A Meditation On Media

Is our current media environment to blame for America’s social dysfunction? Two critical questions:

In a large and diverse country, the ability of citizens to participate in the democratic process on the basis of informed decisions is heavily dependent upon the quality, factual accuracy, objectivity and completeness of the information available to them. Do Americans have the ability to select credible information from the incessant competition for eyeballs and clicks?

In a world where the news and entertainment environments are increasingly fragmented, where a media landscape populated with broadly shared information and common cultural references is disappearing, can Americans even conduct a truly public conversation?

Our ability to devise answers to these questions is constrained both by America’s commitment to freedom of speech and press—a commitment set out in and protected by the First Amendment—and a recognition that efforts by government to control what citizens can access online would be more dangerous than the current situation (assuming such control would even be possible in the age of the Internet).

So how did we get here? And far more importantly, how do we get out?

A series of new technologies challenged and ultimately defeated journalistic norms that had developed over the years. Cable television ushered in a virtually unlimited number of channels, upending government rules created for an era in which the federal government owned and auctioned off the limited number of usable broadcast frequencies. The numerous new cable networks made possible by the new technologies were unconstrained by the earlier requirement that their use of the airwaves be consistent with “the public interest.”  The subsequent development of the Internet greatly reduced the costs that had previously prevented the entry of numbers of would-be publishers by dramatically reducing the  investment needed to compete with established newspapers and magazines. Suddenly, virtually anyone with a computer, an internet connection and the ability to generate content could claim to be news sources. Professional journalists found themselves competing for readers’ attention with thousands of webpages, in many cases produced by persons and organizations unacquainted with and unrestrained by professional norms and ethics.

By the time the digital revolution took hold, much of cable news (and virtually all of talk radio before it) had already reverted to the explicit partisanship of earlier days. Fox News may have been the most effective; it shrewdly attacked and undermined the ethic of objectivity by elevating balance as the metric by which journalism was to be judged. The network’s motto, “Fair and balanced” reconceptualized journalism as stenography: suggesting that only “he said, she said” reporting was “fair,” and that failure to devote equivalent air time or column inches to “both sides” equated to media bias. Efforts to achieve “balance” (and thus “fairness”) led to reporters giving equal time to arguments for and against settled science or law; the reality of climate change, for example, was portrayed as an ongoing debate, despite the fact that some 97% of scientists are on one side of that debate and only a few outliers (mostly financed by fossil fuel interests) continue to take an opposing view. Such an approach to reporting leaves readers with the impression that matters of established fact are still unresolved. Balance so conceived does not require objectivity; worse, the pursuit of balance perversely operates to relieve journalists of a vital part of their job: determining, verifying and reporting what is and is not factual, so that the public can make genuinely informed decisions.

The great promise of the Internet was that it would make much more information available, and that Americans’ access to information would no longer be limited by the gatekeeping function of the legacy media. Online, many more stories could be told and they could be told in much more depth. Those undeniable gains, however, have come at a considerable and largely unanticipated cost—notably, the return of an intensely partisan media, wide dissemination of spin, conspiracy theories and outright propaganda, a massive loss of local reporting (especially about local government), the hegemony of new and enormous online platforms (most prominently Google, Facebook and Twitter), growing and corrosive public uncertainty about the accuracy of all news, and the near disappearance of a truly mass media.

It’s one thing to disagree about something that everyone can see. Different people can look at a photo, a piece of art, or a draft of a pending bill, and disagree about its meaning or, in the case of proposed legislation, whether it is a good idea, or would be effective in achieving its purported purpose. In a fragmented media environment that gives disproportionate time and space to assorted “pundits” of varying philosophies and degrees of probity (talking heads are much cheaper than investigative reporters), however, the American people are far too often not seeing the same thing, hearing the same analyses, or occupying the same reality.

Today’s media environment is reminiscent of the time before cellphones when a friend and I agreed to meet for lunch at “the tearoom.” Back then, two department stores in our city had tearooms; I went to one while she went to the other. This made conversation impossible, in much the same way that our current media environment, which places citizens in different “rooms” or conversations, impedes genuine communication.

There is a difference between an audience and a public. Journalism is about more than dissemination of news and other information; it’s about the creation of shared awareness. It’s about occupying the same reality (or eating at the same tearoom).  It’s about enabling and facilitating meaningful communication. As the information environment continues to fracture into smaller and more widely dispersed niches, Americans are losing the common ground upon which public communication and discourse depend. When cities had one or two widely-read newspapers, subscribers were exposed to the same headlines and ledes, even if they didn’t read through the articles. When large numbers of Americans tuned into Walter Cronkite’s newscast or to one of his two network competitors, they heard reports of the same events.  Recent research showing that political polarization increases after local newspapers close shouldn’t surprise us.

If today’s citizens do not share a reasonable amount of accurate information, if different constituencies access different media resources and occupy incommensurate realities, what happens to the concept of a public? To the ideal of informed debate? How do such citizens engage in self-government? If I point to a piece of furniture and say it’s a table, and you insist that, no, it is a chair, how do we decide how to use it? Worse still, if my description of the furniture goes to one audience, and your contrary description goes to another, to whom do we transmit a correction? How do we counter spin, propaganda or even honest mistakes when we have no way of determining who received those original, erroneous messages?

If the ultimate effects of our current information environment are unknown, the intermediate effects are less ambiguous. Citizens who choose different sources for their  news and information tend to choose sources that solidify and confirm their tribal affiliations, reinforce their fears, and make it more difficult to understand the perspectives of those with whom they disagree. Worse, the growth of uncertainty about the validity of what we encounter online has undermined trust in a wide variety of social and governmental institutions. Today, the most effective way to censor something is to sow distrust rather than by suppressing or muzzling the speech itself.

In the November, 2016 election, top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined. The ability of social media platforms to target recipients for information based upon sophisticated analyses of individual preferences threatens the very existence of a genuinely public sphere in which a true marketplace of ideas could operate. We are clearly in uncharted waters.

The obvious question is: what can be done? How can Americans take advantage of the substantial benefits that come with access to virtually unlimited information while avoiding the pitfalls of atomization, inaccuracy and outright propaganda? How can we ensure that enough citizens share enough information to engage in informed debate and  political conversation?

It’s too late to put the genie back in the lamp.


  1. The Postmodern theory of polysemy let that genie out of the lamp. It is the unintentional result of an examination of how personal identity affects the reading and meaning of communication (written, visual, etc.) and how it maintains or challenges hegemony. The perhaps unintentional result allowed the concept that an individual opinion was valuable no matter how wrong. One of the challenges of post-secondary education today is convincing (and respecting) that a student may have an opinion, yet still convey the idea that scholarship or science provides evidence that should change that opinion.

  2. I have been stunned by how AWFUL the Indianapolis Star has been at covering the Trump and his people. (though after 44 years in INDY I should not be)
    Recent front page headlines are about agriculture or water or 15 year old shootings.
    It is as if the Trump disaster is not even happening.
    Local TV is much the same. LOOK: Car Crash. Shooting. but almost nothing about our Government coming apart at the seams.
    They play Trump Inc LYING to the people with no comment on the fact that they KNOW he is lying.
    HOW can they be doing this?
    No wonder the Republicans get such margins in an area where people are not informed about the things that are important.
    Now, Back to Farm Stories, Water Wells, OLD crime stories.

  3. Americans have access to both sides of all social and political issues; we also have access to research facts and figures to get to the closest version of the truth. But…do voting Americans have the COMMITMENT or enough interest to avail themselves of research at their fingertips? Is intelligence level or political affiliation the deciding factor?

    The current Ukraine situation is a primary example of our level of interest in seeking the truth. We have the transcript of the infamous July 25th phone call between Trump and the NEW president of Ukraine regarding a situation which began in December 2018 under the former corrupt Ukraine President and Prosecutor who refused to prosecute the corruption. Trump’s blatant quid pro quo denying set military aid and requesting a favor was included in the transcription approved and released by Trump. My friend and I watched Mulvaney on Thursday afternoon admit the quid pro quo as being accepted in the current administration as standard operating procedure and told us to “Get over it!” Do we believe the actual news conference with the same answers repeated by Mulvaney to the same questions from journalists seeking the truth…or do we believe another Trump “walk back” denial of the truth?

    “How can Americans take advantage of the substantial benefits that come with access to virtually unlimited information while avoiding the pitfalls of atomization, inaccuracy and outright propaganda?”

  4. reading both sides, wonderful, now read between the lines,great…. recent ukraine,arguments, story, bias,from all sides? yes, factual, each side had its push to deliver its view…words, interpeted,and used to spin,or balanced..as i find most seasoned journalists,will produce. make the argument, and make the point. people interviewed can be the most blantant issue. any way ya read it, just do your part to sift through the garbage,read the other side,and rememebr who the garbage is.. funny how ya pay a cable or dish with hundreds of channels, to be told whats right and whos wrong.. i prefer reading seasoned journalists who, do the work, do the background,follow,with updates,and keep,the ones,in office today,in check,and have the backup to answer questions.
    maybe peckers and tabloid news, is what trump,and his followers like,but then again, a mind is a terrible thing to waste..

  5. Sheila:

    “It’s too late to put the genie back in the lamp.”

    We FIRST have to find NEW common ground, such as the threat of EXTINCTION, put forth in the 1951 sci-fi classic movie: “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

    It had the basic answer back then and still does. It can be rented for 48 hours at the cost of only $3.99.

  6. As JoAnn has pointed out, it takes commitment and it also takes time to find the truth. Are Americans willing to put in the work to determine who’s right and who’s wrong? Generally, they are not. I would dearly love to see the local newspaper and the local television news do some fact checking whenever they publish or air a claim, especially when they know it to be false. I would also like to see them call a lie a lie rather than a misinterpretation or a mis-statement. But then, I would also like to win the lottery and I have a better chance at that than of getting my other wishes.

  7. Marv,

    We’ve been under the threat of extinction since 1945. “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” That ‘s from Robert Oppenheimer after the Trinity explosion.

    Now, we can make ourselves extinct in a matter of days or months by going full nuclear, or we can make ourselves extinct by keeping up our ever-expanding reproduction, un-controlled consumption and the attendant environmental destruction. Either way, the path seems clear:

    We will be the only species to have purposefully caused itself to become extinct. How’s that for a delicious irony when our churches keep telling us how we are all His children and that each of us, no matter the genetic damage, has a right to re-produce. I’m not passing judgement, just observing.

    Only the scientific community mentions these things and it NEVER appears in the MSM.

  8. A case could be made for there being a large percentage of people not wanting information from the modern media, but rather entertainment.

  9. Vernon,

    “Only the scientific community mentions these things and it NEVER appears in the MSM.”

    You are right about the SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY [including political scientists]. They were the answer in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

    For a starter, you would have to find them “Free Space” like that which was provided to General Smedley Butler in the form of a Congressional hearing back in 1935, but, this time, it would be OPEN for media coverage.

  10. We haven’t been able to CONNECT the dots to neutralize Trump & Pence because we haven’t COLLECTED enough of them to EFFECTIVELY prosecute.

    In “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Klatu had both COLLECTED and CONNECTED the necessary dots to carry out his threat.

  11. The mass media in this country are profit-based and cater to their owners and advertisers. Therefore, the working classes are getting a filtered view of the news.

    You would think that our mass media (originally the 4th Estate) would be covering how money influences the political class in this country. However, where does much of the money in politics filter down to?


    Journalists that want to change the world are quickly met with editors who explain to the naive that newspapers are in the business of making money. You cannot make money telling the truth. Challenging partisans and economic systems will lose readership and advertisers. Read the comments under some of the stories in the IndyStar — the commenters want the paper to be more like Fox News.

    I participated in a Communications project developed by the community. The people expressed a need to develop more access to community news and events. Every suggestion which came out of this committee was met with resistance from the local Gannett owned newspaper. Even a consumer-directed events calendar was negated by Gannett because they already provided such in their newspaper. The committee fell apart and Facebook’s event calendar was used instead. Individual business owners with only an elementary education in social media could create their own page on Facebook and share news, events, and pass along ads for a fraction of Gannett’s cost.

    Turns out, journalists and editors have Trumpian sized egos. The community found a way to circumvent their egos and disseminate unfiltered news and events directly.

    I expect more citizen-driven outlets coming to fruition just like there are more candidates for political office refusing corporate and PAC monies. As long as your news outlet derives a profit from a corrupted economic system, their message will be filtered.

    How long did the NYT sit on the Weinstein story which ignited the #MeToo movement?


    The Times didn’t want to upset a major advertiser in their newspaper so they called in Harvey and his lawyer nearly a decade earlier. How many more women were assaulted as a result of this cowardice?

    If we had truth-based journalism in this country, there would be relatively little partisanship in this country and only those serving their constituencies well would survive.

  12. As pointed out by Peggy and JoAnn, truth is available. The problem is that seeking it takes time and effort, and we opt instead to turn on cable and reinforce our prejudices, prejudices that were formed in part because we turned on cable, and the way things are going under Trump we may next have a Ku Klux Klan channel to one-up Fox. (The foregoing observation demonstrates my personal prejudice.)

    So what is a gatekeeper? I worry about who appoints gatekeepers who are charged to tell us what we may see and hear and am generally in favor of broad dissemination of facts and figures while recognizing that such rights of free speech and expression are subject to abuse, but abuse by what standard? Even that is up for grabs. Consolidation of the press is, I think, only one of the reasons for the current turmoil. Thus we have “Democratic” papers and “Republican” papers, but if they are only to report facts and truth, why the distinction? Oh, because one can have a varying opinion of “facts and truth” – or is that cover?

    I could go on and on as this issue is in constant flux and every proposed solution to the problem raises new issues, which raises new issues, which. . . I will leave it to ethical experts in journalism school and such as Sheila on how to stamp out reader and viewer prejudice in their efforts to solve the problem of gatekeeping (by Facebook?) and related issues vs. the First Amendment and congressional committees – beyond my pay grade.

  13. In “The Day The Earth Stood Still”; Klaatu did not carry out a threat, he provided a world-wide demonstration of their powers to get earth’s attention before giving his message. Mulvaney’s “Get used to it!” is a world-wide message; does it have enough attention to hasten the current action being taken by the Democrats in the House and those few Republicans who voted against Trump’s unAmerican withdrawal from our allies in Syria?

    In the movie “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House”; during his conversations regarding Watergate and the Nixon administration with Bob Woodward said, “The investigation is not moving fast enough.” Woodward responded, “Everything is lost in details.” Felt answered “Confusion is control.” Does that sound familiar; confusion reigns today and throughout every day since January 20, 2017. Mr. Felt also commented “The Constitution is our conscience.” Trump, his family, cabinet, administration and the Congress obviously have no conscience so we must rely on the media and our own conscience to seek out facts available on many public outlets.

  14. I completely agree with Todd. Real journalism is now found online, with a few notable exceptions. The oldest and by far the largest one is “The Young Turks”, a progressive online news organization. You may want to check it out.

  15. Perhaps free speech is not the virtue we thought it to be.

    Maybe we Americans would become more a people of action if we were not permitted to blow off steam so easily and with so few consequences. Consider how much more important our countrymen would view our pronouncements if our pronouncements were prohibited and we proceeded with our pronouncements anyway.

    In nations, like China, where speech is limited, problems are understood to be serious when people risk much in order to speak out. And in those countries where citizen unrest is unalleviated through venting, citizens are more willing to act on problems.

    Consider, too, that civil rights were not taken seriously in the American south until protesters shut their mouth and instead broke laws in order that Americans would take them seriously.

    You cannot perform civil disobedience with your mouth, so don’t expect the same results.

  16. Like most folks of exceptional temporal maturity I’d like to start with “back in the day’.

    There was a recognition and acceptance of professions vs other work. A profession was a position based on measured knowledge such that the people who hired the knowledge needed to rely on the integrity of the holder of the knowledge because the fact of possessing it advantaged the person holding it. Doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, engineers, CPAs and others were held to the standard of professionals and typically had to be licensed by the state. Journalists, while not in my experience requireing licenses, where also regarded as professionals.

    None of that is true any more as evidenced by the advertising/fake news/propaganda/brainwashing over entertainment media. It’s a free for all and anyone who wants to can claim any knowledge that he/she wants to any time she/he wants to and for any reason.

    The only guideline is to make more money now regardless of the impact on all others ever.

    I can’t imagine this being as sustainable way to do business.

  17. Pete, LOL only if I can do the same!

    I liked both versions of The Day the Earth stood still, but in the grand scheme of things, mankind is so tribal, they would rather kill themselves off than capitulate towards truth.

    There seems to be an extremely large percentage of the public that is mentally or psychologically deficient, piled on top of an extreme lack of comprehension in either the written word or the spoken word.

    People hear what they want to hear, associate with whom they desire to associate with, usually those of like mind. Although they might tolerate a relatives different viewpoint!

    Just as a moth is drawn to the light, or the flame for that matter, most will always be drawn to written or spoken opinions that, confirm their own personal opinions, wants and desires; no matter the consequences.

    And it’s exactly the same with religion, they look for ministers to have their ears tickled. In other words, no restrictions and no restraints.

    Never in human history has an opinion by some lunatic sitting in a closet or a basement with a computer and an internet connection have so much sway over so many. I’m sure a goodly portion of conspiracy theorists are mentally ill, schizophrenia, but others are just anarchists who want to burn everything to the ground. Eventually, we have to look at this honestly, have we reached the breaking point? I actually believe, that we have.

    We can look at man’s inclination throughout history, basically to destroy his fellow man and neighbors, but being able to spread deception and insane opinions from a single computer, change the game. I think everyone needs to recognize we are looking at a train wreck in slow motion, except the train we are on, is the planet we call home.

  18. Mankind typically doesn’t recognize other humanity as his fellow man.

    We are way more primal and cultural than cognitive. We see the world as our ancestors did in terms of threats and opportunities; threats of losing resources and opportunities for power over others to steal theirs.

    We are simultaneously competitive with others and collaborative with our own.

    Until we unite we can expect the trouble we cause us to define us.

  19. It certainly wouldn’t hurt if big tech were required to remove content proven to be lies, like Facebook and the recent anti-Biden ad. They have been given carte blanche over a public medium, the internet and are making billions, but have no responsibility for managing their “channel”.

  20. I agree with Gerald and others who worry about who would be the gatekeeper. Would it be the government and the party in power, like China and its great fire wall? And I certainly don’t trust big tech.

    Larry: “Perhaps free speech is not the virtue we thought it to be” is worth contemplation.

    Maybe lying ought to be a crime. Maybe defamation should be relieved of the word “reckless” and be just “disregard of the truth”.

    Definitely going to be a slog, for as Ms. Kennedy notes: “It’s too late to put the genie back in the lamp.”

  21. Alphons – “Real journalism is now found online, with a few notable exceptions. The oldest and by far the largest one is “The Young Turks”, a progressive online news organization. You may want to check it out.”

    Let’s see – it wears a clear label of its bias, “progressive”, but it is real…Do we all just live in our own reality of “truth”?

  22. It seems possible to me to distinguish between truth and lies separately from worldview.

    That having been said it seems me that insisting on truth is more liberal than conservative/authoritarian.

  23. Lester Levine – I probably should have used the word ‘honest’ rather than ‘real’. They claim to report the news in an objective rather than neutral manner. Then they give their take on it. And yes, their bias is out there for all to see and hear. The MSM claim to be neutral and not have a bias, which of course is ridiculous. I mentioned them so people would know where and how lots of millennials get their news. And it explains how the progressive candidates get such a large following.

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