I took time off last week, and one of my goals was to return with something positive to say about the state of media as we approach the end of 2019. Forget about it.
Every time I turned on cable TV it was filled with talk of the latest conspiracy theory: that it was Ukraine meddling with our 2016 election in hopes of bringing down Donald Trump. And then there was local news showing Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young warning us about a white van and girls being “snatched” off the streets of Baltimore for their organs. Both narratives — false, by the way — are being put out there by officials unfiltered and unchecked.
Never in the last 100 years, going back to the beginning of radio and mass electronic communications, have Americans been so bombarded with misinformation, lies, propaganda and conspiracy theories. And never during the last century have some segments of the media — the ones that historically have been most focused on helping citizens sort through such informational chaos — been so weakened and embattled in their own struggles for survival.
It is easy, and appropriate, to blame President Trump. But the problem is even larger than the bone-deep dishonesty of his regime. There are at least three areas of unprecedented change in media and politics coming together to create this informational crisis and a rattled, confused and angry nation. The immediate question: How much worse will things get during the impeachment proceedings and election in the coming year?
The first development is centered around the Trump administration’s assault on truth. Other presidents have lied in big ways: Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam and Richard Nixon on Watergate, to name two. Americans and Vietnamese died as result of the former, while the Constitution and rule of law were seriously threatened by the latter.
But neither president lied about almost everything as Mr. Trump does, with the support of his administration. Their attack on truth and facts involves deleting information on global warming from the Environmental Protection Agency and keeping investigations secret from members of Congress and the public until a counter-narrative could be constructed, spread and allowed to set in as Attorney General William Barr did with the Mueller Report.
One of the president’s most dangerous games these days is using his office to pump conspiracy theories into the mainstream media ecosystem. The latest alleges that Ukraine ― not Russia ― is the country that meddled in our 2016 election. This is a narrative that definitely has the feel of coming straight from Mr. Putin’s mouth to Mr. Trump’s ear and then into mainstream media via Fox News.
That’s the second major and unprecedented development that has brought us to this sorry informational state: the rise of right wing media, like Fox News, Fox Business Network, Breitbart News, Sinclair Broadcast Group, the Daily Caller and others. Some of the outlets have gone all in with the president and his supporters in Congress to promote his lies and conspiracy theories. It’s a mighty echo chamber the likes of which conservatives have never known.
One of the ugliest examples of that right-wing echo chamber could be seen on Lou Dobbs’ Fox Business Network show Nov. 15 when he allowed one his recurring guests, attorney Joseph diGenova, to allege that not only was Ukraine the culprit in 2016 meddling, but American businessman and philanthropist George Soros was the mastermind. Not just wild, unsubstantiated allegations, but bald-faced anti-Semitism, too.
The third development is the rise of social media and the technological shredding of large portions of the legacy press. Most of the gatekeepers are gone, and there are only a few major platforms left ― like the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN ― to systematically try to sort through the lies coming from the White House, Congress and right-wing media on a daily basis. They can’t keep up, which allows the lying liars who lie to have a mainly open field on which to sow their conspiracy theories, propaganda and disinformation campaigns.
This is now the story of our times: Algorithm-driven social media feeding us urban-myths (like the one last week about the white van, which came from Facebook), and our political leaders spreading them further into the mainstream media and civic conversation without fact-checking.
I can’t find any good news about the media in any of that.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.