U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Warp Speed: The Media and Democratized Ignorance

Media Signpost Showing Internet Television Newspapers MagazinesIn my last post on “democratized anti-knowledge,” I began with a discussion a BBC article that featured the work of Robert Proctor. In the process I covered Naomi Oreskes’ and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt (2010). My goal was to broaden the conversation about ignorance beyond the realms of politics and science—to “deeper currents that cut across other streams of ignorance—namely, the issues of agency, power, and capitalism.” I promised at the end of my last post to extend the discussion to the media.

The historical works considered in the prior post, by Proctor, Oreskes, and Conway, demonstrate it’s not so much that the Internet is making us stupid—questions tackled by Nicholas Carr in his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.[1] Rather, given these histories and others, today’s forms of deliberate and accidental ignorance are just more amplified—quicker to the marketplace of ideas. They have a new speed of heat.

Even worse than heat has been the warp. This new warp speed has, ironically, been enabled by the elusive ideals of fairness and balance. I don’t mean the crude, mocking fair-and-balanced mantra a certain media outlet, but by sincere attempts my professionals to give “both sides of the story” (think NPR). Georgina Kenyon’s piece gets at this point in these passages:

Proctor explains that ignorance can often be propagated under the guise of balanced debate. For example, the common idea that there will always be two opposing views does not always result in a rational conclusion. This was behind how tobacco firms used science to make their products look harmless, and is used today by climate change deniers to argue against the scientific evidence.

“This ‘balance routine’ has allowed the cigarette men, or climate deniers today, to claim that there are two sides to every story, that ‘experts disagree’ – creating a false picture of the truth, hence ignorance.”

Oreskes and Conway address the topic more specifically in discussions of “The Fairness Doctrine.” When journalists treat loaded questions posed by oppositional figures as legitimate, it would “create the impression of controversy.” The merchants of doubt, beginning in the 1950s, could “transmogrify emerging scientific consensus into raging scientific ‘debate’.” Oreskes and Conway speculate that the 1949 Fairness Doctrine, which required journalists “to dedicate airtime to controversial issues of public concern in a balanced manner,” actually helped feed public ignorance. Although the Fairness Doctrine technically applied to television, Oreskes and Conway believe that print journalists applied the balance ethic to tobacco and other controversial topics. They summarize: “Balance was interpreted, it seems, as giving equal weight to both sides, rather than giving accurate weight both sides.” Near the end of their book, the authors cite Alexis de Tocqueville (“a confused clamor rises on every side”) and William Ophuls (“electronic barbarism”) to inveigh against “equal time” on matters of settled, consensus science. [2]

That something deeper might be in play, however, is hinted at by Oreskes and Conway. They note that even more sophisticated journalists, such as Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Edward R. Murrow, and William Randolph Hearst Jr. accepted, in the 1950s, the tobacco industry’s view of doubt about science that would harm their product. It is one thing for journalists to accept questions of doubt early, but what about the persistence of views that science was unsettled for decades after the science was, in fact, rock solid? This happened for nearly 40 years in relation to tobacco, but also ozone and climate change research. Oreskes and Conway continue to blame not just “right-wing outlets” but also the “prestige” and liberal press as well. To all of them, “‘balance’ had become a form of bias, whereby the media coverage was biased in favor of minority—in some cases extreme minority—views.” The only concession that Oreskes and Conway give the media is that a sickness of “free market fundamentalism” (George Soros’ phrase) has infected media producers and consumers alike. A deformation of capitalism has fed a warped media environment.[3]

The negative perspective of Oreskes and Conway on the media’s role (i.e. getting played) in postwar American life stands in sharp contrast with the work of Michael Schudson. Schudson explains why a negative perspective arose, but points to a larger, positive change in journalism that lay beneath the perceptions of negativity.

Schudson-RiseIn a chapter of his 2015 book, The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945-1975 (Harvard), on role of journalism, Schudson narrates how a formerly positive group known as “the press” became a despicable, contemptible entity known as “the media.” He asserts this is because politicians painted journalists as merely adversarial—as self-serving political enemies who distorted the good intentions of honest politicians and then complained about a debilitated political system. This was exemplified by the Nixon White House, who declared the media, to quote former Nixon speechwriter William Safire, “the enemy.” With that, “the media” become an entity that could be justifiably manipulated. Safire’s “enemy” declaration matters to Schudson because it demonstrates “proof of impact.” Journalists with “a growing critical edge” had, during the 1960s, become formidable. [4]

How did this happen? The media, Schudson argues, became a force because of “investigative journalism.” This “more open, more inquisitive…more aggressive, more negative” journalism resisted canned events and “staged transparency.” Schudson integrates this transformation of the press into “a broader cultural change that made the news media a chief constituent of the opening up of American society”—“not simply its transcriber.” He argues this transformation resulted from “several closely connected developments: [a] government …[that] grew larger and more engaged in people’s everyday lives; …journalists [who] asserted themselves more aggressively than before; and many governmental institutions [that] became less secretive and more attuned to the news media, eager for media attention and approval.” All in all, Schudson continues, “news coverage became at once more probing, more analytical, and more transgressive of conventional lines between public and private.” [5]

While covering much of the same time frame, Schudson’s narrative runs in the opposite direction as that of Oreskes and Conway. Instead of blindly following tenets of fairness to the point of untruth, Schudson’s journalists are probing, Dr. Jones-like seekers of hidden truths and artifacts. As you might expect, Schudson’s whiggish argument about journalistic progress doesn’t acknowledge any of the problems of fairness fetishized. But then he provides a clue to our current media environment, before backing away from a powerful countercurrent (bolds mine):

Not only did the news media grow in independence and professionalism and provide more comprehensive and more critical coverage of powerful institutions, but powerful institutions adapted to a world in which journalists had a more formidable presence than ever before. ….Presence is what the media acquired by the late 1960s. Presence meant not a seat at the table but an internalization in the minds of political decision makers that the media were alert, powerful, and by no means sympathetic. [6]

In a review I recently drafted of Schudson’s book, I criticize him for not spending more time on the bolded adaptation he references above. Schudson is set on telling a story of opening. He wants the 1950s and 1960s to demonstrate the “rise of the right to know,” even before the cultural openings recognized in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And his story is not entirely wrong, except that he leaves the backlash and adaptation in the background, unexplored and mostly unacknowledged. The focus on opening the proverbial front window ignores how the back one was closed and false window was installed on the side.

In addition, in Schudson’s telling the cultural, social, and legal fracture documented by Daniel Rodgers, and pushed by market forces never hits journalism. Newspapers faced increased competition from a more prominent television news apparatus (think of Walter Cronkite’s rise to prominence in the 1960s), and more diverse array of periodicals and television offerings. Susan Jacoby documented some of this trend, with her characteristic flair if somewhat morosely, in her 2008 book, the Age of American Unreason (in chapter ten, “Culture of Distraction”). Because of these forces, whatever opening that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s could not be sustained. And the changes from print toward television (and cable) news would accelerate in the early 1990s. Quick hits, repeated on the hour, replaced the gains in investigative journalism documented by Schudson. This fractured warped our consumption of news media.

Schudson also doesn’t cover how journalism was reworked into a tool for ideology. Proctor’s work doesn’t enter into Schudson’s account. Despite its prominent successes, investigative journalism was itself a tool that could be harnessed for purposes that warped reality and confused private and public goods. And if the Fairness Doctrine resulted in a sheen of balance that covered bias, then what happened after it was revoked in 1987? Was bias lessened? It’s not like Rush Limbaugh’s radio program (which reached national audiences in 1988) and its imitators fostered media trends toward the service of a public it didn’t agree existed, at least not in the “liberal” contours Limbaugh imagined that “fairness” had fostered. Public television and the media were Nixonian enemies, players in a Culture War that had disrespected conservative values.

This post obviously doesn’t definitively answer the question of how to minimize bias and promote fairness in journalism. Rather, this brief exploration underscores a tension in the historiography about what “the media” has done to, or for, American citizens since the 1960s. The net effect seems negative, but it’s not clear why. If ignorance has, in fact, become more democratized, what has been the role of journalism in that devolution? Is it, ironically, a product of the Information Age? Or more specifically is it an effect, delivered at warp speed, of the rise of the Internet as a personalized and fragmented news source? If so, the new warp speed only further distorted a content warping that has occurred since the 1970s. – TL


[1] Here are two shorter pieces (one from 2008 and this one from 2010) that get at the heart of Carr’s book. The question of the Internet and amplification is also raised anew in Kenyon’s article when she shifts her discussion to the work of David Dunning, a Cornell University psychologist.

[2] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010), 18-19, 240.

[3] Ibid., 242-43, 249.

[4] Michael Schudson, The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945-1975 (Cambridge: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2015), 135-37.

[5] Ibid., 141-144.

[6] Ibid., 144-145.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. From a story that appeared today in The Nation:
    But there’s one major difference between other workers and journalists—when the latter are laid off, the commonweal suffers. “You know who loves this new day of the lack of journalism? Politicians. Businessmen. Nobody’s watching them anymore,” says Russ Kendall, a lifelong photojournalist and editor who is now self-employed as a pizza maker.

    There are still print newspapers—and news websites—producing heroic local journalism. But it’s clear that the loss of a combined several hundred thousand years of experience from newsrooms across the country is hurting American democracy.

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