- Uniquely, the next president will not rely on the mainstream media to get his messages out
- Future candidates no longer need the mainstream platform to raise campaign funds
- The current “fake news” witchhunt is threadbare and already being debunked
- How to identify truth from fiction (in any media outlet) & stay well-informed
In Part 1, we examined the transition from a corporate mainstream media serving a captive audience to the wide-open democracy of the Internet-enabled independent media.
How will this structural transition affect the political and social spheres going forward? How can you improve your ability to identify trustworthy information in the current landscape of controlled mass media & wildly fragmented alternative voices?
A President Who Is Not Beholden to the Mainstream Media
In a historically unprecedented show of homogeneity, the mainstream media unanimously endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign. In essence, the MSM covered Trump only when his success forced them to, and when his gaffes and provocative comments made good copy.
Regardless of your views of the two candidates, this media-wide bias in favor of one candidate was remarkable.
Despite this media-wide endorsement, Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College and the election. In my view, this is the first time in recent U.S. history where a unanimous endorsement of a candidate by the national media failed to persuade the overwhelming majority of voters. While many will blame the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for the defeat, or point to the Democratic candidate’s weaknesses, the reality remains that weak candidates with heavy media backing have won in the past.
In my view, the mainstream media’s failure to persuade the citizenry cannot be pinned solely on the losing party or candidate. It reflects a profound erosion of the MSM’s influence and trustworthiness.
Back when the mainstream media held a monopolistic lock on print, broadcast and radio content and distribution, presidents who were viewed unfavorably by the media had little recourse to being criticized, ridiculed or diminished.
The national media, centered in New York and Washington D.C., has typically been unsparing of political outsiders such as Jimmy Carter. If we use this simple filter—political insider or outsider—the media’s unanimous support for consummate insider Hillary Clinton and its homogeneous rejection of outsider Donald Trump makes perfect sense.
But just as the media landscape is unlike the past, Trump is unlike previous presidents.
Though he is apparently far from tech-savvy, Trump is media-savvy, and he evidently understands he doesn’t need the cooperation or approval of the mainstream media to lead. His use of Twitter suggests he will bypass the mainstream media and speak directly to the citizenry. It’s easy to imagine him utilizing YouTube videos in the same way he currently uses Twitter.
We may well see a presidency that relies on the Internet distribution channels far more than on traditional press conferences designed for the mainstream media channels.
This leaves the mainstream media that uniformly disapproves of him (for any number of reasons) in a curious dilemma: if they refuse to cover Trump adequately, or cover him with their existing bias in full force, they will likely see their access to the Trump White House limited. Eventually this lack of access will erode their credibility—after all, what value is a media that is chasing Twitter, YouTube and an independent media that thrives in those channels?
But if they attempt to cover his administration in a less biased fashion, they will be discrediting their previous bias and alienating the audience who reckoned Trump was only getting what he deserved from the liberal media.
Put another way: in a media environment in which the President speaks directly to the people via New Media, and a wide spectrum of commentary, opinion and analysis is free on the web, what’s the mainstream media’s value proposition? What value are they adding that’s worth paying for?
To date, their value proposition appears to be offering an echo-chamber for the status quo opponents of Trump. If they settle on this value proposition, we can expect the mainstream media to shrink as it loses all but the most ardent Trump opponents, i.e. residents of those counties won by Hillary (blue).
But the independent media is not limited to pro-Trump sites. The mainstream media will be competing with left-wing and progressive media outlets such as CounterPunch.org (which I subscribe to).
If the President bypasses the media gatekeepers and communicates directly with the citizenry, the mainstream media will have to establish its relevancy in open competition with independent media outlets that do not have the high legacy cost structure and overhead of traditional media companies.
Bernie Sanders’ $234 million from Individuals
In the view of many media watchers, myself included, the mainstream media was visibly biased against Bernie Sanders in favor of Hillary Clinton. In the past, such a disadvantage would have been insurmountable without big-money contributors willing to fund a costly advertising campaign.
Bernie Sanders raised a phenomenal $234 million from small donors, and collected a mere $6 million from political action committee (super-PACs). Hillary Clinton raised $1.3 billion, largely from Super-PACs and Democratic Party fundraising committees. (Source)
This suggests the mainstream media’s support is no longer a critical factor in raising enormous sums from small donors. It seems the media’s role as political gatekeeper has been crushed, as both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump raised large sums from small donors and non-party sources despite the media’s unsubtle bias against them.
The Frenzy over “Fake News” and Democracy
The mainstream media is currently in a frenzied paroxysm over “fake news,” which is being portrayed as foreign-inspired and thus a threat to democracy. This has it exactly backward: attempting to manage the “news” to support the ruling elite’s narratives threatens democracy, as voters are deprived of the context and information needed to make informed decisions.
It is difficult to interpret this sudden obsession with “fake news” (except of course for the “fake news” the MSM itself swallows whole) as anything but a panicked response to the MSM’s visible loss of control of the narratives.
As noted in Part 1, this obsession implicitly assumes the American public is incapable of discerning the difference between click-bait/ “fake news” and legitimate sources and narratives. In other words, without us as gatekeepers, the MSM is saying, you will be lost in a sea of fake news.
It was certainly easier to maintain a homogeneous narrative when there were three networks, PBS and a handful of dominant print/radio news sources. But was democracy served by a media which rubberstamped the expansion of the Vietnam War?
Less is demanded of the citizenry when the “news” is centrally managed. The filtering and packaging has been done by the media, leaving an easily digestible narrative that can be passively accepted as the normative context of life not just in the U.S. but in the rest of the world.
But as the world’s complexity has intruded on these simplistic homogeneous narratives, they no longer make sense. The holes are too gaping, the asymmetries too obvious, and the media’s “expert opinions” more strident and less persuasive.
Many “experts” are emerging to declare the world’s populist movements as dangerous to democracy, as populism inevitably leads to autocracy. But this claim is remarkably ignorant of American populist movements, which never threatened democracy or led to autocracy. Rather, they challenged the ruling elite’s dominance and socially harmful asymmetries in wealth and power.
Autocracy is the consequence of a citizenry which lacks a diversity of information and opinion, and the critical thinking needed to sort out who benefits from whatever narrative is being pushed.
In an era of competing narratives, sources and opinions, much more is demanded of the citizenry. Passive acceptance of the dominant narratives will no longer do. More work is required of an engaged citizenry, but this work is what makes democracy resilient to autocracy.
What Can We Do to Filter Out “Fake News” in Both MSM and Alternative Media?
Chris recently wrote a comprehensive review of propaganda, which includes “fake news” as well as many other forms of persuasion. How To Protect Yourself From Persuasion & Propaganda. If you haven’t read it, read it now.
Cui bono (to whose benefit?) offers a sound starting point. Who benefits from our acceptance of a narrative? Who has skin in the game and who is getting off the hook?
We can also benefit from the understanding that the profusion of competing narratives reflects not just competing vested interests but a competition between conceptual frameworks and explanations of a rapidly changing era. This is the consequence of dominant narratives losing their explanatory value. We seek other explanations that may do a better job of explaining what we see happening around us.
This is a chaotic, Darwinian selection process that is immune to central planning and centralized management. The mainstream media has faithfully promoted a neoliberal, neoconservative, Keynesian narrative that has either failed or failed to produce the expected results. No wonder trust in the MSM has declined sharply in the past few years (see the Gallup chart in Part 1). Why trust a centralized institution that has parroted policies and narratives that haven’t produced the widespread security and prosperity that its proponents promised?
The mainstream media’s “experts” who decry populism refuse to examine why populism is on the rise: the mainstream political, financial and social institutions have failed to deliver what they promised, implicitly or explicitly. This failure is driving a search for new ways to understand our world, and this is a positive dynamic. The process is messy and fraught with bad ideas, fake news, hidden agendas, propaganda, and here and there, powerful new ideas and narratives.
Those who embrace this critical-thinking search will benefit, those who resist will end up sputtering on the ash heap of history.