News And Political Polarization

A couple of days ago, in a comment to that day’s post, Paul Ogden placed considerable blame for America’s current polarization on the media environment we inhabit. He’s right (although I don’t think the “bubble” of rightwing news sources is incompatible with the research showing that  racial animosity motivates many, if not most, Trump supporters.)

Here’s the problem: Thanks to Fox News, Sinclair, Breitbart and thousands of others on and off the web, we don’t have a “marketplace of ideas.” A marketplace contains a wide variety of “goods” openly competing against each other. But research has shown that  those on the right, especially, get almost all of their news from sources that confirm their pre-existing biases. That ideological loyalty, and the decimation of local newspapers (the vestigial Indianapolis Star just announced yet another round of newsroom cuts), has prompted political propagandists to pretend to be local news outlets. The New York Times recently reported on one such effort: a nationwide operation of 1,300 supposedly local sites publishing articles produced by Republican groups and corporate P.R. firms.

The rise of a media ecosystem devoted to active disinformation poses a huge dilemma for people who–like me–tend to be First Amendment purists. I agree with the value judgment implicit in free speech jurisprudence: the circulation of  bad ideas is certainly dangerous, but allowing government to decide which ideas may be circulated would be even more dangerous.

The First Amendment requires government to be content neutral. It forbids government from censoring points of view–as Justice Holmes memorably put it, the Amendment “protects the idea we hate.” But that doesn’t preclude any and all government action.

Last Sunday, in a profoundly important cover story for the Times Magazine, Emily Bazelon considered the problem and some potential solutions. 

Bazelon began with an example, showing how one remark was twisted from its original context into an absolutely false accusation of wrongdoing. She followed that with an important observation: the spewing of falsehoods isn’t meant to win the battle of ideas; it is meant to prevent that battle from being fought.

This takes us back to Paul’s observation about closed media ecosystems. There is no battle between ideas, because they aren’t expressed in the same marketplace. They aren’t contending against contrary opinions–they’re hermetically sealed against them. Scholars at Harvard analyzed hyperlinks of four million articles, and found that the conservative media did not counter lies and distortions, but actively recycled them through other like-minded  outlets.

Bazelon points out the fatal flaw of Citizens United and preceding cases equating money with speech. “By requiring the state to treat alike categories of speakers — corporations and individuals — the Supreme Court began to go far beyond preventing discrimination based on viewpoint or the identity of an individual speaker.”

Bazelon’s article is a lengthy tour de force. I really urge you to click through and read it in its entirety, because it is not limited to a series of examples of disinformation and the damage  caused–she tackles the all-important question: what can we do about it? Are there measures consistent with the First Amendment that can help restore a genuine marketplace of ideas?

Several of the rules currently imposed by European countries would pass constitutional muster here, and regulations we’ve jettisoned could be revived; she points to former rules on diversity of ownership (until the 1980s, FCC rules barred a single entity from owning a TV station and newspaper in the same local market). We can–and should–beef up anti-trust enforcement.

Online, government could require additional disclosures–identifying the producers and funders of election advertisements. And as she notes, there is no legal barrier to increasing the delivery of reliable information. Government could fund nonprofit journalism or create additional public radio and television outlets. At the least, government could condition the existing legal immunity of social media platforms on more effective efforts to counter disinformation.

In her final paragraph, she explains what is at stake.

As we hurtle toward the November election with a president who has trapped the country in a web of lies, with the sole purpose, it seems, of remaining in office, it’s time to ask whether the American way of protecting free speech is actually keeping us free. Hannah Arendt finished her classic work on totalitarianism in the early 1950s, after barely escaping Germany with her life, leaving friends and homeland behind. She was a Jewish intellectual who saw the Nazis rise to power by demonizing and blaming Jews and other groups with mockery and scorn. The ideal subject of fascist ideology was the person “for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience),” Arendt wrote, “and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.” An information war may seem to simply be about speech. But Arendt understood that what was at stake was far more.

Read it. It’s important.


  1. Thank you for this. Like you, I struggle with the tension between free speech and disinformation. You’ve helped with that today. I look forward to reading the Bazelon aspirin for this tension headache.

  2. Professor-you introduce a great thought…..where will we find a “market place of ideas” that can be introduced respectfully? I recall that the late William F. Buckley, a voice with whom I rarely agreed, would host dinner parties at his NYC home of small groups of people to respectfully discuss big and differing ideas and thoughts. I never/ever thought I would say this, but “where is Willam F. Buckley when you need him?”

  3. “A couple of days ago, in a comment to that day’s post, Paul Ogden placed considerable blame for America’s current polarization on the media environment we inhabit.”

    Is it the media environment or the reader/viewer’s blind acceptance or willingness to question the validity of the reports and willingness to research facts that is to blame?

    “Bazelon began with an example, showing how one remark was twisted from its original context into an absolutely false accusation of wrongdoing.”

    Bazelon’s comment is a perfect example of that old childhood game of “Telephone” where we sat in circle and the first person whispered a comment or story in the next person’s ear, then passed from person to person with the last person repeating what they heard. It was never the same as the beginning comments, usually totally unrecognizable. This takes us back to blind acceptance or willingness to question and research.

    The childhood game of “Telephone” always ended with laughter at the distortion of the beginning message. We are not laughing today.

    “At the least, government could condition the existing legal immunity of social media platforms on more effective efforts to counter disinformation.”

    But today; the government is the source of the majority of media disinformation.

  4. One might presume that there is an answer to every question. I personally have found many more questions than answers. Question everything, even those things you agree with. At best you will reinforce your agreement. At worst, you will find that you were wrong. Errors are correctable when we know what is wrong.

  5. JoAnn,

    I would have to agree with your assessment, lol! ??

    An example of the grapevine / telephone game is in the movie “Johnny Dangerously!” And it hits the nail right on the head.

    Do people really believe in many of the “out of context blurbs?” Or far-flung conspiracy theories? (Q-anon) Or is it that they KNOWINGLY WANT to believe them by living in a bizarro world echo chamber!

    Imagine a dystopian reality where eating babies is normal activity for a political party! Human sacrifice? Satanic rituals? It sounds like a ’60s B movie or maybe even C movie!

    I find it interesting that this stuff continues to go on unabated, ‘because’ there is no protection under the “freedom of speech clause” concerning lies, innuendo, and conspiracy theories that are demonstrably false!

    Allowing this made up trash to permeate civil and political discussion is a travesty that’s completely unconstitutional and is a threat to national security and societal cohesiveness.

  6. Not sure what a Bazelon is, but the media farce and how it operates has been pointed out with solutions offered since the 40s. I believe Chomsky did an excellent job in the 80s and 90s, explaining the filters influencing our media.

    However, here is another problem which we must all accept before attempting to fix our free press, and that is our USG is chiefly the main source of propaganda. I am sure that can be traced far back into our history. Maybe even before the “we the people” farce.

    Case in point, yesterday, DNI Chief Ratcliffe announced that Iran/Russia was behind the threatening emails sent to Democrats in key swing states. Supposedly, the emails were sent by Proud Boys to democratic voters telling them if they didn’t vote for Trump, there would be negative consequences. Ratcliffe’s press release said the Iranians and Russians were influencing our election by helping Biden.

    He either screwed up the contents of the fake emails or screwed up the motive of the Russians; either way, he was offering up propaganda. Several of us noted this until Ted Lieu picked up on it and called out Ratcliffe.

    The biggest case in press freedom is the Julian Assange case. The shit the USG has done with the help of Sheldon Adelson’s chief security guy (former Mossad), and the USG coup in Ecuador will be one amazing movie probably only allowed in foreign countries.

    Anyway, our media should be discussing the case in length every night and explaining to viewers what has happened and what was done by the powerful people in our government. That is why our framers established press freedom. It’s to check the power of the government while the government checks the power of private industry.

    Once again, Einstein said those checks and balances didn’t exist in 1949. They definitely don’t exist today. Unless we democratize our institutions across the board or we the people surrender to the oligarchic controlled government.

  7. Sheila – thanks for sharing the article. I had read it and found it profound. Really like the idea of PBS/NPR-like news source. I think I recall the government setting up something called “Radio Free Europe” to counter “fake news” some time ago…How about “News Free USA”?

    Peggy – thanks for the opportunity for me to call out (47 times?), again (sorry folks) the need to teach critical thinking in our schools (per that great book, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”.

  8. I was listening to NPR the other morning and they were discussing the anti-trust suit against Google. It was at the very end of the segment that a state attorney general got to the real meat of the matter – that big tech blocked the dubiously sourced New York Post article about Hunter Biden and other perceived slights. It seems that any attempt at policing hate groups, conspiracy theories, etc. is considered bias against the right.

    It’s my view that the Tiktok ban was less about national security and instead intended to be a warning shot to social media and big tech to toe the right wing media line.

    I’m not sure what the solution is, but I feel certain that the current media landscape, including social media, is a threat to democracy and must be fixed.

    Emily Bazelon did an interview with Fresh Air as well. Here’s the link to that.

  9. The Truth vs Fiction in the Media has been with us for decades. The magazine rack near the grocery store check-out was usually chock full of the latest gossip about anyone famous. You had to buy the tabloid or magazine to read the “content”.

    Today, the latest gossip, libel, slander or innuendo is just a click away on the internet. The more sophisticated authors can use some type of photo-shop and superimpose faces, etc.

    Some sites are trolls or deliberate mis-information, depending on what silo you find yourself in. Fact checks of these sites is virtually nil, if it fits your bias, forward it to a friend or post it to Face Book.

    Those that believe BLM or Anti-Fa are funded by George Soros to achieve his goal of a Marxist World Government – there is a site for you, or Hillary’s or the Biden’s E-Mails reveal some nefarious plot to sabotage Trump’s Make America Great. Corona virus was cooked up in a Chinese Lab to attack America because someone who dresses like a doctor says – it’s true.

    There is the old saying – You cannot Fix Stupid. The Trump Cult drinks from the The Trump Kool Aid. No amount of rational thoughtful retorts persuades The Trump Cult – They Believe no matter what facts are revealed.

  10. Several years ago I realized that the Sinclair organization was producing the CBS six o’clock news in West Palm Beach and the coverage on each story was very slanted. They never told the complete story, only what they wanted the public to hear. Obviously, I have since stopped watching said news coverage and sought out another news outlet. Unfortunately, I have found that each of them covers a story in their own way and may not tell the public everything about a given story. I still read a newspaper every day and still decide for myself whether I believe what they say is true or not. We all need to use our heads, and sometimes a gut feeling, regarding news coverage.

  11. Perhaps misinformation under the guise of free speech has been facilitated by our means of communicating it. Thus pamphleteering in the 19th century in re runaway slaves, Marxist uprisings, hangings in Tombstone etc. was a major if localized means of communication. We can never know, of course, but I think that, for instance, if Marx (with the help of his rich buddie Engels) had had the electronics of today to instantly slander and propagandize the masses in Dickensian England and beyond, that we might well have a different economic history than we have now – perhaps one with, uh, runaway proles.

    I thought the most important observation Bazelon made in connection with the First Amendment’s protection of misinformation as speech was that those who twist their positions under the pretense of participation in the marketplace of ideas are really operating on different platforms and are in fact intent on preventing any such marketplace of ideas from taking place.

    With the protection of the First Amendment via such pretense and the modern means to spread such propaganda under cover of legality, purveyors of such rot have a fertile field indeed. How to end or reduce such misinformation in a marketplace composed of Zuckerbergs, advertising giants and libertarians and still pass constitutional muster I leave to those with expertise in the field, among whom I do not number.

  12. Chicken or egg question. Which comes first, wealth or power or do some chase one and others chase its complement? Does it matter? It’s clear that they are connected at the hip.

    What has been erected around us by those chasing wealthpower is a wall of advertising nonsense. We live immersed in a stew of, if not outright lies at least never the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Truth would be ineffective as advertising because it wouldn’t confer advantage to the product or idea paying for delivery of it.

    It’s clear in the product world that advertising has us wrapped around its little finger. That success is why wealthpower decided to use it for the same purpose in the market of ideas as well as goods. It worked just as well.

    The question of the hour must be what can we do to restore our freedom to choose what goods we put into our lives and what ideas we put into our heads?

    It strikes me that the entertainment media delivery of advertising, like the concept of brick and mortar retailing, may be a victim of the sea of change flooding us called the pandemic which to me is what chemists call a catalyst. It sped up what would have happened anyway.

    Of course wealthpower accepted that and preemptively replaced it before the critical hour with social media. Of course we complied because life is easier when we don’t have to think for ourselves.

    Freedom is essential for self actualization which Maslow claimed to be our highest purpose. We can’t get there from here unless we free ourselves from us and take control of our lives. It’s so hard when escape from reality is so easy.

    The question is are we individually strong enough to pull it off because it’s not a collective effort, it’s an individual intellectual challenge.

  13. Why can’t “fairness in broadcasting” be re-enacted? The polarization of ideas has been exaggerated to the point of out right lies. How can citizens/voters make solid decisions based on mis- information. I remember when Pence was governor and wanted to start newspaper from the Capitol. That was nixed. If Biden wins & gets support of Congress, Truth in broadcasting needs to be addressed.

  14. As per Kathy, we need, altho every least, to re-instutute the “Fairness Doctrine,” done away with during Reagan’s time in office, I believe, and resume the limit on outlets in any one media market, also, apparently done away with in Reagan’s venal reign.

  15. At least two decades ago we knew our parents were stuck in the vortex of right-wing news when we noted the Fox logo burned into their projection screen television and they referenced the Drudge Report in support of their viewpoints. They even began to yell during discussions akin to Bill O’Reilly. There’s still no way to persuade them to consider other perspectives since open dialogue is no longer accepted in their household.

    As far as the lack of stations offering differing views. Several years ago a researcher on the Pro-Truth Pledge page expressed concern when he realized all the small town radio stations in Oklahoma were being purchased by Sinclair. When our conversation turned to cable stations he and others didn’t realize that Fox was free on the first lowest price basic cable tier of subscription but MSNBC required a more expensive subscription. Believe the Right has already sold their skewed perspectives to the unwitting masses who either don’t have alternative news stations, were ripe for the picking and/or are too lazy when it comes to fact-checking since they don’t believe any news source except for Fox.

    Note: When I opened the Bazelon article Sheila shared via the link I was on my phone and a disclaimer such as the one Facebook employs came up on the screen – Disputed by 3rd Party Fact-Checkers. Now trying to access the article via my computer and can’t find it anywhere within the Times while it’s still up on my phone, so I sent the link from my phone to my email and the article doesn’t show up there either. Confusing and frustrating but I’ll suffer through the small screen since it’s still there to read.

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