The Crux Of The Problem

I was reading an article about Substack–the digital platform that has increasingly recruited media personnel to write newsletters for which recipients pay. (The only one I receive is the free version of Heather Cox Richardson’s.) The article considered Substack’s claim to be the “future of journalism.”

If that claim intrigues you, you should click through and read the whole article, which was interesting. But it was the very last sentence that grabbed me, because it is, in my opinion, the crux of the problem–“the problem” being America’s deep and growing polarization.

How do we create a shared sense of reality in a media landscape comprised mostly of individual writers and their loyal followers?

As regular readers of this blog know, for several years, I taught a university course in Media and Public Affairs, and I was fond of complaining that every time I taught that course, our constantly-morphing media environment required a new preparation.  It isn’t simply “a media landscape comprised of individual writers and their followers”–it is a dramatically fragmented media landscape that includes not just those individuals (with their individual and contending “takes” on the news of the day) but literally hundreds of media news sites focused upon different aspects of human activity, and doing so through a lens of different partisan and ideological commitments.

As I used to tell my students, this is truly uncharted territory. When printed-on-paper newspapers and three television networks served communities, residents of those communities at least occupied the same news environment. Good or bad, right or wrong, the local newspaper provided the only reporting most of us saw. Even if some people picked up the paper only to look for sports scores or wedding announcements or whatever, they had to browse past the same headlines that their friends and neighbors were seeing. 

People in a given city or town thus occupied the same general reality.

The same phenomenon played out on a national scale. Edward R. Murrow and his two counterparts delivered much the same information to a majority of Americans via the evening news on television, and a few “national” magazines and newspapers–notably the New York Times and the Washington Post–homogenized the national news.

Those days are long gone.

One of the books I urged my media and policy students to read was The Filter Bubble.It was an early analysis of the most challenging effect of the online media environment–our new ability to “shop” for news that feeds our preconceptions, and to construct a “bubble” within which we are comfortable. (As I used to tell my students, if you want to believe that the aliens really did land in Roswell, I can find you five internet sites offering pictures of the aliens…)

The angry souls who want to believe that the election was stolen and Donald Trump really won can find sites that reinforce that fantasy. People susceptible to conspiracy theories can  find “evidence” that Hillary Clinton is abusing and eating small children in the (non-existent) basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor, or confirmation that those California wildfires were started by Jewish space lasers. Whatever the deficits of newspapers “back in the day”–and those deficits were very real–this sort of “reporting” was relegated to widely-scorned rags like the National Enquirer that graced supermarket checkout counters. (My favorite headline: Osama and Saddam’s Gay Wedding.)

When the digital counterparts of those scandal sheets are visually indistinguishable from credible sites, not to mention easily and privately accessed (your neighbor isn’t watching you purchase the Enquirer as you check out), is it any wonder that the very human trait of confirmation bias leads us to occupy different–and incommensurate–realities?

And if that’s where we are– if Americans currently reside in dramatically different realities– how will we ever be able to talk to each other?


  1. Professor-your words, as usual, address common sense. I watched the first 3 minutes of Morning Joe and turned it off. Today’s show appeared to be focused on former POTUS Trump. He’s not news and as long as the media, (mainstream media, whatever that is) continues to focus on him, he will remain with us. Let’s add him to the heap of tired, old, yesterday’s news and move on.

  2. Personally, I’m not interested in a journalist telling me what I want to hear. I want a journalist to tell me the truth. I want the same thing from my elected representatives. I don’t want them to get target marketing research and then say and write things to appeal to consumers’ demographic.

    A local journalist with the Gannett rag would claim to be progressive, but he said he had to write a certain way because he was in Indiana. He had to do so or not have a job. After he retired, I’ve not read a single thing from him that would indicate he’s progressive.

    The journalists migrating to Substack are truth-seekers looking for a platform to write where their words won’t get censored. Facebook is a government patsy. Twitter to a lesser degree. Still, both of these platforms have made “arrangements” with the federal government. Substack refuses to do so.

    I would look more at the paths Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald has taken to land on Substack. Glenn, in particular, co-founded The Intercept, whose editors were based in New York, and according to his own words, became too cozy with sources within the Democratic Party. They censored him over a story regarding Joe Biden and his son, so he resigned. Matt was let go from the Rolling Stone because he was also being told what he could and could not write.

    Another good source is Grayzone. The problem is most Americans have been lied to for so long that seeking the truth is troubling to them. Most really can’t handle it. They want to believe the propaganda — the Hollywood tale about the USA being an exceptional place in the universe. What they believe is the right, and left is concocted bullshite. Fox isn’t right-leaning, and MSNBC isn’t left-leaning.

    I can still remember CNN telling viewers not to go over to the Wikileaks website since the federal government monitored it after the DNC Leaks. They informed viewers that CNN was reviewing the cables, and they’d tell viewers what they were comprised of.


    Strangely, what I read of the leaks was nothing like what CNN was telling the people.

    I got a hoot out of our Neoliberal and Neocon Secretary of State Antony Blinken this past week while he was in Europe/NATO. Made a glorious speech about democracy and the free press—the same thing with Dominic Raab. Meanwhile, the US/UK government is torturing Julian Assange in a maximum-security prison for holding our military (government) accountable for international war crimes. Also, two publications were released simultaneously, showing the US ranked 44th in the world for a free press and a poll showing that most democratic countries fear the US more than Communist China and Russia.

    Now, these would have been excellent questions for the press pool following this grand affair but not a single question about our ranking or the poll. Not one.

    Now you know why Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi weren’t invited to the press pool and why they write for the Substack platform. The truth has been disconnected from journalism and our free press. The journalism taught today is “story-telling on multiple platforms.”

  3. Not a chance of meaningful communication-Mormons booing Romney in a Salt Lake City Republican meeting. You reminded me of Alfred E. Newman/What, me worry?/ and Mad Magazine comic books that we read for the outrageous humor of its reality when we were college students. No one believed that reality but it was funny. Today millions believe the reality that vaccines are bad as they may kill 1 in 1,000,000. That reality is not funny.

  4. Well done! And the essay on Substack was revealing. I recently read a related deep-dive article by Clare Malone, a write who I adore for her work at FiveThirtyEight until she was let go after its acquisition by ABC News and became a freelancer. She profiles what is called a “journalist influencer” on YouTube named Phillip DeFranco, whom of course I’d never heard of. But he has millions of followers and makes a good living at it. I have to admit that he’s an engaging and straight-up dude. It made me wonder if the future of journalism isn’t that we’re going away from the Edward R. Morrows. It is that there are or will be hundreds if not thousands of variations of him.

    The website where this article is posted is also very interesting in itself in that it was created to explore the existential question of “what IS journalism?”. I’m making my way through a number of other contributions.

  5. “How do we create a shared sense of reality in a media landscape comprised mostly of individual writers and their loyal followers?”

    The Indianapolis Star, always a right-leaning base, and all other local newspapers in several states, gobbled up by Gannett, Inc., et al; are getting the corporate “reality”…and they seem to be failing. I ended my decades long subscription to the Indianapolis Star 3 years ago due to the lack of news in any form other than an occasional headline it couldn’t ignore. I haven’t missed it; what I do miss is the ritual of my morning newspaper with the crossword puzzle as I sip my coffee.

    My favorite National Enquirer headline from decades ago was; “Woman Gives Birth To Baby With Wooden Leg”; knowing the obvious truth of that event. I am still sorry I didn’t buy a copy to see how they worked their way out of the lie…or as Kellyanne would call it, “an alternate fact”.

  6. My favorite story from the Enquirer was the occasionally reoccurring story about the Bat Boy!

  7. We might not have a common reality, but we do have common needs. Just talk policies without labels and we’ll find a lot to talk about.

  8. So long as the most “clicks,” or “views” literally runs the show, the future of what we used to call “journalism” is in deep trouble, it appears to me. People are making big bucks by putting out twisted stories, damn the consequences for the culture.
    It was either “The Enquirer,” or “The Globe” who had an amazing headline, complete with a photograph(?) of a supposedly “Giant Nautilus” coming from outer space to engulf the planet, years ago, that I recall best. Oh, then there was the “Clinton has Six Months to Live” because of an already advanced cancer, ages ago.
    And people were buying this garbage, paying actual money for it!

  9. Todd – “Personally, I’m not interested in a journalist telling me what I want to hear. I want a journalist to tell me the truth.” And then you go on to laud a journalist who tells you what you want to hear…LOL

  10. Actually, Lester, they don’t tell me what I want to hear. My ego bristles when I read it. I have to read their stories several times as a result. It was the same way with Einstein and Chomsky. I thought I knew what journalism was and wasn’t. I thought I knew things. That’s my ego and unconscious.

    The only way to grow toward the truth is to read things that challenge you outside of your comfort zone. Glenn and Matt have always done that. The journalists on GrayZone always share truths I’ve never even heard before because the propaganda in this country is staggering.

    Most Americans are lazy consumers who want their food fast and their news faster. Their opinions aren’t informed at all because they consume propaganda tailored just for them by the media elites.

    What’s funny is Julian Assange won journalism awards for the same cables that the US has manufactured his misery for over a decade. None of those war criminals shown on those videos or written in those cables have been charged for war crimes by the US.

    When the truth-tellers are imprisoned and hunted down while the criminals roam free, we might have a problem with reality. By all mean tho, keep cheerleading for the Democratic Party because those ignorant Trumpians infest the GOP. You’re just occupying a different alternate reality concocted by your oppressors.

    I believe you’ll find plenty of literature from John about how the truth-tellers are dealt with over the eons.

  11. Just because the in the past the media environment was more uniform a la Cronkite signing of “that’s the way it is” doesn’t mean there weren’t diverse realities. I grew up in Cleveland where there were many different ethnic realities. On a bus in Cleveland, you could hear five different languages spoken.
    You have the accept the idea that one reality is better and closer to the true state of things than the other. I don’t see much value in reasoning with people who believe the election was stolen, that America is a Christian nation, that poor people are poor because they don’t have the right values, that only Trump can make America great again. I just want have more influence and more votes than them.
    Since there has always been many diverse stories in America, I think it is a good thing there are diverse outlets to tell those stories. As long as we are all committed to the democratic process

  12. Sheila is talking about fragmented media here, and I agree. I also think the problem lies with fragmented education, as we have unfortunatey taken to funding private religious schools that teach whatever they want with no accountability. We no longer have a consistent information landscape.

  13. Lester and Todd; I am already fed up with seeing Caitlin Jenner running for any office, an extension of the Kardashian family intrusion into politics. Kanye West was bad enough but was invited by Trump to the Oval Office. Those two political announcements belong on the National Enquirer or The Globe.

  14. Even when it is in print in a “real” newspaper, the content value is so low it is depressing. I used the word “real” in quotes, because I am talking about the Indy Star. They have pared the staff down to nothing. The original reporting is almost non-existent. The one original story they did report on today was a group of parents that showed up at a HSE school board meeting to protest the possible teaching of critical race theory. The coverage is shifting to just the northern, very white, suburbs.

    The the whole article was basically an interview with a few protesters who would not even give their names because they might appear as racists. (You think?) The reporter did not explain what critical race theory was, did not even mention how many people showed up, did not interview anybody that might support the other side. They did mention when and where you could be, if you want to speak up.

    Journalism is doomed in this country, maybe because reporting on facts, and presenting both sides of the issue is boring. Who cares about alternative viewpoints when there are places you can always go and be confirmed and comfortable.

  15. Looks like this is “pet peeve journalism” day, so…I grew up on the PBS Newshour, now I gag when I see their story selection leaning heavily toward “identity politics” and some of their reporters, their new “stars”, Yamiche Alcindor and Amna Nawaz, suddenly insert “leftie” commentary in the midst of reporting straightforward news. There – got that off my chest!

  16. As a student combining anthropology and journalism in the 70s, I posited the notion that if well trained journalists would “add a W” for the Whole System and systems surrounding a story, we citizens could graduate from our limited and limiting traditional “who, what,when,where,why“ model for thinking and reporting and move toward a more holistic, systems, worldview. Along with a small thoughtful group of other would be Media Anthropologists, in 1994, I extended the idea in a book, Media Anthropology- Informing Global Citizens. Margaret Mead’s anthropologist daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, kindly wrote the foreword- thus carrying on Mead’s (and Catherine’s father Gregory Bateson’s) mission to provide more context and perspective for citizens. That is, all of us as opposed to educating only other academics and the three people who’d seek out academic writing.
    I wish more people had taken the suggestion to heart! As it happens We the People need to be our own Gatekeepers and we simply do not have the perspective or the critical thinking skills to filter the morass of information bombarding us daily.
    My idea was and remains that IF both broadly and specifically trained media communicators (and media anthropologists) would “step back” to add even a sentence or paragraph of context and perspective to each story covered soon their audiences would soak in a more holistic way of framing our problems-to-be-solved (I.e. our life).
    Well….we didn’t do that. Sheila has it right – The Media is now too scattered to be a worthy filter. We have to become our own better educated filters. With better education, future media communicators can help us make that happen.

  17. Since the age of cable TV and satellites ended the era of the dominance of the three big television networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, networks each who tried to reach the largest demographic possible, radio and television stations and networks, including the cable news networks, have morphed from trying to reach the broadest demographic possible to trying to reach the segmented parts of the audience to which their programming is targeted. The cable “news” networks want to, after all, sell advertising, including ideologically correct and politically correct advertising, to its targeted demographic. Fox News, for instance, targets its propaganda, its ideologically and politically correct sensationaist goop at the angry White little schooled males in their market demographic. This means that, to use an analogy, Richard Milhous Nixon was the political equivilent of ABC, CBS, and NBC during the antenna age. He wanted to get the largest demographic possible and he wanted to do something for each of those demographics in such a way that he didn’t offend anyone. It also means that Donald Trump is the political equivilent of Fox News. He targets his demographic and he paints in sensationalistic and emotional hues in order to rev his demographic up. That so many don’t recogise this reality–something very obvious–tells you a lot about the audience and the ability of that audience to do the Sgt Schultz Shuffle. It also tells us something about the power of PT Barnumish demogoguery in the brave new digital age.

  18. I recently saw a photo-shop cartoon picture of Big Foot riding the Loch Ness Monster – “Yelling Stop the Steal”.

    Today’s GOP is equal to the task of unintended satire by their probable purging of Liz Cheney from a leadership role. The elected GOP officials except for a few are still looking at The Trumpet as the leader, who they owe absolute loyalty to. This makes sense in a way. The Trumpet is not just the political leader of the GOP he is a Cult Leader, who manged to gather in the bible thumper’s Rambo wanna-be’s and other Right Wing Reactionaries.

  19. News = the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth set in the context of the times. It makes no sense to me to expect that reliably from any social and entertainment media so research is required by the consumers of news always with great effort necessary to filter out our own human propensity for bias confirmation.

  20. Zuckerberg thought Facebook would connect people and make us all more open to each other. Nope. I still think PBS and NPR are more objective than other media sites. That’s not to say they don’t lean s/w to the left.

    I will be happy to listen to moderate conservatives but not Fox which supports people on the extreme right. I don’t listen to CNN or MSNBS either.

    If only they could stick to the facts and not skew their journalism with opinions. But even journalist have internal bias.

  21. So now we are unhappy with both the Cronkites and the Alcindors of this world as well as anyone else who “tells us what to think?” Is that the problem, or is it our inability to listen to anybody who doesn’t pass the guidelines established by our own perception of reality? I sometimes think we are arguing effect rather than cause. Thus the obvious solution to the proliferation of propaganda both left and right is critical thinking analysis, which enjoys about the same emphasis in our schools as recess. I think civic education should enjoy the same emphasis in our schools as readin’, ritin’ and rithmetic.

    Takes too long, critics will urge? What else are we doing until we reach such an analytic nirvana while waiting for Godoy, or Rupert? You start from where you are – and here we are – mired not just as victims of our own perhaps prejudicial experiences but without the thinking tools we must have in order to escape the prison we have perhaps unwittingly concocted for ourselves. Perhaps our motto should not be down with Fox or down with MSNBC but rather an ego-deflating “Physician, heal thyself” motto recognizing that it may not be the news or its presentation that is the culprit but rather our faulty analysis of it.

  22. Dennis is right and to no one’s surprise, ‘divide and conquer’ is working! When I see the ex- or ‘the other guy,’ I yell at my TV, “Get him off there!” They must NOT keep him at the forefront! Goodbye and good riddance! PLEASE!!

  23. Qanon makes the National Enquirer look sane by comparison. Unfortunately, too many people are willing to believe the shock sheets and shock jocks who trade in outrage in order to generate subscribers and ratings.

  24. Wow, miss a little miss a little miss a lot!

    Sorry, I just got back from the dealer getting my eon flux capacitor recalibrated.

    On my trip through the multi-verse yesterday, I visited so many alternate realities, I ran low on fuel!

    Let’s face it, we have reached the pinnacle of self-serving opinion pieces and Craven power grabbers!

    This reality right now is balanced on the fulcrum of insanity. This is part of what you could call the evolution of the multi-verse realities where everyone can live in their own reality apart from their neighbors or anyone or thing else!

    Unicorns and fairies? Leprechauns and boogie men? Angels and Demons? The good the bad and the ugly? A reality verse where you can be the most intelligent prognosticator to exist, the most sought after genetic source, the most magnanimous ruler, the best looking, or whatever anyone could imagine themselves to be.

    So yes, my trip through just a few hundred multi-verse destinations, was quite enlightening, and all leading to the complete destruction of realities fabric!

    The Big Bang wasn’t so much a literal creation of physical reality, but a psychological expansion into self-aggrandizement and gratification, and a camaraderie with those who feel the same as you, which of course is not compatible with the ideas and realities of the guy across the street! So, be prepared, the implosion is going to be breathtaking because it literally will suck the sanity out of your skull along with every ounce of gray matter!

    The Apostle Paul can be quoted in his second letter to Timothy, as he states; ” “Know this, that in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here. For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, self-assuming, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, disloyal, having no natural affection, not open to any agreement, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, without love of goodness, betrayers, headstrong, puffed up with pride, lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God, having a form of godly devotion but proving false to its power”

    And of course, Jesus Christ stated this to his apostles as he sat on the Mount of Olives, ” “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be food shortages and earthquakes in one place after another. All these things are a beginning of pangs of distress. And because of the increasing of lawlessness the love of the greater number will cool off.”

    Just a little something that I picked up in one of my stops today!

  25. Sorry. Can’t resist.

    “the problem” being America’s deep and growing polarization.
    How do we create a shared sense of reality in a media landscape comprised mostly of individual writers and their loyal followers?

    Something whole is “composed of” its parts. The parts comprise the whole. The structure, “comprised of” is grammatically incorrect usage.

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