficulty regaining trust so long as one party is able to hide its true intentions.
Your writings parallel many of my thoughts. I think it is important to start flesh out more of the context of the "Walter Lippmann model" of modern journalism and it's role of being a technocratic mediator explaining the technocratic policies of the left and right for the masses...which worked in a very imperfect way until technology disrupt the media monopolies that limited voices.
Technology upended that model and we traded ad dollars with pennies per click. Sorry to be self promotional, but if you want to se how mainstream journalism squandered it's authority, you have to see my documentary of the media covering the early days of the 2016 election. I spent nine months embedded with the media covering "the story" and it is a sad story. Here is the 2 minute trailer:
If that seems interesting, here is the 75 minute version: https://youtu.be/ATktPy8vOgo
This seems totally wrong-headed to me. The implicit starting point is that the US media should give respectful treatment to all views held by substantial numbers of Americans, even if they are demonstrably false. The contrary view isn't that it's obligatory to take political sides. It's obligatory to state the truth, fearlessly and frankly. As an obvious example, if Trump lies about X, the correct headline is "Trump lies about X", not a wishy-washy "Trump says, falsely .." or, worse still "Trump claims". This didn't start with Trump. As with most things, climate science denial was the original sin.
In essence, Republicans weaponised "objectivity" by demanding that it should "make the public aware of what the leading interpretations are and how they differ". Here "leading" doesn't mean "most supported by evidence and expertise", it means "advocated by important US political actors".
I think this is a symptom of a broader problem: the breakdown of institutional norms that put walls of separation between truth-seeking and advocacy. Loss of trust in academic experts is a similar phenomenon with similar institutional-breakdown roots, even though the economics of academia are very different. Yuval Levin would probably also have something to say here about formative vs performative institutions and how the shift to the latter hurts objectivity norms.
You give an apt description of the older journalistic practices that sustained trust. I would say we need not only to resurrect those but to think about how to extend them to other truth-seeking professions and institutions, to establish the general cultural idea that truth-seekers shouldn't be advocates or activists, and advocates and activists shouldn't claim to be disinterested pursuers of truth. Importantly, this shouldn't be a partisan issue, because the implication is *not* that activism and advocacy are bad or useless or low-status. It's that our civilization flourishes and progresses better when we put guardrails in place that help truth-seekers resist the temptations of confirmation bias, myside bias, etc.
I wrote about this here:
and gave a couple of other examples of good separation norms worth learning from and emulating, e.g. judicial recusal requirements and Google's separation of search and ads engineering.
An older note on journalism:
Bryan Caplan had the best take on Mainstream Media:
Suppose you learned that there was a school staffed mainly by right-leaning teachers and administrators. And at this school, an oddly large number of lessons touch upon, or perhaps center on, bad things that have been done by Jews throughout history. None of the lessons are factually false – all the incidents related are things that genuinely happened and all were actually done by Jewish people. For example, murders that Jews committed, times when Jews started wars, times when Jews robbed or exploited people. (I assume that you know that it’s possible to fill up quite a lot of lessons with bad things done by members of whatever ethnic group you pick.) The lessons for some reason omit or downplay good things done by Jews, and omit bad things done by other (non-Jewish) people. What would you think about this school?
I hope you agree with me that this is a story of a blatantly racist and shitty school. It would be fair to describe the school as promoting hatred toward Jewish people, even if none of the lessons explicitly stated that one should hate Jews. I hope you also agree that no parent or voter should tolerate a public school that operated like this.
Now, what if the school’s right-wing defenders explained that there was actually nothing the slightest bit racist or otherwise objectionable about the school, because it was only teaching facts of history? All these things happened. You don’t want to lie or cover up the history, do you?
I hope you agree with me that this would be a pathetic defense.
What would a person who followed the mainstream media on COVID believe. I watched family and friends do this so let me summarize:
1) There is something like a 50% chance of my ending up in the hospital if I get the disease.
2) I will be damaged for life by the disease.
3) Children are at risk to the disease. Also, schools should be closed and if open (which is basically murder) should operate with a series of extremely intense safety measures.
4) If I go anywhere with other people, I will probably get the disease. Unless its a BLM riot.
5) Masks Work! But also for some reason that doesn't change #4 at all.
6) Chinese lockdowns work! Followed by Chinese lockdowns don't work!
7) The dangerous Trump vaccine is being rushed by Trump to help him in the election and is dangerous. Followed by "toddlers need to get their booster shot or probably they shouldn't be allowed to attend school."
My parents are boomers. They had intense trust in the mainstream media and authority figures going into this pandemic. They stuck with it through the insanity, but finally gave it up after the Omicrone wave. That was it, so many lies they could easily parse through common sense and real world experience. They were never trusting the media again after that shit show.
Another thing to consider was the big shift in FCC policy. A broadcast license used to be a public trust. The holder was expected to serve a public function in exchange. That was usually fulfilled with news coverage and emergency services. In the 1980s, those license became property and news coverage was gutted. Go to Youtube and look up one of those Christmas news team broadcasts from the 80s or 90s. The networks had stringers around the world. That is over.
The timing doesn't make sense. The right wing started rejecting mainstream media back in the 1960s and 1970s. Nixon and Agnew made a big point of ragging the lying left wing media. Then, in the 1990s, the press gave up on reporting the issues. It was all about the horse race. Who was winning? Who made what nasty crack about whom? Gone were the old fashioned political and policy reporters who realized that the "show" was actually about people's lives. That alienated a lot of the left wing who were actually concerned with the issues.
By the 2000s, the press had reacted to right wing pressure with its both sides approach: "Ice is just frozen water. Both sides disagree. News at 11." Meanwhile, journalism gave up on the what-when-where-why-and-how paradigm. They buried the lede in the penultimate paragraph. It seemed like the Soviet Union had collapsed and displaced reporters from Pravda and Isvestia were working in the US media.
By the time Trump was elected in 2016, no one trusted the press. Trump wasn't a cause. He was an effect.