By Iain Espey
Back home for my last ever winter break, I made a timeline, allotting two full weeks for idleness and setting the day after Christmas as a hard deadline for getting serious with myself. As it always does, the torpor took longer than anticipated. One by one, I abandoned each task on my much-too-ambitious to-do list and relapsed to one of my oldest, guiltiest pleasures: cable news. Switching from Fox News to CNN and back with occasional toe-dips into MSNBC (which I honestly can’t stomach much of; I blame my congenitally low tolerance for shrillness), I’m struck by how painfully little relation these alternate realities bear to each other.
Compare last week’s coverage of Michael Wolff’s lurid new Trump tell-all and it becomes clear how intent people can be at plugging their ears to anything they’d rather not hear. Tune in to Jake Tapper or Chris Cuomo, and you’ll hear panel after panel parroting Wolff’s characterization of the president as a petulant, paranoid dimwit like it’s gospel truth. Head next door to Fox, and you’ll find another parade of equally fired up experts, strategists and other assorted political goons all decreeing Wolff’s book bogus. Such juxtaposition is the rule, not the exception. No wonder half the country is straining to see impeachment on the horizon while the other half is still hot on the scent of Hillary’s private email server.
CNN had to change after wetting the bed in such dramatic fashion during the last election, or so I thought. In the immediate aftermath, the general sentiment was the same from every left-leaning news outlet: We failed, we’re sorry, we’ll do better in 2017. Of course, CNN was far from alone in underestimating Trump’s electability, but as the second-most-viewed cable news channel in a nation where 57 percent of people watch the news on television, CNN carries some serious responsibility when it comes to popular politics. They are, after all, the Most Trusted Name in News™. Out of the ether emerged something new to chalk it up to — news bubbles, an answer to the question “Why didn’t we see Trump coming?” that conveniently shifts blame away from news providers and onto consumers. (It’s not our fault for providing biased and misleading coverage, it’s your fault for being tricked by it!)
How narrow is your picture of current events if you get all your news from HuffPo, if you glean all your opinions from those nauseating “Unboxing…” videos with Dylan Marron? I’m not speaking to Stanford students specifically here, but you know precisely the type I’m talking about. (Your sort-of-friend from high school with the nose ring and newly acquired but dangerously vague political convictions. Yeah, that one.) An obvious objection to this point is that I’m positioning as equivalent news sources that are in fact not of the same caliber. For example, you might argue that there’s nothing to be gained from reading Breitbart for an educated, discerning consumer like you, since it just isn’t a credible news organization.
Back to the basics! Remember learning to evaluate sources in AP Lit? It’s finally coming in handy. Credibility is at once more important and more tenuous than ever in this brave new world of fake news and alternative facts, but as much as we’d like to see ourselves as the sole objective observer in a sea of fools, human nature always intrudes. The paradox is that we always employ what we already know (or think we know) in order to evaluate new information; what we already believe with a high degree of certainty largely decides what we come to believe in the future. What’s more, we’re less likely to be convinced of something we don’t want to believe is true.
So, when CNN reported obtaining an email showing that WikiLeaks had offered the Trump team access to hacked DNC emails during the campaign, of course their viewers bought it and of course Fox News viewers cried foul. That CNN’s claims proved to be false made little difference. The news cycle rolled on, and regardless, the Mueller investigation was really starting to heat up, or so they still tell you every night on CNN.
Not everything on CNN is fake news, of course, and there’s a deeper problem with the television news format that extends to every other channel too. Which events are worth covering and what proportion of coverage should be devoted to each are entirely subjective decisions. Every channel imposes a point of view not only in how they report the news, but in what qualifies as news in the first place too. None of this is unique to TV, but it’s the 24-hour news cycle that drives the necessary evil of content selection toward the kind of myopia that makes cable news so maddening. Unfortunately, we have few realistic alternatives at the moment and no way at all to independently verify most of what we hear on the news, except by looking to other news sources. Most of us must choose something to believe, so we pick what already aligns with our values.
I’m certainly not trying to argue that news organizations shouldn’t take stances. I’m skeptical of any claims to objectivity, as at an individual level, making sense of experiences always involves editing and reorganizing according to underlying assumptions. News bubbles may not be the hot topic they were in the months after the election, but when I watch cable news now, they’re more apparent and dramatic than ever. Both a symptom and a cause of the deepening political divides, news bubbles reveal the vast and insidious detachment straining the connection between the so-called liberal elites and Trump’s supposedly forgotten America.
What’s the proper posture then? Relentless skepticism to the point of self-induced paranoia? The media are patently not living up to the limp-wristed promises made this time last year, and for good reason: They’re making a killing. Strong ratings and billion-dollar profits make emotional appeals and predictable perspectives irresistibly lucrative. As long as we partake, we’re at least partly complicit, so when it comes to television news, don’t expect change anytime soon.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.