Fake news. It’s a term that gets thrown around so often in the United States that it’s become as much a punchline as an accusation. The President of the United States has declared the media to be an enemy of “the people.” The Russian government has taken advantage of American’s dwindling faith in news media to advance their own narratives inside our borders through their clever, if ham-fisted, uses of social media. Social media platforms, private corporations like Facebook and YouTube, are taking it upon themselves to assess the validity of the news you receive and censor the messages they decide aren’t worthy of wider distribution. These varied issues are all truly tied to a single thing: the American public’s eagerness to outsource important ethical and moral decisions to someone else.
Here in the United States, we have a bad habit of demanding someone else take responsibility for the problems we face. We demand our lawmakers pass knee-jerk legislation immediately after something tragic happens, often with little concern for legitimate analysis into what could make things better. When we can’t force laws into action, we turn to powerful corporations with the same fervor, demanding that Facebook curtail the spread of fake news rather than demanding a level of social responsibility from our peers or even ourselves. We’ve come to think of hashtags as a tool of social change, and of corporations as the governing bodies that must enact our will but when it comes time to do our part, we willfully ignore our own pleas for honesty and objectivity. We choose our teams, we choose our news outlets, and we reserve our complaints about disinformation for the opposition only.
Rarely a week goes by without me being accused of harboring some secret political agenda in my work — often, I’m accused of both being a fascist and a communist for the same articles — and I usually take those angry, CAPS LOCK laden messages as a sign that I must be doing something right. No matter what “the news” of the day is, the fact that it’s notable and worthy of discussion almost always means that it will be at odds with someone’s personal beliefs, biases or expectations. So when Donald Trump directs the establishment of a Space Force, half of the country wants an article that decries it as a terrible idea because they don’t like Donald Trump. The other half, of course, demands a story about Trump’s foresight and executive vision. Nearly no one wants an honest appraisal that addresses how discussion of a space specific branch of the military extends much further back than Donald Trump’s statements. Even fewer want to participate in a frank discussion about the real concerns regarding the endeavor, which truly boils down to just trying to find the best way to allocate finances to address a threat the defense community agrees needs addressing. The American people want all stories filtered through a lens of for or against, and they prefer their positions to be fed to them through outlets they know share their political sensibilities.
Now, I know there are a lot of reasonable people reading this piece and taking offense. “I may have some biases, but I try to explore both sides of an issue,” you’re saying to yourself, “and this just sounds like a journalist’s sour grapes!” I don’t doubt that you’re a well reasoned, well-read person that’s really trying but take a minute to look around. While you read an article and assess its points for yourself, others are mashing their keyboards anytime the headline says something they don’t like.
This morning, I happened across an interaction between someone who claimed to be a NEWSREP reader and a writer that left our staff some time ago. The former writer retweeted something the president said, adding his own bit of commentary that was critical of the original statement. Almost immediately, he got a response from that reader, demanding to know if he voted for Hillary Clinton because he’s “been a reader for a long time” but would leave if it turned out someone on our staff voted for the candidate he didn’t like. Of course, the former staffer simply responded something like, “I don’t work for them anymore anyway” and went about his day, but as I gave their brief interaction a second look; a sinking feeling came on in the pit of my stomach. I write a lot of content for this site, and I try to serve as an objective point of analysis — I may not always be right, but I am always honest about how things appear to be, and the truth is, that’s not really what many Americans are looking for.
It’s not the crazy people I’m worried about — there’s little I can do to get through to them — it’s the normal folks with strong opinions that keep me up at night. It may surprise you, but when someone comments under one of my articles with accusations of bias, an agenda, or of generally doing a bad job; I tend to take it to heart. You, right now, the person reading this article on your computer, tablet or phone, are the reason my lights are on. It’s not just that I appreciate that you, I depend on you to think my analysis is worth a few minutes of your day because I know all too well what happens to writers who can’t find an audience: they wait tables.
When President Trump or anyone else talks about the “media,” they tend to treat it like it’s some secret cabal of wealthy individuals choosing the narratives that reach the American people — and to be fair, there may be to some extent when we’re talking about the TV bigwigs and such — but much less so here on the internet. While there are certainly websites that exhibit significant bias, and others that accuse bias when it suits them, that bias is often born not of out conspiracy or legitimate agenda; it’s born out of popular demand. When I first started writing professionally, I saw first hand how much faster you can rise to stardom if you’re willing to pick a team and make inflammatory statements about the opposition, as some other writers leapt ahead of me in Twitter followers, Facebook fans and media appearances early on. Hell, there’s nothing wrong with that when expressed in earnest, but most tend to hide their bias behind loaded language and a carefully constructed facade, that way their customers don’t have to look the reality of what they’re supporting in the face. Since then, I’ve gone on to share some of my own political beliefs (though always, as you notice above, with the word opinion ahead of it).
Scroll through your Facebook and Twitter feeds and look at the type of content you see being shared by your friends and peers. Does your feed reflect a nation crying out for objective journalism — or does it look more like warring factions living in totally different worlds?
The morning that I’m writing this, here are the top stories on CNN and Fox News respectively:
If you’re the type of person that prefers to get your news from Left-leaning outlets, the most important story in the world this morning revolves around the former lawyer of the president potentially implicating him in criminal proceedings. If you prefer Right-leaning outlets, the most important story in your world this morning is about Mollie Tibbets being killed by an illegal immigrant. I want to emphasize that I’m not saying either of these stories are unimportant, I’m not even arguing that one is more important than the other. What I want to impart is that Fox News knows their audience isn’t buying the Cohen story and CNN knows theirs will. While these two outlets likely do have some underlying agendas, even in their absence, the straight dollars and cents of the situation dictates what story to feature more prominently. After all, the customer is always right.
If Fox or CNN were to suddenly take a hard turn away from offering up any form of bias, their readership, viewership and traffic would plummet. Conservatives don’t come to Fox to have their beliefs or views challenges. Liberals don’t go to CNN looking to give Donald Trump a chance. They choose the outlet that will keep them comfortable, and then they accuse those who choose the other outlet of being ignorant or naive.
My good friend and former Army Ranger Luke Ryan told me recently that one thing he’s known to be true of all good leaders he’s worked for is that, in the moment things go wrong, they tend to blame themselves first. Americans, then, are not leaders. When the going gets tough, we cross our arms and call on others — be they Congress or Twitter — to make those problems go away. We don’t look inward; we don’t take responsibility, we don’t even consider the role we’ve played in making the world as it is.
The state of the media in the United States is indeed troubling, but what I’m most troubled by is the state of the demand. Until we embrace the idea that the news should force us to question our beliefs from time to time, objectivity will remain where it’s been: on small sites like this one, shared among us few that are willing to engage with each other before resorting to vilification.
We’re at that moment in “A Few Good Men,” where we as Americans are shouting at the media that “we want the truth,” and the media looks at their traffic figures and is justified in responding that we can’t handle it. Or maybe more appropriately, we simply don’t want it.
We can do better. We can own our stake in this mess. Let’s stop calling on companies and committees to make things better and let’s do it ourselves. Think twice before you click share, give the benefit of the doubt when someone disagrees with you, and stop choosing to make bias such a profitable enterprise.
Because as long as it pays, it’s never going to stop.