How Today’s Media Fails Us

As I have frequently noted, at the very root of America’s–and the world’s–current dysfunctions are the failures of today’s information environment.

How we behave–as friends, as parents, as voters, as humans–ultimately depends upon our understanding of the world we inhabit. And that understanding, that view of what constitutes reality, is a product of the information we access and trust. In the United States–the society with which I am most familiar–the human family confronts two massive informational challenges: bias (both intentional and not) and fragmentation.

Unfortunately, there is little we can do about the Internet’s fragmentation of media sources, which allows citizens to occupy distinctly different realities. When the voting public accesses “alternative facts,” the incoherence of public opinion is understandable.

The failures of traditional media sources are especially troubling, both because they add to the incoherence and because they are the result of mistaken notions of journalism’s most important function–which is to provide an accurate description of the subject matter, irrespective of who or what that accuracy benefits.

Jennifer Rubin is one of the pundits who has been clear-eyed about the persistence of a journalistic worldview that prevents otherwise reputable news sources from avoiding a distorted equivalency.

After missing the significance of the MAGA movement in 2016, innumerable mainstream outlets spent thousands of hours, gallons of ink and billions of pixels trying to understand “the Trump voter.” How had democracy failed them? What did the rest of us miss about these Americans? The journey to Rust Belt diners became a cliché amid the newfound fascination with aggrieved White working-class Americans. But the theory that such voters were economic casualties of globalization turned out to be false. Surveys and analyses generally found that racial resentment and cultural panic, not economic distress, fueled their affinity for a would-be strongman.

Unfortunately, patronizing excuses (e.g., “they feel disrespected”) for their cultlike attachment to a figure increasingly divorced from reality largely took the place of exacting reporting on the right-wing cult that swallowed a large part of the Republican Party. In an effort to maintain false equivalence and normalize Trump, many media outlets seemed to ignore that the much of the GOP left the universe of democratic (small-d) politics and was no longer a traditional democratic (again, small-d) party with an agenda, a governing philosophy, a set of beliefs. The result: Trump was normalized and a false equivalence between the parties was created.

There was a reason Fox News chose “fair and balanced” as its (highly misleading) slogan: most Americans–including too many students of journalism–have been acculturated to believe that “balance” is fairness, that exhibiting similar respect for all sides of an argument is an essential element of reporting. This has led–as one wag put it–to a reportorial stenography that faithfully reports person A’s assertion that it’s raining and person B’s that it isn’t, when what the reporter ought to be doing is looking out the window to see who’s right.

As Rubin noted,

Even as Trump shows his authoritarian colors and his rants become angrier, more unhinged and more incoherent, his followers still meekly accept inane assertions (e.g., convicted Jan. 6, 2021, rioters are “hostages,” magnets dissolve in water, wind turbines drive whales insane). More of the media should be covering this phenomenon as it would any right-wing authoritarian movement in a foreign country.

The proliferation of propaganda sites facilitating confirmation bias is troubling enough, but as Rubin writes, the problem with disinformation is compounded when mainstream outlets spend “far too little attention on why and how MAGA members cling to demonstrably false beliefs, excuse what should be inexcusable conduct and ignore Trump’s obvious and growing mental illness and decline.

Outlets should routinely consult psychologists and historians to ask the vital questions: How do people abandon rationality? What drives their fury and anxiety? How does an authoritarian figure maintain his hold on followers? How do ideas of racial purity play into it? Media outlets fail news consumers when they do not explain the authoritarian playbook that Trump employs. Americans need media outlets to spell out what is happening….

The race between an ordinary democratic candidate and an unhinged fascist is not a normal American election. At stake is whether a democracy can protect itself from a malicious candidate with narcissistic tendencies or a rational electorate can beat back a dangerous, lawless cult of personality. Unfortunately, too many media outlets have not caught on or, worse, simply feign ignorance to avoid coming down on the side of democracy, rationality and truth.

Humans can only form opinions and base behaviors on the information they rely upon. When that information is unreliable– or simply wrong– “do the right thing” becomes meaningless.


Google That!

We’ve returned from vacation, and with reliable internet, blogging will once again become regular. In the meantime, here is my upcoming IBJ column.


My husband and I just returned from a month visiting various parts of Europe–the sort of vacation that becomes possible only when your children are grown and gone. This trip afforded us the luxury of time for observation and reflection that shorter ones rarely did; I even had time to read some of the books I’d optimistically loaded on my IPad.

So what did I learn on my summer vacation?

One thing that immediately struck me was how homogenized citizens from western industrialized countries have become—how much we all look and dress alike. Thirty years ago, on our first trip to Europe, cultural differences expressed in clothing and mannerisms made it fairly easy to spot Americans. Over the intervening years, that has changed. Today, we dress alike, drive the same cars, watch the same television programs and listen to the same (mostly American) music. IPhones, IPods and IPads (and their various clones) are ubiquitous, as are Facebook and Google. Evidence of the globalization of culture—at least pop culture—is everywhere.

But beneath the surface similarities, there is evidence of quite a contrary trend; as Eli Pariser documents in his recent book, “The Filter Bubble,” the internet technology that promises (and delivers) so much is moving us into what he calls a “mediated future”—a future in which each of us exists in a personalized universe of our own construction.

In an effort to give each of us what we want, sites like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are constantly refining their algorithms in order to deliver results that are “relevant” to each particular searcher, and they have more data about our individual likes and dislikes than we can imagine. As a result, two people googling “BP,” for example, will not necessarily get the same results, and certainly not in the same order. Someone whose search history suggests interest in investment information may get the company’s annual report, while someone with a history of environmental interests will get stories about the Gulf spill. Similarly, Facebook delivers the posts of friends and family that its algorithm suggests are most consistent with the member’s interests and beliefs, not everything those friends post.

Pariser calls this the “filter bubble,” and points out that—unlike choosing to listen to Fox rather than PBS, for example—the resulting bias is invisible to us.

Little by little, search by search, individuals are constructing different–and disparate–realities. At the same time, traditional news sources aimed at a general audience—the newspapers and broadcasts that required reporters to fact-check assertions, label opinion and aim for objectivity—are losing market share. How many will survive is anyone’s guess.

The implications of both these changes—globalization and individuation—will be especially profound for our political structures. We are already seeing the dysfunctions that result when we elect people with radically different views of reality.

At SPEA, where I work, our mission is to teach aspiring public managers how to govern. This used to mean classes in budgeting, in cost-benefit analysis, in urban policy and human resource management. Today, we face more daunting questions: How do public servants govern effectively when there is no commonly accepted role for government? How do public managers communicate with citizens who do not—in any meaningful way—occupy the same country (or in some cases, the same planet)? (We have just introduced a new major—Media and Public Affairs—in an effort to prepare our students for these unprecedented challenges.)

We’ve globalized commerce, and everyone wears tee-shirts and jeans. But personalization and social fragmentation is also global, and we can’t Google the future.