In CivCon we deal with a lot of fast-moving topics and issues. But, I can’t think of any more in flux than the future of the news media. Nor as vital. A healthy press is one of the linchpins of our democracy, as Thomas Jefferson and countless others since have said. Yet, even before the rise of Donald Trump and the unprecedented challenges he presents to the institutions and underlying conventions of journalism, the mainstream media (MSM) was in crisis.
As is common knowledge, the century-old basic business model of journalism (especially print but also other formats) has collapsed. The Internet drained away news companies’ advertising revenue and new competitors emerged to razzle-dazzle away the public’s attention and dim its desire (and willingness to pay) for hard news. The big MSM companies reacted by massively consolidating and moving into cyberspace as best they could. But, it hasn’t been enough to halt the downward slide of the industry. Pre-Trump and depending on who you asked, the big issues that threatened the news media’s future included:
- The basic 20 year-old failed business model problem.
- Concentration of Media ownership (now AT&T wants to merge with Time Warner).
- Print journalism’s dim future, especially newspapers.
- Fragmentation of the news audience.
- Rise of social media and personalized news feeds, which have turned passive news consumers into active distributors and producers of news.
- Shift to and concentration of power away from traditional content providers (like TV networks & newspapers) to new “platform oligopolies” (like Facebook, Google, and Twitter).
- Next generation issues, like those associated with the “Internet of Things,” wearable devices, and other future transformative technological change.
Now, of course, we can add at least two more problems arising from our last (so to speak) election: President Trump and fake news. In the campaign, Trump played the MSM like a fiddle, garnering virtually 24-hour a day coverage. Nobody had ever hacked the Media like this. And, he routinely threatened reporters and media companies. Trump is all but sure to use govt power to bend the news media to his will. There is even talk that “Trump TV” will be created despite his victory, so we may soon have a news network that’s literally loyal only to the President! More broadly, Trump’s presidency poses unprecedented challenges to long-established MSM conventions of neutral reporting of a shared objective reality.
Second, we have the emerging problem of fake news. Fake news is outright false propaganda disseminated by groups hiding their true identities and allegiances. Its purpose is to undermine public confidence in any and all other news. From Breitbart and Info Wars to Russian government news trolls, this poison has always been around, but its impact might be very large in a socially networked world.
Gee, where to start? Fortunately for our discussion, I think many of these problems are related. The MSM is consolidating because even the biggest players need to control content, distribution, and users’ personal information to survive. They’re easy to manipulate because they are financially unstable. Fake news works so well because social media let anybody be their own producer and distributor of news. Etc.
Here are some readings on some of these big, crosscutting problems in journalism these days and some musings on what the future holds. On Monday I will take the first five minutes or so to connect a few of these dots so that maybe we can focus right off on the fundamental problems. We have several journalists in the group, so I will then ask them for their thoughts to start the general discussion. I’ll see you on Monday.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
The crisis today –
- “The State of the News Media 2016.” An annual Pew Center report. Recommended: Summary + fact sheet on your favorite subtopic.
- Newspapers are dying but the news will survive them.
- Social media: Some key points re their use.
The rise of fake news –
- Russia hacked our election! (h/t John M.)
- Trump voters buy into a lot of fake news.
- The challenge to the news media and to Facebook in particular. Recommended.
Journalism in the Age of Trump –
- Yes, the news media elected Trump. Recommended. Optional and extra fury/anguish here.
- As thanks, he’ll try hard to intimidate and silence our free press.
- Maybe this would help.
The Future of news –
- Facebook, Google, Twitter and other big platform companies will determine the future of news. Recommended.
- A radically different future is coming. Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: Is worldwide democracy inevitable?
It all began with Fox News, 20 years ago this month.
At least that’s my view. Yes, even before FNN launched in 1996, Rush Limbaugh had been on the air for several years and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had reinvented a much harder-edged Republican Party. Still, I think that Fox made everything we are seeing today possible, from movement conservatism’s takeover of the Republican Party in the 1990s, to the conspiracy theory-driven mutation of the Obama years, straight through to the madness f 2016.
Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps there is not such a straight line to be drawn from that first Fox News broadcast on October 7, 1996, to today’s Trumpian GOP. Many other forces are at work. Either way though, I still think the launch of the mother ship that is Fox News was a watershed event in American history.
Or, maybe Fox News will change its ways. The network is in great turmoil now, as you no doubt have heard. Roger Ailes, Fox’s founder and ideological commissar, is gone after being fired for sexual harassment. Owner Rupert Murdoch named two of his sons as replacements, and they may be more moderate politically than the ex-Nixon aid Ailes. Fox feuded with Donald Trump initially, but lately has backed him to the hilt. So, FNN will be in the crosshairs when The Great Reckoning begins in earnest starting November 9. Maybe chastised and under new management Fox can evolve into something more responsible.
Our first post-election meeting, on November 14, will be “Who is to Blame for Donald Trump?” Obviously, a single TV network watched by only 3 million people in prime time does not bear all of the blame for what we’re seeing. Nonetheless, to me Fox News is so central to the success of movement conservatism that it deserves its own meeting.
I know it is difficult to talk about anything other than Donald Trump personally these days. But, the conditions that allowed someone like him to capture control of the Republican Party were a long time building, and they will remain after the dust settles. I think we need to understand the crucial incubating and magnifying role played by FNN if we want to grasp why and how this happened. Good people who are conservative Americans – not to mention the rest of us – deserve better.
I will give some kind of brief opening remarks on Monday night to frame our discussion, then throw it open for discussion.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
[Update: This is your best explanation of the Fox phenomenon and right-wing media may be heading. It was not written yet at the time of our mtg.]
Fox News’s Impact –
- How Fox News changed America. Optional, long, 18pp pdf by a conservative.
- The basic problem: Conservatives only trust Fox News among TV networks. Important
- Damage to GOP: .
- Fox News has greatly damaged the GOP. Recommended
- Wrong. Fox greatly helps the GOP because it helps them win (except the presidency). Recommended.
- It’s easy to overstate Fox’s impact – and cable news’s influence in general.
- Fox’s alternate universe is dizzying to watch.
Donald Trump and Fox News –
- Trump is the product of right-wing news media, especially Fox News. A must-read.
- Optional, longer: “They Don’t Give a Damn about Governing.” Conservative Media’s effects on the GOP.
The Future of Fox News –
- It’s a bright future. Recommended.
- No. The twilight of Fox News is nigh. Recommended
- Will a “Trump TV” take down Fox News from the Right?
Next Week (10/31): Franken-future: Will/should we genetically enhance our species?
Debating the meaning and importance of “political correctness” (PC) is James’ idea. It’s well-timed. Conservatives are practically obsessed with it these days. When they’re not beating up on each other, all the remaining GOP presidential candidates routinely accuse Democrats of failing to honestly face the true causes and culprits of our national problems out of fear of offending someone. Usually that someone is either minorities, foreigners, or the Democrats’ own PC posse.
This is the accusation even on terrorism. Donald Trump: “We’re losing the war on terror because of political correctness.” Ted Cruz, as part of his post-Belgium call to have U.S. law enforcement patrol “Muslim neighborhoods,” said “We need a president who sets aside political correctness [and] tries to deny this enemy exists out of a combination of political correctness and fear. The days of the United States voluntarily surrendering to the enemy to show how progressive and enlightened we can be are at an end.” I could scare up dozens of similar quotes on most major political topics. I really believe Republicans will try to make political correctness and its allegedly grip on Democrats the main theme of the entire 2016 election. Not kidding.
Still, I think (some) accusations of being politically correct deserve more of a response than sarcasm. Just because the GOP is abusing the term does not mean there is no such thing as PC or that it isn’t a problem – at least in some contexts. A number of progressive commentators have expressed concern about the chilling effects of political correctness on intra-Party debates. President Obama has called out political correctness on college campuses as an impediment to honest, inclusive debate. Regular people complain about PC, too, not just bigots and professional political rabble rousers.
To be sure, other progressives have pushed back hard on the notion that leftists have hijacked honest political dialogue for any reason, much less petty ones. I will take a little time to explain their arguments in my opening remarks Monday night. They are important because there are much larger issues here than just peer pressure over nouns and adjectives. Language is a tool of power, often invisibly so. The terminology we use and feel constrained not to use when we talk about politics or culture (or rights of justice) tends to reflect who has power and who doesn’t. To me, the issue of power is just one of many subterranean aspects of our escalating political correctness war – and nt all of them favor the progressive POV. If we are to take both sides of this conflict seriously (they sure take themselves seriously), then we need to explore these larger issues percolating below the surface.
In my opening, I’ll try to
- Explain the traditional meaning(s) of political correctness and, to the extent I grok it, the conservative arguments as to why it’s such a big problem; and
- Briefly lay out the arguments people on the Left use to argue that PC is just a slur and an excuse to be rude or biased.
I’m really looking forward to hearing what you all think of this issue.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What has being “political correctness” traditionally meant? Who/what was the label directed at and what actual problems were attributed to it?
- How do conservatives use the term today? What specifically do they say the term means and what problems do they say it causes?
- Do they have a point? Are progressives too quick to argue by accusing others of bad faith or bigotry?
- Why is fighting PC so urgent to the Right? Which individuals, institutions, and events are driving this obsession? Root causes?
- LIBS WHO AGREE:
- Why do some progressives agree that PC is out of hand?
- Who do they say is being harmed by it and how much?
- IN DEFENSE OF PC:
- Politeness: Is being PC benign, mostly an insistence on respecting people?
- Power: Is PC really about trying to broaden our dialogue by dropping labels that bias discussion and perpetuate some peoples’ power and privilege? Are growing diversity and minority power in U.S. society the real story here?
- Past: Is PC really worse today and on the Left? Don’t both sides police rhetoric and accuse each other of bad faith?
- Offense/defense: Is crying “PC” itself PC, an effort to silence/delegitimize critics? Is it a sword instead of a shield?
- ISSUES: Is there anything to the PC accusation conserving terrorism, illegela immigration, etc.?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- A liberal complains about PC’s malign influence. (well-argued but long)
- Obama has criticized PC at on campus and it’s a real problem there.
- Conservative POV: Political correctness on the Left created Trump.
- [Update] Here’s a great short comment from a center-left commentator I respect that shows some sympathy – and empathy – for regular people that feel suffocated by political correctness.]
- [Update II] Has PC infested San Diego city govt? I link you decide.
- “Political correctness” is mostly just code for “don’t insult or stereotype people.”
- The real reason why GOP candidates are obsessed with PC. Recommended.
- Crying “PC” turns punching down into punching up; victimizers into fake victims. Recommended.
- PC is mostly a good and necessary thing.
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar op-ed: Every GOP candidate is wrong about political correctness. Recommended. Seriously.
Next Week: Is our legal system being privatized?
Gee, the problem of easily-exploitable voter ignorance springs to mind a lot these days, doesn’t it? No matter when or how (if?) Donald Trump’s presidential campaign collapses, many of us think we have learned a hard lesson about the political illiteracy of a significant chunk of the American electorate.
Sure, the American public’s ignorance of public affairs and political issues is as old as the republic. Call it “civic ignorance,” the vast extent of which is a kind of dirty little secret in politics and political science. Surveys going back many decades reveal that few American adults have ever had even a cursory understanding of basic civics and political developments. They don’t know what’s in the Constitution, how govt is structured and functions, how political decisions get made or even who makes them, or what their tax dollars get spent on and why. “The poor (-ly informed) will be with you always.” Har.
(Oh, ad I’d like us to discuss Trumpism as a movement next schedule.)
Yet, something sure seems different, doesn’t it? I think a number of factors have converged in recent years to make civic ignorance easier to exploit and even more damaging to the country than it has been in a while. Polarized voters that ache to have their beliefs reinforced. Polarized elites that are happy to do so using new media and technology. Hucksters and grifters posing as political commentators. An angry, slowly declining middle class that’s unsure who to be angry at. And so forth.
Maybe I’m wrong. I think our first order of business in discussion should be to define what civic ignorance means so we can distinguish it from other motivators of political opinions/actions that we might find bafflingly wrong. Political differences, as we’ve discussed many times, often stem from different political values or worldviews, alternate priorities for what govt should be doing, or different rationally-considered interests. Ideology is not ignorance, frequent appearances to the contrary.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What: How would you define a problematic level of “civic ignorance?” What do peole not know that they should know? How much knowledge is it reasonable to expect regular people to have about this stuff?
- Who: How widely does this ignorance vary among Americans; e.g., by education, age, party ID, ideology, etc.? Do people that know more about politics really make better decisions about it (see link)?
- When-where-compare: Has civic ignorance gotten worse or better in recent decades? Is the need to be knowledgeable really greater nowadays?
- Why: Do people have good reasons for ignorance; e.g., distrust of govt, believing your vote doesn’t matter, lazy/biased news media? à How often do we see ignorance when it’s really something else, like different moral values, priorities, or objective interests?
- Harm: What damage all this civic ignorance cause? To your preferred (progressive or conservative) outcomes? To trust in govt? To polarization? To democracy’s health?
- Harmers: Who exploits civic ignorance? Which side does it most? Worse than it used to be?
- No harm no foul? Some people think public ignorance is NOT really a big source of our problems. What do they argue? Persuasive?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – .
- Civic ignorance:
- No, civic ignorance is NOT a big problem: Both recommended.
- Is ignorance getting worse?
- No. Civic ignorance is about the same level as 25 years ago, despite the news and information revolutions. But, we’re less informed than almost all other rich countries!
- But, (the truth hurts must read.] a systematic strategy to deceive ill-informed voters lies at the heart of today’s Republican Party – unlike in earlier eras.
- Obama: The assault on him – including dozens of wild conspiracy theories – has had few limits. Recommended.Solutions:
Next Week: Are nations finally starting to cooperate on climate change?
Is the news media too biased to do its job? The last time we talked about bias in the news was in 2011, and what I got out of it was that the exact nature and extent of bias is hard to pin down. Unfairness can be a crime of commission or omission and either deliberate or unconscious. Some of it is not explicitly political or ideological, but results from prejudices of class, culture, religiosity (or lack of it), or the pursuit of ratings or profit. Worse, most journalists and their bosses adhere to an unrealistic cult of neutrality – the “view from nowhere” – to use the parlance of my favorite (read) media analyst. So, bias in the mainstream news media (MSM, as the bloggers say) is hard to see and measure and seldom acknowledged. Yet, we all claim to see it all the time!
I’ve got a lot of good links this week, some of which I have not studied in detail yet. So, as a first approximation, I think a good way to structure our meeting would be to take each part of our question in turn.
- What is the “news media” these days?
- What is “bias?” How do we know it’s there, whether it’s deliberate or unconscious, and its causes?
- What constitutes the MSM “doing its job?” Is it to be balanced ideologically? To investigate and inform us of the truth? To please its audiences and sponsors? Etc.
I’m being a little vague on details here since I have not done much research yet. By Monday night I’ll be able to make some brief remarks framing the issue, then we can talk.
- My opening question Monday night will be: Using one or two sentences, what is the news media’s job; i.e., its appropriate role in society?
Criticisms of the MSM’s Biases –
- Falsely poses as neutral: Journalists refuse to acknowledge their own biases. And insist of the “view from nowhere.” Recommended
- Permits only a very narrow range of perspectives. Recommended.
- Makes Americans believe we are more polarized than we really are.
- [link fixed] Partisanship, which makes partisan viewers more extreme and alienates regular people from politics. Recommended.
- [link fixed] “Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: The actual Ideology of the American Press.” A classic explanation of the media’s bias problem and a must-read.
- Issues: The media’s right/left bias varies by issue; e.g., global warming coverage favors conservatives and abortion coverage favors the progressive POV and language framing.
- OTOH: Journalists’ tilt left in political affiliation: 50% independents, 28% Democrats, and 7% (!!) Republican.
- OTOH: The MSM is owned by just a handful of gigantic corporations.
In (partial) defense of the News Media –
- People distrust the media for many reasons, not just bias. Recommended.
- These criticisms get cause and effect backwards. Political bias in the news happens in response to what audiences want to hear, not from the character traits of reporters, editors, or owners. Recommended
- Even though there is plenty of bias in the news media, it does not consistently favor either side.
- Besides, more and more of us get our news on Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and other social media sites and the Internet weakens the authority of the press.
Next Week: Assessing Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency.
just a short intro post from me this week. But, that doesn’t mean Monday’s topic is not…well, the topic of everything. How do we determine which facts are true? What is a fact, anyway? And, who gets to say?
This one is Dean’s idea. Dean has advanced degrees in philosophy, so I’m looking forward to his take on “epistemology.” the study of how we determine what is true and what is not. In our discussion, we can apply the principles to politics, religion, or anything we want. Given that large percentages of Americans believe in some pretty weird things, and that our country seems to be dividing into warring camps of conservative/liberal, religious/non, and so, forth, I think it will be a pretty lively debate.
- What is epistemology? Far more detail here, from the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Knowledge in an Internet age:
- Are we just wired to believe whatever we want to believe, and what does that mean for our democracy in the Internet age? Recommended.
- IMO, the greatest epistemological advance in modern times: Stephen Colbert’s Truthiness.
Next Week – Are Americans becoming too dependent on government (a major, major, conservative belief!)
We talk about the media a lot. But, we never discuss its non-news functions and the influence they have on public opinion.
Yes, some TV shows and movies deal with explicitly political subjects and/or take firm political
stances: The West Wing, 24; The Passion of the Christ, Avatar, Michael Moore movies. But, mostly, TV and the movies avoid being openly partisan and politically opinionated, in part so as not to alienate viewers (plus, politics is a ratings snoozer). And, as Chris pointed out to me a while ago, TV and movie viewing is not very different from other realms of information gathering in that most people seek explicit political opinions they already like and avoid those they don’t.
Still, I think TV and the movies have an indirect but important effect on Americans’ political opinions because they help to shape our views of the world more generally.
I’m talking about:
- Dramas and comedies (e.g., crime shows, action/war movies, sitcoms),
- Reality TV,
- Non-news oriented talk shows (like late night comedians, daytime talk)
- Science and history TV shows and film documentaries.
- Sports programming.
Such shows can be insidious because they deliver politically related messages when viewers
are not looking for them and often are not even aware of them. These messages can relate to a lot of things that touch on politics:
- Class and inequality.
- Business and corporations.
- Politicians and the profession of politics.
- Hot button social issues.
- National security.
IMO, these messages are a mix of liberal and conservative. But, they matter and I think they’re worth discussing as part of our long-term effort to examine the root causes of our political wars. Remember, the typical household still watches 4+ hours of TV per day and the Internet has not yet
come close to crowding out movies and TV as the main sources of Americans’ entertainment.
On Thursday, I’ll be brief and try to guide us more using the questions below than with a lecture. I’ll open by listing some of the effects on voters that TV and the movies allegedly have, at least according to critics on the Left and Right. Then I’ll either talk briefly about sources of entertainment media bias or, if people have that vacant stare look, just open it up.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- How do you think TV and the movies affect Americans’ political opinions in the areas listed above: Class, race, religion, etc.
- Are these messages direct, or implied? Deliberately planted or unconsciously biased? What are the biases of the people who make these shows?
- Has the situation and/or the message in these shows changed in recent years (grown more conservative, more liberal, less/more political, less/more racist, less/more corporate-friendly, etc.)?
- Can you think of an important movie or TV show that illustrates any of these effects?
- Is all of this exaggerated? Do the entertainment media really influence political opinions this much? Do they reflect public opinion more than they lead it?
- Are movies and TV a big obstacle to the kind of country you want to see us evolve
into the 21st century?
BACKGROUND LINKS –
- Top 10 highest-rated TV shows: Of 2010, in the 00’s. Reality, drama, a mix.
- Top grossing movies: Of 2010; of the 00’s. It’s a tween world.
- Is Hollywood more conservative than most people think? Not sure I buy all this.
- 2011: The summer of Hollywood’s working class revolution?
- One look at hidden political content in some 2004 TV shows.
- A 7-minute video analysis on TV’s portrayal of the War on
- Reality TV’s racism and sexism.
See yo all there. As always, tell a friend.
It’s always good to get a crowd of about 15-16 people. This size, or a little bigger, strikes me as ideal. Plus we had a few new members (Tony, Allen) and some semi-regulars it was good to see again (Joan, Art, Sharon, etc.).
I hope I made my main point clear. The mainstream media’s decisions on what to cover and how to cover it are ast least as much business decisions as they are deliberate or unconscious efforts to be biased. The worst biases, IMO, occur when the MSM’s economic interests correspond to the direction they already want to go in for other (such as ideological or cultural) reasons. Two examples:
- Covering religion: Journalists and their managers in the MSM tend not to be very religious or care much about the subject. At the same time, covering religious issues can easily alienate viewers or advertisers. So…the subject is often given little attention.
- Covering Tea Parties: The tea parties were new and shiny and made for great visuals. Ignoring them or treating them as what they were – old whine in new bottles -would have angered conservatives who you wouldn’t like when they’re angry. So…go with the flow and treat the tea parties an exciting grass-roots movement of independents.
What do you think?
Also, someone asked what are the main sources of news. Here is a list of the 15 most used news websites. Notice that all are either merely the websites of the major TV news networks or newspapers (CNN.com, NYT.com), or news aggregators (Yahoo, Google, Huffpost). The same group that compiled that list also tracks the 15 most popular “political news” websites. This is where the blogs come out. By my count, 4 are liberal, 7 are conservative, and 4 are more straightforward news. But, notice the differences in sheer size between the giants and the blogs. The #15 news website, BBC.com, gets more hits per month than all but one of the top 15 political news. Like I said: So far the main effect of political blogs is to influence what the MSM covers, not to replace the MSM as news sources.
Finally, Tony asked me what I read on-line. Tony, see this old post for a list of sites I like. The list includes Talking Points Memo, one of the examples of pro-am journalistic collaboration I mentioned in my presentation. TPM is a combination of breaking political news, investigative journalism, and commentary. See this post for my recommendations on what to read on-line on politics itself.
Next Week: Sept-January schedules available.
This is an oldie but goodie. It’s an oldie because for years there has been almost universal consensus that the mainstream media (MSM) is letting us all down – in many ways. Yet, while the MSM’s flaws seem so entrenched, the topic is still a goodie because the news business is changing so rapidly that maybe some of its worst flaws actually can be fixed, or at least minimized. Ron’s idea for this week was to focus on one particularly sorry aspect of the MSM: The lousy job it does, for the most part, as watchdog over the powerful.
To me, the media’s watchdog function consists of some combination of:
- Investigative journalism (of corruption and malfeasance in government, corporate, and other elite institutions).
- Separating true political statements from false ones.
- Giving the public the basic facts and context it needs to understand what political elites are doing for (to) them.
I read a fair amount of media criticism. So, in a 10-15 minute (max!) opening, I’ll lay out the major criticisms of how the MSM handles these three functions, and then I’ll tick off some of the causes usually cited. However, my value-added will be to focus on how changes to journalism’s business model affect its watchdog function. To me, structural changes in the MSM and competitive pressures do more to erode its watchdog function than the usual biases cited by partisans, such as ideological and class biases.
For our discussion, I’ll try to keep us focused on the full range of reasons why the MSM keeps failing us.
(BTW, Americans are viewing more news, not less. As this old post mentioned, newspapers are in decline and TV and radio usage is flat, but digital news sources have more than made up for it. So, people want to be informed.)
This week’s links are a bit eclectic.
- The quest for innocence and fake neutrality are the problem. The “cult of “balance.“
- The actual ideology of the American press.
- Shrinking newspapers are killing the media’s watchdog capabilities.
- The brave new world of interactive media.
- The bright side: “Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media,” from James Fallows at The Atlantic.
Finally, as usual The Daily Show sums it all up better than anyone.