Electing a President Without Facts

In an election cycle when the media can and does shape how we choose our next president, the fact we have fewer and fewer sources to look to for credible information regarding those who are running is frightening. And it's only getting worse.
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A woman wearing a striped shirt blouse reads a newspaper over the breakfast table before tackling her boiled egg and coffee.
A woman wearing a striped shirt blouse reads a newspaper over the breakfast table before tackling her boiled egg and coffee.

"We need media literacy as much as we need to learn to read." -- Jennifer Pozner

"The world will not be a better place when these fact-based news organizations die. We will be propelled into a culture where facts and opinions will be interchangeable, where lies will become true and where fantasy will be peddled as news. I will lament the loss of traditional news. It will unmoor us from reality." -- Chris Hedges

I like facts. My Facebook feed is somewhat abnormal in that I have more links to articles and news sources than pictures of my friends' children or the plate of steamed mussels they ate that day. I consider myself to be media literate. I work hard to find accurate information, so it disturbs me greatly when I find myself fact-checking sources I once deemed credible.

Normally, I criticize mainstream American media news outlets for their lack of representation, their choice of news stories, and try to highlight, in my classes, how the information we receive shapes our values, beliefs and how we view the world. In an election cycle when the media can and does shape how we choose our next president, the fact we have fewer and fewer sources to look to for credible information regarding those who are running is frightening. And it's only getting worse.

While it may be funny that a large number of Americans, when surveyed, thought it would be a great idea to bomb a fictional Disney country, or when the creator of Idiocracy muses that he never thought his film would become a documentary, the reality is that in this country, day by day, it's becoming more difficult to discern fact from fiction.

So here are a few things happening in the media landscape that we should be paying attention to if we don't want our democracy to completely erode.

1. Univision bought The Onion.

True story. So what are the implications? According to Meg James in a piece in the LA Times, "Univision is owned by four private equity firms and Los Angeles billionaire Haim Saban, who has long been a prominent backer of Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton."

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Saban Capital Group gave $2,531,783 to Secretary Clinton's campaign in 2016.

So, how has The Onion changed since Univision bought it? Only time will tell, but for a paper best known for its satirical attacks on all candidates and hotly debated issues, the idea that it may have to soften its attacks on Clinton due to its new owner should be troubling.

2. It's getting more difficult to parse truths.

Take this example from the New York Times. It claims in its headlines that "Left-Leaning Economists Question Cost of Bernie Sanders's Plans" and goes on to explain the critiques of Senator Sanders's health care plans and other economic policies from top economists on the left.

Dean Baker from the Center for Economic Policy and Research argued that:

While there are undoubtedly many left of center economists who have serious objections to the proposals Sanders has put forward, there are also many who have publicly indicated support for them. Remarkably, none of those economists were referenced in this article. In fact, to make its case on left of center economists' views, the NYT even presented the comments of Ezra Klein, who is neither an economist nor a liberal, by his own identification. It also misrepresented the comments of Jared Bernstein (a personal friend), implying that they were criticisms of Sanders' program. In fact his comments were addressed to the analysis of Sanders' proposals by Gerald Friedman, an economist at the University of Massachusetts who is not affiliated with the Sanders campaign. It also presented the comments of Brookings economist Henry Aaron about the views expressed by 'other economists in a 'lefty chat group' he joins online.' This would seem to violate the NYT's usual policy on anonymous sources.

Baker's piece was reposted on Bill Moyers and Company's website and because of pushback, the article now has added this disclaimer:

2/27/2016 Update: In response to this post and others calling for economists criticizing Senator Bernie Sanders's economic plan -- and economist Gerald Friedman's positive analysis of it -- to run the numbers, two of the four former heads of the Council of Economic Advisers have done just that. On Thursday, Christina Romer and David Romer released their own analysis of Friedman's numbers. In what The New York Times calls a 'careful forensic examination,' the University of California-Berkeley economists found Friedman's mathematical assumptions faulty or, at the very least, at odds with 'conventional economic thinking.' Get all the details at The New York Times. Dean Baker's response to the new numbers is here.

So why is this problematic? Because we live in filter bubbles or what Eli Pariser describes as "your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. And what's in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But the thing is that you don't decide what gets in. And more importantly, you don't actually see what gets edited out."

For Clinton supporters, if all they saw was the original piece in the New York Times and never came across Dean Baker's piece and the additional analysis by two former heads of the Council of Economic Advisors, they would have an incomplete picture. One that fits with their ideology but still incomplete.

Let's look at another example. Take the last Democratic debate. Or Super Saturday coverage. Or the Washington Post running 16 negative stories about Senator Sanders in a span of 16 hours? Which news outlets and which sources are still trustworthy? Whose voices should we be listening to? And should it really be *this* hard to find accurate information?

As Amanda Hess discusses in her analysis of the Bernie-Bro phenomenon:

The endlessly filterable nature of social media only exacerbates these problems. On Twitter, Facebook, and other online spaces, political debate often takes the form of anonymous randos pinging contextless nonsequiturs to one another. Thanks to Twitter's search functionality, nearly any vile viewpoint can be conjured instantly by plugging in the right combination of terms. Try #FeelTheBern + vagina, and you'll get a few hits from stray Bernie Bros (and some pro-Sanders women) that otherwise never would have surfaced for anyone but their own handful of followers. For online denizens grappling with big issues, Twitter provides some instant gratification. The underrepresentation of women in government is an intractable problem with no clear culprit, but a Bernie supporter's tweet can be screenshotted and copied and passed around; it's so real, you can almost touch it. And Sanders supporters are right that in both politics and media, power and influence are wielded by socially insular groups, and stitching together tweets and Wikipedia articles and social media connections to make that case furnishes the Sanders in-crowd with a satisfying visual.

Additionally, the numbers of Americans who obtain news from social media outlets continues to grow. Pew research shows that:

The share of Americans for whom Twitter and Facebook serve as a source of news is continuing to rise. This rise comes primarily from more current users encountering news there rather than large increases in the user base overall, according to findings from a new survey. The report also finds that users turn to each of these prominent social networks to fulfill different types of information needs.

In addition, as Christopher Joyce reports in analyzing how people respond to climate change data:

Basically the reason that people react in a close-minded way to information is that the implications of it threaten their values,' says Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale University and a member of The Cultural Cognition Project. Kahan says people test new information against their preexisting view of how the world should work. 'If the implication, the outcome, can affirm your values, you think about it in a much more open-minded way,' he says . . . .'The goal can't be to create a kind of psychological house of mirrors so that people end up seeing exactly what you want,' he argues. 'The goal has to be to create an environment that allows them to be open-minded.'And Kahan says you can't do that just by publishing more scientific data.

Josh Holland also argues that:

Widespread ignorance of objective reality poses a genuine threat to democracy. The people of the United States have ignorance in abundance. The way representative democracy is supposed to work is pretty simple: you protect the fundamental rights of the minority (so it doesn't become two wolfs and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner), and then the majority of citizens, acting in their own rational self-interest, elect representatives who will pursue the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens. That's the theory, but "rational" is a key word in that formulation. What happens when lots of citizens don't have a solid grasp of what's going on in the real world?

When we remain in our filter bubbles too long, we are essentially choosing our own news and choosing to ignore dissenting opinions. And social media only makes living in these bubbles easier.

So, what is the answer?

To start, we now have fact checking news sites to fact check news sites. According to The Brookings Institution and author Thomas E. Mann:

Most citizens are inadvertent consumers of news about politics and government, limited mostly to local television news dominated by crime, traffic and weather, with mere snippets of news related to public affairs, along with emails from family and friends forwarding materials that sound plausible but often are the opposite. Their lives are filled with responsibilities and interests that draw their attention away from election campaigns and policy battles. What little they know and learn about politics is often laden with misinformation and provides little basis for coming to public judgment beyond group identities, tribal loyalties and fleeting impressions of candidates and officeholders. There is no magic media elixir to inform and engage those, including perennial nonvoters, so removed from the public life of the nation. But some division of labor is essential and inevitable in a representative democracy--between the general public and elected officials, but also between the entire citizenry and the tens of millions of citizens who engage in more active and demanding forms of political participation, including reading about and discussing public affairs with their fellow citizens. That is the target audience for explanatory journalism . . . . Explanatory journalism aspires to provide essential context to the hourly flood of news--not simply a separate fact-checking operation but the mobilization of a rich array of relevant information made possible by new technology but presented to the public in accessible and digestible formats. It is fact-based and data-rich but doesn't shy away from making arguments that flow from the evidence--even at the risk of being charged with taking sides. It seeks to unravel the mysteries of policy and politics with historical and empirical context and speak openly and honestly about the stakes and drivers of our public life . . . . As David Leonhardt notes in the video part of this series, explanatory journalism will be successful when it is no longer a separate operation of news organizations but a central and unnamed part of their ongoing operations. While it is no panacea for what ails American democracy, explanatory journalism is the most promising development in the rapidly changing world of media and politics.

But is this enough? Will consumers really pay attention to fact checking sources, especially if these sources go against their existing beliefs?

The Columbia Journalism Review paints a particularly bleak outlook on how Facebook, in their words:

... is eating the world. ... Social media hasn't just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security. The phone in our pocket is our portal to the world. I think in many ways this heralds enormously exciting opportunities for education, information, and connection, but it brings with it a host of contingent existential risks. Journalism is a small subsidiary activity of the main business of social platforms, but one of central interest to citizens . . . . There are huge benefits to having a new class of technically able, socially aware, financially successful, and highly energetic people like Mark Zuckerberg taking over functions and economic power from some of the staid, politically entrenched, and occasionally corrupt gatekeepers we have had in the past. But we ought to be aware, too, that this cultural, economic, and political shift is profound. We are handing the controls of important parts of our public and private lives to a very small number of people, who are unelected and unaccountable. We need regulation to make sure all citizens gain equal access to the networks of opportunity and services they need. We also need to know that all public speech and expression will be treated transparently, even if they cannot be treated equally. This is a basic requirement for a functioning democracy . . . . Even if you think of yourself as a technology company, you are making critical decisions about everything from access to platforms, the shape of journalism or speech, the inclusion or banning of certain content, the acceptance or rejection of various publishers. What happens to the current class of news publishers is a much less important question than what kind of a news and information society we want to create and how can we help shape this.

In Sut Jhally's piece "Image Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture, he claims "As Noam Chomsky puts it (talking about the media general) in his book Necessary Illusions, 'Citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for meaningful democracy.' Such a course of action will not be easy, for the institutional structure of the image system will work against it. However, the invigoration of democracy depends upon the struggle being engaged."

How much is the average American willing to struggle to find legitimate sources of information? When public schools are slashing funding just to keep the lights on, how do we expect media literacy courses to enter the public realm?

If, as Pozner suggests, media literacy is as important as being able to read, when will we demand that every American has access to learning these skills? And if we do nothing? We become more isolated, more ideologically resistant to dissenting views, more polarized, and more uninformed. And, in the end, inhabiting a democracy that looks very undemocratic.

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