Boy, it sure seems like Americans can’t get along, doesn’t it?
If you spend any time on social media, you’re bound to be inundated with news stories and videos that drive you crazy; that make you feel angry; that make you want to get involved in the discussion in order to counteract whomever or whatever is doing the thing that’s getting you amped up in the first place. If you spend any time on social media, you’re likely to see reactions to a story that you don’t agree with; ones that line up with the actions of those whom you want to counteract. All of this creates conflict, and not just with random people online, but also with our friends and even family. Obviously, that’s not to say that politics have ever been a particularly welcome topic of conversation at the dinner table (it’s one of the two infamous topics to avoid at Thanksgiving, right along with religion, for a reason). However, the increasing intensity of the disagreements has led to people losing long-standing relationships with those that they care about and has led to political violence in the streets.
How did we get here? It’s easy to blame ‘fake news’; everyone does that, regardless of what side you fall on on the traditional political spectrum. However, while there are many examples of what could be called ‘fake news’ online, the deeper cause of this mistrust, I argue, isn’t the sort of clickbait article that might be shared on your Facebook or Twitter feeds. Those websites are capitalizing on a vacuum of trusted news outlets. The bigger issue at hand here is what caused that vacuum of trust in the first place. Why are people so distrustful of news media, and are they right to be?
Now, I’m not the first person to try to answer this question: many, many others have attempted this feat, and they have dedicated thousands upon thousands of words in order to do so. Many different conclusions have been drawn from these investigations and stories, but they usually boil down to one word: money. Whether that’s something like the difficulty in funding investigative journalism or the aforementioned clickbait driving up engagement (and, therefore, profit), these answers usually come down to money.
I’m not here to say that all of those theories are wrong: quite the contrary, in fact. I believe that they’re absolutely right. However, what I will attempt to do with this episode is to explain how America’s current media dynamic sows division and distrust, along with providing what might be a somewhat embarrassing (or humorous) realization to those that may not have thought about it before.
In order to highlight what’s wrong, I think it’d be best to try and describe what journalism is supposed to do, in a perfect world. To that end, I went hunting for a snappy quote to introduce this segment with. While doing so, I found approximately 156.7625-repeating quotes that had very little to do with each other and that had all attempted to be utterly profound in their own ways. Simply put, American society is so damn fractured that it can’t even agree on what one of its most basic institutions is supposed to do.
That’s…not a great sign.
The one common thread that the quotes did have was a desire to speak truth, regardless of who’s happy or unhappy to hear it; and I think that that’s a sentiment that most people can get behind, regardless of ideology.
So, if you consume good journalism, you should know what’s going on in the world, correct? That would logically follow, after all. And, if you don’t know what’s happening, despite consuming news programming, it would logically follow that the news that you’re watching isn’t good journalism.
In order to find out which viewers knew the most about the goings on of the world, a rather famous survey was conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University in 2012. They asked 1,185 respondents four international politics questions and five domestic politics questions. The results of the survey were rather interesting for multiple reasons. The reason that many people led with was that people who only watch Fox News got fewer answers right than those that didn’t watch any news at all in either category: Fox News viewers got 1.08 international questions right as opposed to those who watched no news who got 1.28 international questions correct; they scored 1.04 and 1.22, respectfully, regarding domestic questions.
I think that those articles buried the lede there, though, because that wasn’t the most interesting-or, ultimately, important-finding of the survey. In that same survey, viewers of MSNBC ALSO knew less than those who watched no news regarding international affairs, with MSNBC viewers only getting 1.23 international questions right. Regarding domestic questions, MSNBC viewers scored better than those who watched no news at all, getting 1.26 questions right, tied with CNN viewers. For those wondering, CNN viewers got 1.33 international questions correct, so they at least topped those who watched no news in knowledge of events at that time. Congratulations on clearing that low bar, I suppose.
Neither of these findings mattered as much as comparing the viewers of cable news versus other news sources, however. The truly fascinating and important finding of this survey was just how many viewers/consumers of other programming were more knowledgeable than cable news channel viewers. Here’s the list of only domestic news sources that scored better at educating their viewers/listeners on both international and domestic fronts: NPR, Sunday shows, talk radio, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. That’s right: a half-hour comedy show educated its viewers better than the 24-hour news networks. WHAT? In no way should that ever occur.
Now, this is obviously an old survey (just over nine-years-old, at the time of this recording). That being said, have any of the 24-hour news networks done anything to change or improve this? I’d argue that they haven’t: they still run the same style of shows with the same format that they have since that survey was conducted, with only the rare “asking voters on the ground” type segments and the Malaysian flight hoopla (which was horrible and uninformative in its own unique way) breaking the monotony.
So, what do these 24-hour news networks prioritize? It clearly isn’t the news, as viewers consistently knew less than those only watching a half-hour comedy show. Well, they prioritize entertaining their viewers to drive ratings, of course. And how do they entertain their viewers?
Conflict. Fighting. About every little thing under the sun, no matter how innocuous or unimportant the conflict is in the lives of their viewers and Americans writ large. The executives couldn’t care less if their viewers are actually learning anything, as long as they keep coming to watch the fight. News companies: “they don’t want you to think; they want you to feel.”
Now, that last quote didn’t come from a professional news media analyst; it came from Eric Bischoff, a famous/infamous pro wrestling promoter. Which brings me to the somewhat embarrassing (or humorous) take that I referenced earlier: cable news media is pro wrestling (without a payoff).
Now that take might be a bit shocking; after all, they seem like two very different forms of content. However, they both actually share a lot of similarities in terms of structure. So, let’s break it down, starting with the basic format of both.
On a typical pro wrestling show (in story), you have multiple different programs (often called ‘feuds’), each one revolving around a conflict between a good guy or girl vs. a bad guy or girl. They then fight to determine who triumphs. In said fight, there’s a good guy or girl, a bad guy or girl, a neutral referee, and a neutral announce team (one member being more affiliated with the good guy or girl, another being affiliated with the bad guy or girl).
On a typical cable news show, you have multiple different topics or news stories, each one revolving around a conflict between the Democrats and Republicans (with the occasional intra-party fight thrown in). They then argue to determine who ‘triumphs,’ or who has the better argument. In said segment, there’s a representative from one side, a representative from another side, and a neutral anchor, who fills the role of both the referee and the announce team framing the story.
They don’t seem so different now, huh? After all, in both cases, “they don’t want you to think; they want you to feel.”
Now, there are two major differences between the two. One, wrestling feuds usually have some sort of payoff to their stories, and cable news shows don’t. Two, more importantly, cable news shows deal with conflicts that are happening in reality, whereas pro wrestling typically only deals with fiction. That being said, if these conflicts that the cable news discusses are covered with all the gravity given to a very basic white hat vs. black hat morality play, does it ultimately matter that much what’s being fought over? Are the viewers any more informed? The data that we have on that subject would argue ‘no.’
The way in which stories are chosen also reflects this pro wrestling mindset that cable news executives have. If you can’t paint the picture as ‘one side vs. another side’ then the topic rarely gets discussed. How many substantive conversations have you seen on cable news about healthcare? Climate change? International trade? Immigration? Income inequality? The rising cost of housing? The rising cost of living? The failed drug war? The nation’s terrible infrastructure? There really aren’t that many, especially measured against the importance of each issue to the future of Americans. Why? Well, for many of these issues, it’s hard to pit one side definitively against the other, and so they view it as a difficult sell on TV. After all: “they don’t want you to think; they want you to feel.”
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this connection is the reliance on individual politicians to drive said conflict. This style of news programming is ripped directly out of chapter one, page one of the pro wrestling promoter’s handbook. To quote Bischoff reminiscing about the first lesson he learned from his mentor in promoting, Verne Gagne, “When it comes to the audience, it doesn’t really matter if they love a wrestler or hate them, as long as they feel passionately one way or the other. Business would be good.” Cable news executives employ this strategy all the time, usually regarding a politician that their audience should hate. On the right, Fox News talks all the time about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, and before them, they would talk non-stop about Barack Obama and the Clintons (whom they adopted from talk radio). On the left (though, in this case, they’re really only culturally left), MSNBC and CNN talk about Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Ron DeSantis, and, the best example of this phenomenon at work, Donald Trump.
Before I get into how the coverage of Donald Trump best exemplifies this form of news media discussion, I just want to make it known that I’m not attempting to make a false equivalency between the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s of the world and the Marjorie Taylor-Greene’s of the world: I firmly agree with AOC on much more than MTG on the issues, and I find AOC to have far more interesting things to say. This isn’t to create some sort of equivalency between the two sides, but rather the way they are covered in the media.
Now, on to the best example of personality driving conflict and viewership within news media in the modern age: Donald Trump. According to mediaQuant, a firm that computes the value of news coverage based on advertising money, Donald Trump got nearly $2 billion worth of free media coverage during the 2016 presidential campaign (primaries and general). That’s ‘billion,’ with a ‘b.’ Why did he receive so much coverage? Well, because he made a bunch of controversial statements, many of them terrible, and he drove conflict. This, of course, didn’t stop after he became president. According to the Washington Post, between 2014 and 2019, the primetime ratings of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News cumulatively went up from 2.8 million viewers per night to 5.3 million viewers per night. The drop in ratings of CNN and MSNBC after Trump left office was just about as precipitous, with CNN losing 45% of its primetime audience between January 2021 and March 2021. MSNBC lost 26% of its viewers over the same time frame. Fox News only lost 6%, though that’s likely due to Fox News simply finding something else for its viewers to hate.
Donald Trump isn’t the smartest man in the world, to put it lightly. However, he’s very good at two things that the news media craves: generating passion and creating conflict (after all, he’s in the WWE hall of fame for that reason). As Les Moonves, the former head of news for CBS News infamously said about Trump’s rise during the 2016 presidential election: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” In other words, business was good, regardless if you hated Trump or liked him. And that’s how the news media operated for Trump’s presidency: covering the man 24/7 and focusing on him, rather than on the many issues that face the country and its people (though, to be fair, Trump did create issues of importance, to be sure).
As a result of the news media devolving into covering the news like pro wrestling, the people who consumed that over and over again for years are now more fearful of their neighbors. They feel threats around every corner. People are more and more willing to engage in violence in the streets. Much of this newfound animosity comes from people constantly consuming media that encourages them to be afraid, and to be angry. Remember: “they don’t want you to think; they want you to feel.”
So, knowing that cable news media is incentivized to drive conflict in order to increase their revenue, how can we reverse the trend toward anger and violence that we’ve seen over the course of the last few years or so? What’s the solution?
There are multiple different answers to that question, so let’s briefly analyze them.
One is to just disconnect altogether; to ignore politics as best you can. I think that this isn’t a great solution, as politicians and their wealthy backers will find countless ways to mess with you and your life if you ignore them.
Another is to find alternative sources of media, mostly from online sources. This can be an effective solution…or the worst possible solution (they’re trying to make you feel, too, after all). It all depends on which sources you go to and how you consume their stories. People can be very easily tricked into believing stories that just aren’t true factually (real ‘fake news’ as it were) and being swept away into true conspiracy territory. However, if you find sources that are willing to tell you both good and bad news, with an eye toward giving the consumers facts, then that can be helpful as well. It all depends on your ability to weed out the bad sources and find the good ones.
The ability to discern between the two is vital, which leads me to my third, and I think best, solution: improving the way in which you consume news media. Before you read or watch anything news related, just go in knowing that it’s trying to make you angry about something. Be mindful of the inevitable bias that will come into the story, from the writer, from the news source, and from yourself. Try to find multiple sources that corroborate the story, preferably from both sides of the traditional political spectrum. Most importantly, take a deep breath before you get into the news, and try to consider stories that you consume intellectually first, rather than emotionally.
In short, if the cable news media outlets “don’t want you to think,” then that’s exactly what you and I should be doing. We might all become a little less angry and a little more compassionate toward each other if we do.
It couldn’t hurt to try, in any case.
Thank you for listening. As you can see, I leaned on Eric Bischoff’s TED Talk pretty heavily for this episode. The video is called “Why the News Media is stealing from the Pro Wrestling playbook.” It’s on YouTube, it’s about seventeen minutes long, and it’s definitely worth a watch. I highly recommend it, though you might want to skip the first two minutes; it’s a prime example of how a very confused audience reacts to things that they don’t understand.