Maybe it was irresponsible. But I was recently within earshot of the following comments at an outdoor event at which I was the only one wearing a mask an hour after reading in the morning paper that COVID-19 cases were spiking in several states, including California, and several counties, including Sonoma:
“Hospitals are getting $10,000 more if they put COVID on the death certificates, so they’re deliberately inflating the numbers.”
“My friend canceled his scheduled COVID test and got positive results in the mail!”
“That is NOT a confederate flag. It was a battle flag. And many Black people fought for the confederacy when they were given a choice.”
“Now they’re tearing down statues of George Washington.”
“I saw a story where a woman interfered with a police dog taking down a guy wanted for murder.”
“With no bail, murderers are walking free.”
Clearly anecdotal, there is a kernel of truth to each of these statements, and their political biases are so different from mine that it reminded me how polarized our media intakes have become. Facts that influence my overall thinking are far different than those above and I see now that we Americans are each finding our niche, or echo chamber, on social media, cable news and publications that reinforce our thinking with little bridge crossing or opinion changing. The process of how we form our opinions is more complex than I can address but I can’t help notice that opinions are affecting facts more than the other way around. Even with new technologies, media on which we base these opinions have always been more interested in expanding audiences than in objectively informing.
With funding models for print media always more untenable, we are getting more information from relatively new, uncorroborated sources, whose interests are less to inform us and more to validate, even stoke and radicalize our opinions. Writer Matt Taibbi calls it moral panic, which is the tactic of taking a few outrageous stories, usually true, and extending them to fear mongering that these are the patterns. If a hospital has mistakenly labeled a cause of death COVID, for example, it can be turned into a disturbing pattern about which we should all be scared, and read more of that source. Using these quasi-events as bases for simplistically villainizing the other side of the political spectrum becomes easy.
Real truth is more complex and requires far more research/investigative reporting than is commercially viable. And the result of such research would most certainly find some facts that go against the dominant narrative that is successfully selling stories. Fox News and MSNBC are two sides of the same coin here that harp on their versions of reality with interviews ad nauseum of people whose views reinforce whichever fears their respective audience craves. Maybe in today’s complicated and ever-changing world a mass media can’t even understand what they need to convey objectivity. Economics is a good example where the average journalist can understand supply and demand but not clearing derivatives, interest rate swaps, or auction rate securities. Heck, Congress people tasked with regulating and legislating such concepts can’t even understand them. So “experts” with selfish agendas get to run the show and lead the media around by noses that don’t sniff very well, the exact scenario that crashed the economy in 2008.
In the 1960s there were massive disagreements on everything from music to Vietnam but with NBC, CBS, ABC and The New York Times most people’s news sources, there was a common set of facts on which to argue. Now when I talk to conspiracy theorists or Trump supporters, I am totally unfamiliar with some of their evidence. I genuinely want to know where they heard things on which they base passionate arguments. On the internet are webs of stories whose credibility can range from truth to falsehood and everywhere in between, so how do we know who to believe? The Chinese and Russian governments have bureaucracies whose entire purposes are to make internet information murky, unreliable and undermining of western democracies. Their misinformation campaigns are clearly working, as many Americans doubt the veracity of COVID, immigration, and mail-in ballots, November election looming.
Once again, history has lessons for us. Media, whatever their technology, has always been partisan and perhaps incendiary. In the election of 1800, which had no campaigning, ads, or speeches, Thomas Jefferson was labeled an “atheist,” “fornicator with his slave Sally,” and “crafty, fanatical, contemptible hypocrite” (all arguably true) by newspapers favoring John Adams. Votes were mostly cast orally with no written record. Only partisan hacks were left to tell the story. Later, anti-Andrew Jackson papers dubbed him a bigamist and seducer, interesting charges considering his record as a slave-owner and perpetrator of Native genocide. The pattern is not that the truth was suppressed, but that it was hard to get in one place, not so different from today.
Perhaps the most revealing manipulation of facts came in 1898 when Cuba was fighting for its independence from Spain and the United States was interested in seeing it succeed. With Spanish General Weyler “the Butcher” massacring Cubans, cries for war with Spain were loud. Although American imperialism was well under way in Hawaii, the US government hesitated, only opting to move a warship into Havana Harbor. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst wanted more. When his photographer in Cuba told him war was unlikely, he famously responded, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” The USS Maine mysteriously exploded, killing 250 American sailors, and those pictures, artistic and graphic, became easy to furnish as Hearst used his newspapers to demand war despite having no clue what actually caused the explosion.
Harbor dives later revealed it to be an accident in the boiler room, but Hearst had a newspaper competition with Joseph Pulitzer to win. He couldn’t let facts, or lack thereof, get in the way of selling newspapers and furthering his vision of foreign policy. He (or someone near him) then forged, yes forged, a cable from the Maine’s captain to the assistant secretary of the navy implying the Spanish blew up our battleship, a deceptive crime that dwarfs Roger Stone’s peddling Russian influence in effrontery but similarly went unpunished.
Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan even resigned in the face of the ensuing war against Spain which Hearst claimed as his own with the all-caps 20-point headline, “HOW DO YOU LIKE THE JOURNAL’S WAR?” While that war was short, it led to the horrifically brutal Filipino War when the United States invaded that archipelago and killed over a hundred thousand civilians, some by waterboarding, a grim reminder of how history repeats itself. Neither Hearst’s nor Pulitzer’s new empires covered such details but did report the Senate debate which asserted that Filipinos were “not of a self-governing race. They are Orientals.” One Southern Senator opposed to annexation lamented the islands were “inhabited by ten millions of the colored race, one half or more of whom are barbarians of the lowest type.” Jim Crow laws worsened in the U.S. and newspapers had little to say, perhaps paralleling immigration issues today. Such are not subjects pleasant enough to sell more papers.
So perhaps the human brain is not equipped to process as much information as would be needed to be fully informed citizens on every subject. So maybe it is convenient that the media today oversimplifies and manipulates our ill-informed opinions to sell more online subscriptions with more click bait and one-sided facts than we can possibly confirm or do much about. We should consider who benefits from our understandable impulses toward resignation, helplessness, or cynicism, fight off those low feelings as best we can, and act/vote/converse accordingly.
John Grech is a history and journalism teacher at El Molino High School.