Mainstream media’s (MSM) reporting has encouraged many to seek alternative news sources searching for the ‘real’ answer. In doing so, the media establishment has strengthened the fringe media and fostered extremism.
Back in the day, to maintain ratings, the three networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) appealed to a broad audience. Each varied in TV personalities and presentation but offered broadly accepted content. A broadcast could not risk offering analysis or opinion that would cause a viewer to change the channel. The result was centrist reporting that most everyone could watch.
The ability to collect data via the internet changed that. Data aided advertisers in creating targeted campaigns, and access to customers became a valuable commodity. News outlets recognized that value and began manipulating their audience demographics to increase revenue by modifying content. This gave rise to media bias, the goal of which was to attract and monetize a particular audience.
Meanwhile, people who saw things differently, or felt the media elite ignored important stories, began to find alternative news outlets. The more skewed the media became, the more people searched for content that better matched their worldview. And the economics enabled these shifts as advertisers paid handily for access to a particular market segment.
The emergence of late-night comedy show programs and satirical news outlets compounded this polarization of reporting. I can’t think of a single show other than perhaps South Park that takes shots equally left, right and center. In the current culture, it is lucrative and apparently hilarious to bag on our political opponents; however, we are never forced to see and laugh at our own hypocrisy.
The entire news dynamic changed from one of ‘trusted news sources’, which presented balanced reporting, to ‘the news I agree with is what I trust.’ As evidence, FOX News and CNN are the most-watched news outlets in the country. It isn’t because a bunch of centrists are watching.
The recent media coverage of Hunter Biden’s found laptop is evidence of this unhealthy cycle. It was days after the New York Post broke the story before other outlets covered it. For many critical thinkers, the fact that there was a delay in reporting by much of mainstream news was reason enough to go ‘digging for the truth’. In tandem with censorship from social media giants like Twitter and Facebook, many curious about the story were pushed to fringe outlets with radical or misleading interpretations.
An ideal approach would have been to cover the story urgently, thoroughly, and in great detail – leaving no unanswered questions. People will seek answers when they don’t feel a story has been legitimately investigated. Better to have professional and unbiased journalists covering every story no matter the politics than to have rouge organizations fill in the holes.
After the election and the recent attack on the Capitol, this dynamic is even worse. Make no mistake: banning or censoring Trump (or any controversial voice) will not silence him. He will find another outlet further underground, and extremists will follow. Repressing people is dangerous and often results in an uprising.
For a healthy marketplace of ideas to exist, questionable speech must remain in the mainstream where it can be considered, questioned, and refuted.
It brings to mind the scene in Star Wars where Obi-Wan tells Darth Vader: “You can’t win. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can imagine.” In that case, evil strikes down good rather than the other way around. Still, the sentiment holds.
The media establishment must recognize and accept responsibility for its role in creating the problem. Only then can the long process of regaining professional integrity, credibility, and a shared sense of reality occur.
But, in many ways, we are all culpable. Many of us are intolerant of speech we disagree with. It is not only unhealthy but dangerous to our democracy. Some of the best ideas and solutions come from disagreement. If you are consuming news that you always agree with, change the channel to something reputable that pushes the boundaries of your assumptions. When something offends you so egregiously that you feel it needs to go away, fight that urge.
Arguing against offensive speech is appropriate, as is refusing to share it or simply ignoring it. Silencing or ‘canceling’ offensive speech only gives it more power.