Artwork by Vasilia Romanenko
LET’S TURN THE CLOCK BACK. Ten years ago, late 2008. The US economy was in freefall; the Great Recession had sunk its teeth into America’s financial institutions and was wreaking havoc across the middle class. Headlines seemed to always be negative: one bank bailout here, another loan giant collapsing there. The news was bad- almost all bad- but for the most part, we agreed on the substance of it. Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC were at least orbiting the same planet of what was considered valuable information. And although the tip of the enraged, media-mistrusting iceberg was beginning to rear its pundit-swamped head, the war on facts had not yet begun.
Fast forward to a post-2016 existence. The President of the United States, the leader of the free world, the protector of Western democracy, has declared war on the free press in his own country. On Twitter. So how did we get here? There is, of course, no simple answer, but one fact is indisputable: the cracks that have appeared in the foundations of our systems of knowledge have run nearly exactly down party lines.
Political demographics have been polarizing in the US for the past few decades, but today represents the most extreme dichotomy, and the future isn’t looking to slow that down. According to the Pew Research Center, the average voters of both the Democratic and Republican parties have shifted significantly toward opposite ends of the political spectrum. Along with this movement, animosity toward the opposing party has grown substantially. But these deepening divisions have not only affected views on policy and platform; the mounting tension and mud-slinging in Washington has led to a crisis of identity that spans racial, class, and political divisions: what is the truth? Or more specifically, what do we accept as truth?
Since the dawn of the Enlightenment, the Western world has more or less pursued a path of empirical knowledge; facts that are provable by evidence. Our institutions are rooted in the idea that theories can be tested and that truths can be determined by rigorous examination. Science and its many branches have formed the foundations of our societal pillars: economics, agriculture, finance, and by extension, journalism.
The First Amendment secured the survival of the “watchdog” media in the United States — a form of journalism that seeks to protect the people by relentlessly questioning and investigating the powers that be–, ensuring that there is always the opportunity to hold those in power accountable. Journalists researched, interviewed, wrote, edited, fact-checked, and more to ensure the value and honesty of their stories. But as the Information Age progresses, traditional media outlets find themselves struggling to maintain readership and viewership as they compete against endless internet sources. Sensationalist reporting has become mainstream as 24/7 news networks endeavor to fill an endless news cycle with addicting information. Such tactics often lead to interviews with controversial figures who are willing to make outlandish statements to lengthen their fifteen minutes. Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President in the Trump administration, has simultaneously perfected her story-spinning techniques and managed to surge to the top headlines whenever she makes an appearance – how could we ever forget her alternative facts?
As they battle it out for ratings and readers, major news sources have built distinct audiences that tend to adhere to party lines and depend significantly on the idea of trust. Even their mottos offer a glimpse into their aims. CNN proclaims itself “The Most Trusted Name in News.” Fox News states that it provides “Real News, Real Honest Opinion.” “Trust” and “Opinion” aren’t exactly buzz words for hard news, but as it turns out, trust is exactly the thing, and possibly the only thing, that the vast majority of Americans are looking for.
Trust in the media took a left turn into a downward spiral after the shock of election night in 2016 when everything we’d been told about the impossibility of Donald Trump’s victory blew up in our faces. After the social media chaos that played a part in the outcome of the 2016 election, Americans became even more intense about their news source preferences. Media bias is not a new idea, but the intense hostility towards opposing networks certainly is. After Trump’s proclamations of “fake news” against media giants like CNN and The Washington Post, the President’s favorite network, Fox News, has been involved in a number of fire fights with opposing outlets, something that would have been shockingly strange just a few years ago. Fox News host Sean Hannity and CNN anchor Jake Tapper, for example, have been known to throw a verbal punch or two, often taking to Twitter to duke it out.
Although a growing majority of Americans express distrust and disappointment in news sources, the vast majority still believe that a free and open press is essential to democracy.
But not all media are created equal. Even though media bias is prevalent across the political spectrum, there is no viable argument against the evidence that the conservative right has chosen to pursue trust over truth, or even over newsworthy events. When news broke in early April of 2018 that the FBI had raided the hotel room and office of the President’s ex-personal attorney Michael Cohen, news outlets across the planet were covering the incident as the top story of the day. And yet, over at Fox News, Tucker Carlson felt that his viewers deserved a more pressing story: sex-crazed pandas.
The current administration has shown an animosity to the press never before seen in the lifespan of the American experiment. The desire for freedom to criticize those in power can be traced back to the Revolutionary War, yet, defenders of the Trump administration have made it all too clear that they will not support any news outlet that appears in any way to criticize the president. Therefore, the only reliable news sources in their eyes are those that follow blindly- that trust instead of investigate. How then can these outlets be expected to uphold the pillars of a fair and honest press if criticism of any kind is seen as partisan?
Politifact, a well-respected source that was once regarded as the most objective outsider, keeps a running file on the President. Currently, 69% of his tested statements rate at ‘mostly false’ or worse. How can there be such a thing as a ‘fair and unbiased’ media source when the only legitimized views on one side of the spectrum are those that emphatically and unwaveringly choose to support a man who has proven time and again to disregard the value of the truth?
If we continue down this road, we’re heading into dangerous territory. Although the issue of the government attacking the free press is new to Americans, the hazards of state-run media are all too clear in countries like Myanmar, Iran, and North Korea. Some fear the introduction of authoritarian measures, mimicking Vladimir Putin’s dismantling of Russia’s free press. Others warn of the collapse of America’s standing on the world stage. Trump’s supporters argue that the president’s agenda is “more important” than his lies.
They are wrong, and they are dangerous.
So where do we go from here? Who do we trust?
Trust the ones who are still fighting for transparency. Don’t kowtow to dishonesty in the search for centrality. Believe in the worth of the journalists battling to preserve the dignity of their profession, and get your news from sources who subscribe to the value of empirical evidence. That is how we can make America great, again.