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Mainstream Media is Worse Than Silence
If your Big Picture is wrong, say nothing.
Richard Hanania is the only living essayist I rush to read. All of his pieces are clever, thoughtful, original, earnest, and funny - and his latest, “Why the Media is Honest and Good” - is no exception. Not only is it packed with wise observations; Richard zeroes in on the right question: “Compared to what?” And his description of his first-hand experience matches my own:
Personally, I’ve always been treated well by the mainstream press. My name has been mentioned in six different articles in the New York Times, excluding one op-ed I wrote myself, and four articles in the Washington Post, excluding two where I was the author. I’ve also seen my work talked about in Politico, New York, and other publications, in addition to press coverage of work others have done for CSPI. In practically every instance I can remember, my views or the CSPI research has been presented fairly and accurately, and I have practically no complaints about the coverage. This is despite me being anti-woke and often deliberatively provocative.
Even so, I believe the mainstream media is awful - and I’m prepared to answer Richard’s “Compared to the what?” challenge.
The mainstream media is awful compared to silence.
If I could either have the media keep saying and writing what they currently say and write, or shut down forever, I strongly prefer the latter. Seriously.
To see where I’m coming from, consider this thought experiment from Michael Huemer:
Suppose you learned that there was a school staffed mainly by right-leaning teachers and administrators. And at this school, an oddly large number of lessons touch upon, or perhaps center on, bad things that have been done by Jews throughout history. None of the lessons are factually false – all the incidents related are things that genuinely happened and all were actually done by Jewish people. For example, murders that Jews committed, times when Jews started wars, times when Jews robbed or exploited people. (I assume that you know that it’s possible to fill up quite a lot of lessons with bad things done by members of whatever ethnic group you pick.) The lessons for some reason omit or downplay good things done by Jews, and omit bad things done by other (non-Jewish) people. What would you think about this school?
I hope you agree with me that this is a story of a blatantly racist and shitty school. It would be fair to describe the school as promoting hatred toward Jewish people, even if none of the lessons explicitly stated that one should hate Jews. I hope you also agree that no parent or voter should tolerate a public school that operated like this.
Now, what if the school’s right-wing defenders explained that there was actually nothing the slightest bit racist or otherwise objectionable about the school, because it was only teaching facts of history? All these things happened. You don’t want to lie or cover up the history, do you?
I hope you agree with me that this would be a pathetic defense.
This is how I see mainstream media. The problem isn’t limited to race, gender, and sexual orientation, where Richard agrees that the media is crazy. The problem isn’t specific factual errors, either. The central problem is that the mainstream media’s standard operating standard is to use selective presentation to spread absurd views about practically everything that matters.
Nor is this a recent failing! Mainstream media has been deplorable for as long as I can remember. Let me list some of its chief sins against the Big Picture.
Endlessly complaining about alleged social problems. Poverty, the environment, racism, Covid, Ukraine, terrorism, immigration, education, drugs, Elon… Even if all of the coverage were true, the media is still - per Huemer - aggressively promoting the absurd view that life is on balance terrible and reliably getting worse.
Painting government intervention as the obvious solution to social problems. Often the media openly asks loaded questions to this effect, like “Why isn’t the government doing more about this?!” with an exasperated tone. The rest of the time, they rely on heavy-handed insinuation, like “The people of Flint, Michigan feel like they’ve been forgotten.” Forgotten by who? Government Our Savior, of course. Mainstream media barely considers whether past government policies have worked, or how much they cost, or whether they have important downsides.
Spreading innumeracy. The media endlessly shows grotesque stories about ultra-rare problems like terrorism, plane crashes, police murdering innocents, school shootings, toddlers dying of Covid, and the like. They show almost nothing about statistically common problems like car crashes or death by old age. The media doesn’t just spread paranoia; it spreads inverted paranoia.
Promoting Social Desirability Bias. The media standardly talks as if stuff that superficially sounds good is reliably good, and stuff that superficially sounds bad is reliably bad. As a result, they foment hostility to good stuff that sounds bad, and engender support for bad stuff that sounds good. If a firm downsizes due to technological change, what are the odds that the media chides, “This is how progress works! Tractors put a lot of farmers out of work, too, you know”? If the government cuts spending, what are the odds that the media muses, “We could interview the visible losers, but that’s hardly fair unless we interview the invisible winners. Which we can’t do, so let’s just move on.”
Whipping up support for the latest crusade. Like me, Hanania wasn’t happy with the media’s Covid coverage. But I say the problem goes way back. Just in my living memory, the media has promoted mass hysterias about Islamist Iran (“the hostage crisis”), the War on Drugs, “Free Kuwait,” the War on Terror, the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis, Covid, Black Lives Matter, and now the Ukraine War. The mere fact that they keep these topics in the news for months or years, with almost no skeptical or apathetic voices, is a thinly-veiled declaration that “These are the most important problems on Earth - and we should all enthusiastically be on the bandwagon to solve them.” Yet in hindsight, the problems the media deems important are highly arbitrary, and the bandwagon usually turns out to be a major problem in itself.
An old joke talks about being “mugged by reality.” When mainstream media speaks, it is reality that gets mugged. Truly, mainstream media is the great Mugger of Reality. Even when its individual stories are rock solid, it promotes a deeply false Big Picture of the world. And unless you have the intellectual steel to constantly remind yourself, “This is a horribly misleading perspective,” consuming media tends to make you believe this deeply false Big Picture.
What’s the alternative? Most people would have a better Big Picture if they went cold turkey. Read no newspapers. Watch no television news. In plenty of cases, this would lead people to be entirely unaware of a problem that - like a mosquito bite - is best ignored. Yes, doing nothing about Covid wasn’t the ideal solution, but doing nothing was better than what we did.
The rest of the time, news-free people would just base their views on first-hand experience, which, though biased, is much less biased than standard media coverage. Most people’s first-hand experience with immigrants, for example, is at least moderately positive. Without the media, they would never see scary pictures of the border to ignite their xenophobia.
Richard is right that alternative media is awful in its own way. Mainstream media spreads a terrible worldview, but tries to get the trivia right. Alternative media is even more negligent. As a result, I’m personally happier talking to mainstream journalists than alternative journalists - though I’m ever-eager to talk to any journalist who’s eager to talk to me. I’m glad to do my part to make the media - mainstream and alternative - better. Yet from a cosmic point of view, I would be overjoyed if the mainstream media packed up and went home.
Wouldn’t even worse journalists just fill the void? That would be one effect. Yet the bigger effect, I warrant, would be a Great De-escalation. Remember what Richard tells us about conservatives’ deepest motivation:
I like the idea of understanding people’s true motivations not just by what they say, but what they seem to have the strongest emotional reaction to. No matter what liberals tells you, opposing various forms of “bigotry” is the center of their moral universe. For conservatives, the equivalent is clearly hatred of the left.
The media is the highest-profile segment of the left - even higher-profile than the current government. So if the mainstream media disbanded itself, what would happen? Pessimists will insist that conservatives would figure out how to keep their anger at its current level, but that’s unlikely. As Richard says in his all-time most-read post, conservatives just don’t care that much about politics. The mainstream media has to provoke conservatives day after day to keep them engaged and enraged. Conservatives’ natural state is complacency.
If mainstream media shut up, conservatives’ initial reaction would admittedly be total disbelief. “What are they trying to pull?” After a year or two, however, disbelief would turn to relief - and most conservatives would refocus their lives on harmless apolitical substitutes like sports, cooking, and the like. I’m not saying it would be Utopia… but it would be Utopia.
According to Richard, mainstream media is a lot better than academia:
I would argue that much of academia is broken in the way that a lot of media critics think the press is. In many fields, reading the scholarly literature will either be worthless or actually make you dumber. The press largely works though, and I’m afraid that if we dismiss the Atlantic as crude propaganda that is destroying society we won’t have any words left to describe Queer Studies or much of bioethics.
I disagree - and my actions show it. I consume near-zero mainstream media, but I voraciously read history and empirical social science. While they’re flawed and biased, they rarely makes you dumber. Perhaps to Richard’s horror, I’m even happy to read papers that purport to measure “democracy.” At least they’re trying to address a timelessly important question, instead of promoting the hysteria of the century of the week.
Yet even so, I’m open to the possibility that the world would be a better place if historians and empirical social scientists all shut up forever. Despite all the informative research they supply, perhaps the overwhelming left-wing bias transforms these occupations into a net negative. It’s an academic cliche, but further research is needed.
Cost-benefit analysis of the mainstream media, by way of contrast, is an easy call. Remember Huemer’s thought experiment. Dwell upon it. Spreading a terrible Big Picture is the main thing the media does. Richard appreciates their in-depth coverage of Lebanese bank robbers and Liberian cannibals, but I say these are further expressions of the paranoid innumeracy the media tirelessly promotes. If the latest tale of odd woe is outside the first-hand experience of anyone you know, you don’t need to hear about it.
In Bambi, Thumper the rabbit famously mopes, “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” Though it’s a fine maxim for children, I strongly favor saying ugly things as long they’re true and important. Ideally, the media would follow suit. Unless they fix their Big Picture, however, they can’t do so. And since they are extremely unlikely to fix their Big Picture, the next best thing is for the media is to exit the world of ideas forever.
P.S. If you work in the media and are reading this with an open mind, I’m not talking about you! Thanks for making a bad situation better, I sincerely appreciate it.