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Media, politics, and truth in the struggle for dominance in the marketplace of ideas

Democracy as a marketplace of ideas is under attack, and the news media as a primary source of ideas in the market is at the center of the battle. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a spike in awareness and activity relating to political misinformation and disinformation in media, and in particular, online media. As we chase solutions to the problems of fake news, news bias, and other similar concerns, we would do well to remember that our system of free press has always been vulnerable to manipulation by special interests, be they foreign, commercial, or our own government and advocates.

Just twenty or so years ago, digital entrepreneurs and pundits evangelized the Internet as a paradise of free-flowing information that would only bring us a better life. Yet today, our connected world seems more like a modern Tower of Babel, teetering on the brink of collapse because of our inability to communicate with one another. The Tower’s foundation is built on common ground that is eroding more every day that scientifically validated conclusions are denied or ignored, every time unsubstantiated claims are spread on social media and via traditional journalism, and every time that partisan dominance is given priority over real problem solving.

Many have pointed to the emergence of online filter bubbles as the root cause of the problem, but these filter bubbles only mirror offline barriers that have long existed among various partisan populations. More to the point, online communication has made it easier to attack the vulnerabilities of our system of free speech, stoking tribal passions and fomenting greater confusion and division around the healthy exchange of ideas. As a consequence, the marketplace that is our democracy has grown even more susceptible to the intentional spread of disinformation from attackers within and beyond our borders.

To get a better view of the condition of the marketplace today, contrast our current Babel with the peak of mass media in the 1960s and 70s. Back then, many Americans got their news from one of the nightly news programs airing on the three national television networks. In their quest for larger audiences and ratings, the three programs all hewed to a similar centrist, non-partisan view of the news, as did many of the large national newspapers and news magazines. Walter Cronkite’s signature sign-off at CBS, “And that’s the way it is”, speaks to the leading characteristic of mass media news at the time, giving what people wanted from their news — reassurance free from partisan rancor.

The market rewarded these mass media outlets with large, loyal audiences. And the market preferred favorable, or at least sympathetic, coverage of the progressive policies that had prevailed since 1900, including creation of laws protecting against anti-competitive business practices and abusive labor practices, a national income tax, and social security for those who lacked the income and wealth to survive. In the 1950s and 60s, it meant giving generally favorable coverage to the movements that produced President Johnson’s Great Society legislation, demands for cleaner air and water, and eventually, an end to the war in Vietnam.

To conservatives, however, the market had created one large filter bubble that mostly reflected a liberal bias. They were frustrated by a media environment that seemed stacked against their views of how government and society should work.

Richard Viguerie, considered to be a founding father of today’s conservative movement, asserted in a 2004 interview that it was virtually impossible to get conservatives represented in the mainstream media when he first arrived in Washington in the 1960s. On the PBS news program, NOW, interviewer Bill Moyers introduced Viguerie by pointing out that he did “an end-run around the mainstream media” when he pioneered the use of targeted direct mail to reach news consumers and voters.

Viguerie helped turn modern conservatism into a grassroots movement that launched what has sometimes been called a culture war on progressive thought and “political correctness”, a generally negative term used to refer to the tendency to suppress “language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race)” [Merriam-Webster].Often speaking from increasingly more extreme nationalist, racist, and homophobic positions, the movement generated recognition and, more importantly, media coverage for a conservative ideology that emphasized small government and lower taxes, first on talk radio and then in the mainstream media. The election of Ronald Reagan was a major step forward, as the media now had to incorporate more discussion of conservative perspectives, particularly on economic and foreign policy and on such divisive campaign issues as abortion, in its national coverage. By the mid-90s, of course, conservatives had helped identify and establish a market for Fox News and later, a network of conservative websites.

Today, conservative ideas prevail in our politics and openly racist, homophobic, and isolationist groups have gained a platform, and some would argue, a president. With these groups now closer to the core of their base, conservative politicians have begun to reverse more than a hundred years of progressive policies. According to Viguerie, the war was won more than a decade ago, or so he declared in that 2004 interview: “The marketplace has decided they want to give the conservatives a bigger microphone than they do the liberals.”

So effective was the conservative assault on the marketplace that the journalists and politicians who hawked their popular, left-leaning wares there for decades barely felt the ground shifting underneath them until 2016 when Donald Trump shook the political establishment. Beginning in the 1980s, the Right attacked the mainstream media with the one-two punch of political correctness and liberal bias. On the one hand, the accusation of political correctness addressed the alleged suppression of ideas that were outside the mainstream — ideas that conservatives had claimed for decades were being ignored. And on the other, accusing journalists of liberal bias suggested that they were unfairly ignoring those conservative ideas.

The combination struck where journalism was most vulnerable. Trained to consider alternative perspectives as a means of managing their biases, journalists took the charges seriously and sought ways to adapt. Rather than recognizing that the market had long ago rejected many of the ideas that were fueling the Right, mainstream news outlets played into conservative hands by including more conservatives and conservative viewpoints in their reporting and on their talk shows in order to present “the other side”. In doing so, they often ignored the valid conclusions of their own reporting in an effort to prove they were unbiased — and, of course, to try to capture a market segment that had not previously been on their radar.

Then in 2015–16, Donald Trump exploded on the scene like a dirty bomb, and finally the media began to understand it was under attack and losing the war. “Equivalency” suddenly became the term used to describe the faux “balance” that the mainstream had attempted to inject into their reporting.

Back in that 2004 interview, Viguerie provided insight into conservative thinking, starting with the explanation that journalism is “just all opinion.” This jaw-dropping statement from one of the architects of the conservative movement’s rise to power ignores the distinction between news and analysis, both of which rely on verifiable evidence and data, and opinion, which is often less evidence-based.

Viguerie went on to clarify the difference between the new right-wing media celebrities and the famous faces of the mainstream news:

“You have to recognize the difference between the Peter Jennings, the Dan Rathers, Tom Brokaws and a Rush Limbaugh and a Sean Hannity. They [Limbaugh and Hannity] clearly identify themselves as conservative partisans. They’re up front about it. And, they make no claim to be an objective unbiased observer.”

Here, Viguerie fails to make another important distinction, confusing bias with partisanship, and equating the overt advocacy of the Right with the non-partisan but certainly biased truth seekers in the mainstream media. Whether this mix up was intentional or not is unclear, but it certainly was consistent with how the Right had weaponized accusations of bias over several decades.

The statements are also a revealing — and not isolated — commentary on the conservative game plan. Four years earlier, in a document outlining how the GOP should approach the climate change issue, Republican strategist Frank Luntz suggested that factual accuracy and truth might not be central to achieving their goals:

“It can be helpful to think of environmental (and other) issues in terms of ‘story.’ A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.” (Bold highlight added here for emphasis.)

The Luntz strategy was designed to cast doubt on the science of climate change and divert progress away from policy discussions and the seemingly inevitable regulations on the fossil fuel industry that would result. Over the years, Republican politicians quietly followed the Luntz script, but Donald Trump has taken this approach to unprecedented extremes as a means to excite his base. He routinely employs easily disproved lies and distortions of fact to advance his agenda and to discredit anyone who accuses or attacks him or his administration.

The irony, or more accurately, the hypocrisy should not be overlooked. Trump’s blunt partisan appeals to emotional rather than factual truths transmitted via a compliant news media — mainstream and otherwise — comes from the man and the party that decry media bias and fake news.

When Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway used the term “alternate facts” in reference to the administration’s false statements about the size of the crowd at President Trump’s inauguration, the reference was merely the public crescendo in a long-term strategy orchestrated to distort, confuse, and undermine a commonly held and generally functional view of the world.

Conservatives’ strategic refusal to respect and accept the validity of scientific findings, corroborated evidence, and easily observed truths has successfully destabilized the marketplace, sowing confusion and mistrust among media consumers. It has also created new political and social opportunities for long-silent groups whose vision of America does not include a marketplace of ideas reflecting the output of a melting pot of diverse people. As these groups moved the political center further to the right, they have brought into question the nation’s cultural identity as the world’s leading light for democracy.

Two books published in 2004 spotlighted the Republican rise in the media and its simultaneous rise in politics, and the authors of both books appeared with Moyers on the same NOW program. Viguerie co-authored the first book, America’s Right Turn, which detailed how conservatives had used alternative media in a long-term, coordinated effort to spread the gospel of conservatism. The second book, The Republican Noise Machine, documented with numerous examples how the Republican Party undertook a “systematic and intentional effort to misinform and distort” the news. The author, David Brock, is a self-described ex-conservative and former cog in the right-wing propaganda machine that is the focus of his book.

Brock traced the Republican strategy to a memo written in 1971 by a corporate lawyer, Lewis Powell — the same Lewis Powell who a short time later would become a mostly conservative justice on the Supreme Court. The confidential memo was drafted for the US Chamber of Commerce and titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System”. In it, Powell described the alleged liberal attackers as “varied and diffused” and the alleged attack as “broadly-based” — a description that sounds more like an organic, market-based convergence of ideas to rein in corporate power than a coordinated strategy to undermine American capitalism. The 34-page memo offered a detailed approach to promoting business interests on campuses, in the media, in the courts, and in politics. In Brock’s words, the plan supported “heavily subsidized ‘scholars, writers, and thinkers’ speaking ‘for the movement’ [who] would press for ‘balance’ and ‘equal time’ to penetrate the media [as well as academia], thereby shaping news coverage, reframing issues, influencing the views of political elites, and changing mass public opinion.”

The plan was simple but brilliant: By leveraging vulnerabilities in the marketplace, conservatives created opportunities to deliver their message in the mainstream media that vastly increased their reach.

The plan, however, had a significant downside: While providing inroads for conservatives from the fringes of the marketplace to its center, it also freed other fringe groups whose ideas are offensive to American values of diversity and acceptance. By attacking so-called media bias and demanding equal time in the mainstream, conservatives inadvertently opened up the marketplace to the ideas of people like Richard Spencer, the proud anti-Semitic, white supremacist who now regularly speaks to a wider public. Following the recent massacre of 11 Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, both Spencer and neo-Nazi Jewish hater Andrew Anglin expressed their frustration with the perpetrator, Robert Bowers, whose murderous action they feared would be a setback to their long-term goal of building political power. Both men were quoted in a Washington Post article four days after the attack.

For decades, these fringe groups had lurked in the shadows of the conservative rise, mostly unacknowledged but important electoral allies. In 2010, they took a big step from the fringe toward the center of the GOP when many white nationalists aligned themselves with the newly formed Tea Party, as reported that year by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights and noted by the Southern Poverty Law Center. White supremacist and other hate groups became further empowered by Donald Trump’s political ascent, with Trump channeling the most overt racism seen in national politics since George Wallace’s last presidential bid almost 50 years ago.

At the end of their book, Viguerie and co-author David Franke issued a warning to their fellow conservatives that their economic message had been “virtually silenced, co-opted by my-party-right-or-wrong partisanship.” At the time, the authors were concerned with the ballooning debt under a GOP-led government and were simply commenting on the lust for political power over conservative principles. They clearly did not foresee the undemocratic forces being unleashed by this new party-over-country demagoguery. Fully embodied six years later in Tea Party Republicanism that stepped up efforts to suppress votes and undermine the electoral process and its results, this uncompromising, all-or-nothing partisanship is now flourishing under a President that demands loyalty first irrespective of the institutions he undermines.

Thanks to Trump, now we all can see what Viguerie and Franke did not. Democracy as we’ve known it is at risk.

The erosion of trust in media and our democratic institutions is a much more complicated tale than bias and the spread of falsehoods via filter bubbles on the Internet. Powerful people, not algorithms, have purposefully exploited vulnerabilities in the media in order to gain a platform for economic ideas and social views that the marketplace had long ago rejected. In order to make their voices heard, however, they have damaged the foundations of the marketplace. Now, to retain the power they’ve achieved, the conservative and alt-Right alliance seems willing to complete the destruction by suppressing progressive thoughts and votes. What started as an effort to promote business interests has morphed into a war for the identity of American democracy, if not for the existence of the democracy itself.

Despite the significant resources being invested in new technologies to identify and contain the spread of political and social disinformation, we cannot rely on technology alone to protect the marketplace of ideas from the forces that are attacking it. Strive as we might, any tech — AI or otherwise — will ultimately reflect the values of the humans who create it. We need to accept this as fact and recognize that whatever tools we create, they cannot remain neutral and unbiased. Rather, they should favor those works — and more importantly, those sources — that value and prioritize democracy and the institutions that sustain it.

Similarly, mainstream journalists cannot retain the mantle of neutrality in this battle for control over the marketplace of ideas but instead should support these same goals. To achieve them, journalists need to recognize the areas where their profession is most vulnerable to manipulation and turn those weaknesses into strengths. The ultimate purpose is to once again consign those who seek to diminish our democratic institutions and demonize their supporters to the fringes of the marketplace.

The power of the news media is its capacity to investigate, report, and galvanize public support to solve problems that government and business fail to adequately address — or that they themselves create. That power, however, is severely diminished by repeated inclusion of falsely equivalent viewpoints. As the people’s watchdog of democracy, evidence and the lessons of history — not partisanship and intimidation — are the weapons that journalists must ruthlessly wield, even when they run counter to their own preconceived notions. This important distinction generally separates the mainstream media from the conservative press. It is a difference that needs to be explained, illustrated, and hammered into the American psyche until the accusations of liberal bias and fake news simply bounce like bullets from Superman’s chest.

Journalism as the Fourth Estate is an integral component of our democracy. It suffers when our political and business leaders fail to address and solve problems important to the American audience. Never-ending debate slowly corrodes the mechanisms that make the democratic process work, and as one of those mechanisms, unceasing debate likewise eats away at the news media that reports on it.

Contrary to the teaching of Walter Lippmann and at the potential cost of access and ad revenue, journalists need to be more aggressively independent participants– not just passive observers — on a more consistent basis. Despite our two-party system, coverage of politics is not some exercise in the Socratic method. At some point, journalists need to abandon their passivity in reporting on the Right-Left dichotomy and assert a third perspective that points out when debate, rhetoric, and empty votes become corrosive political ploys. Then, stories can be framed in a way that holds political and business leaders more accountable.

Journalists can no longer allow the rich and powerful and well connected to plant and then frame the stories in the news, and they should not allow themselves to be too timid in calling out such efforts. With the less empowered always as their target audience, journalists must be the ones to decide who and what makes the news and how it gets presented so that democracy is best served.

It’s the difference between an actual, below-the-fold Washington Post headline from November 13, “GOP plants seeds of election doubt”, and a more courageous headline positioned at the top of the front page that was suggested to the Post the next day as a stronger alternative, “GOP tries to undermine electoral system”. The article, which was about false claims of electoral fraud by Republicans in Florida, Georgia, and Arizona, supports both headlines, but only one is less ambiguous and more effective at lifting democracy out of darkness.

Most importantly, journalists and publishers, including Facebook and Twitter, need to remember that the First Amendment applies only to the government. It is the government’s job to protect free speech as the cornerstone of our democracy. Non-government publishers and content creators are the merchants that populate this marketplace of ideas. Their job — our job — is to be sufficiently transparent in our thinking for the market to understand with some clarity what ideas we are supporting and why we support them. We are under no obligation to present other viewpoints, especially when they attack and undermine the work we do and the nation we seek to be.

We need the mainstream news media to behave more consistently like the Fourth Estate that it aspires to be rather than a mass media business seeking to attract all market segments. This means undertaking a conscious effort not to serve as an echo chamber for the powers that be nor as a platform for those who openly appeal to emotional rather than factual truths. Our democracy and the marketplace of ideas that enables it to thrive can no longer afford an intimidated or indecisive media. Everything that Americans desire for themselves and the next generations is tied up in an electoral system that is at risk and in much-delayed policy decisions regarding emissions of greenhouse gases and the services we long ago understood that our government was best positioned to provide. We need a Fourth Estate that stands by that history and sustains the decisions of the marketplace. It is also reasonable to expect the media to keep us informed of changing circumstances and perspectives that will require further evolution of our thinking and modification of our choices — but not replacement of our values.

For the mainstream media to succeed as the Fourth Estate, it needs to collectively wrap its head around these responsibilities. Small signs suggest some in the mainstream are making the effort, but it needs to become an industry-wide movement. Otherwise, it will be very hard to hold our political and business leaders accountable for their actions and for their failures in solving the nation’s problems. And solving those problems is the first step to rebuilding common ground and restoring the public’s trust in the marketplace that is our democracy and the media that helps sustain it.

Launched The American Leader, a public information center focused on systemic problems, the leaders who are solving them, and the progress they are making.

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