This article appears in our Analysis section because it represents Newsspeak’s view on problems with market incentives in the media. To the extent the article approaches this issue through the lense of a particular partisan group, it represents the views of the author and thus also carries an ‘Opinion’ designation.
La, de-da. This country is going down the tubes.
La, de-da. Things are worse now than ever.
La, de-da. We’re screwed…
It’s a new take on an old song. One that sounds cynical to some—and to others, like an obvious truth. The latter think the former are doe-eyed idealists while the former regard the latter as a bunch of bitter nostalgics.
While the merits of “end times” talk can be debated, there is something deeply dysfunctional about politics, discourse, and how we relate to one another more broadly in this moment. This division plays out on a larger stage in the media—partisanship, radicalized politics, and sensationalism in our news has eroded public trust—and the internet lends an unprecedented megaphone to the shouting.
How did we get here?
Today’s strain of misinformation and “fake news” probably has its roots in “Yellow Journalism,” an event which began in the late 1800s with William Randolph Hearst (the Roger Ailes of his day) and Joseph Pulitzer, both of whom ran emerging New York newspapers. Seeking any possible advantage, the two moguls fought a media arms race by printing increasingly sensational stories.
The fight reached its height in 1898 when the USS Maine exploded and sank in a harbor in Havana. The harbor was owned by Spain. By all accounts, the explosion was an accident. But to Hearst and Pulitzer, it was an opportunity. Following the incident, they stoked anti-Spanish sentiments by creating popular calls-to-action like “remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!”
Eventually, the play worked: America went to war with Spain. But actually, that was incidental. The true testament to the success of Yellow Journalism was the growth in newspaper sales—and indeed, those were incredible.
The state peddling information for reasons of public power goes way back, far further than Hearst or Pulitzer. But the period of “Yellow Journalism” was revolutionary in that it was the first time that propaganda was designed and distributed outside of government-controlled institutions for the express purpose of private, corporate gain. It was, in effect, the first time media companies got a taste of the rich commercial rewards of printing blood and smut on every page.
There would be no going back.
The creation of FoxNews in 1996 set off a chain reaction, the effects or which we are only now beginning to appreciate.
Ostensibly, FoxNews was created as a conservative response to the genuine (albeit minor) liberal bias that existed in mainstream media at the time. During its early years, the channel’s reporting fell largely in the country’s objective center. That still put it to the relative right of the other major news networks, but it was nothing like it is today.
Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, FoxNews started taking some large steps to the right. Viewers responded with record ratings.
It turns out that during times of turmoil conservatives, even moderate ones, want one thing above all else: clarity. Forget ambiguity and forget the grey, Conservatives want black and white. They want to hear the sound of cannons and watch an American flag as it waves in the wind. They want a clear “us” and a clear “them,” a clear “good guy” and a clear “bad guy.” They want to feel the solidarity of their tribe.
It was in a post-9/11 world that Fox became the leading—and, in many cases, the only—major news source for millions of Americans.
The War In Iraq
Fox loved President Bush and, even when things went sour in Iraq and in the economy, the coverage on FoxNews stayed far more favorable than on other networks. Really, it’s no wonder FoxNews stayed loyal to the Bush Administration. President Bush was, ultimately, part of their tribe—they voted for him and they believed in him.
President Bush said Al Qaeda attacked us on 9/11 because Muslims terrorists “hate our freedom,” and they believed him. He said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and they believed him. He said he was driven on a mission by God to invade Iraq and, you guessed it, they believed him.
FoxNews worked then as it works now, by stoking the flame of a natural human tendency—the tendency people have to seek information that confirms what we already believe. Sociologists have known about this phenomenon, called “confirmation bias,” for a long time.
Confirmation Bias is, basically, a positive feedback loop: The more strongly we believe something, the more likely we are to seek out information confirming that belief and, given the nature of modern media, the more confirming information we seek the more we shall find, and the more we find the greater our confidence, and the greater our confidence, the less likely we are to ever change our minds. It’s a vicious circle, one that enables FoxNews to reap the rewards of radical, tribal, conservatism in the worst possible way.
America The Tribal
Popular Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh put it best when he said:
“We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap.”
Over the past decade, the left has become increasingly heterogeneous, dividing itself again and again into a coalition of ever-smaller interest groups. The right, on the other hand, has become a cohesive tribe comprising mostly of non-urban, white Christians—people who purportedly stress the importance of traditional values above all else.
More than any other entity, more even than Trump, FoxNews is responsible for piecing together this loosely connected coalition of white, non-urban Christians and turning them into a single, unified group, one with a shared over-arching identity. FoxNews watchers are not just viewers of the same TV shows, they are members of the same tribe.
Continuing on this line, consider the fact that in 1950 married white Christians made up 80% of the voters in the United States. Back then this all-important group was split evenly split between the two parties. This is no longer the case. While today married, white Christians make up less than 40% of all voters, they are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Republican Party. Today, if you asked a random married, white Christian how they voted in the 2016 election, there is an 80% chance their answer will be Trump.
The Problem With Tribalism
What is wrong with loyally subscribing to the beliefs and values of those similar to yourself? From an evolutionary perspective – perhaps, nothing. The problem occurs when you place those beliefs and values above the public good, based on nothing more than an uncompromising loyalty to your own group. That is tribalism.
The particular form of tribalism that we are seeing today exists namely in Americans thinking of themselves first and foremost in terms of “I’m a Democrat” or “I’m a Republican”, as apart from their particular policy preferences.
What’s extraordinary is that, unlike Trump, FoxNews didn’t just tap into an already-existing (yet underrepresented) tribe. No, Fox actually created its own unique Frankensteinian super-identity from the decaying remains of more traditional racial, religious, and socioeconomic identities which were struggling to survive in the 21st Century. Ailes and Murdoch birthed it, pundits like Hannity and O’Reilly raised it, and the American public adopted it—the new American super-identity, the tribe of Fox.
Lilliana Mason explains the dangers of such tribalism in her book “Uncivil Agreement”:
Primal psychological influences such as motivated reasoning and social identity are capable of shifting and sometimes entirely determining the policies that citizens support.
More often than not, citizens do not choose which party to support based on policy opinion; they alter their policy opinion according to which party they support. Citizens want to believe that their political values are solid and well reasoned. More often, though, policy attitudes grow out of group-based defense. Partisanship muddies the folk pathway from interests to outcomes, sometimes sending a person in a wrong direction or further down a path than self-interest and values alone would dictate.
Put more simply, this means that the American public is becoming more polarized not because we differ more on policy issues, but because we are adhering to our tribes with an increasingly blind and uncompromising kind of loyalty. All of this, by the way, is great for ratings. Tribalism is to FoxNews what brand recognition is to Coca-Cola.
These Monetary Incentives Are In Conflict With Democracy
And that’s the problem: The incentives for commercial media companies are anathema to democracy. FoxNews perfected the craft, but its broader hold on the industry is apparent. There is no reason for a conservative talk show on Fox to settle for compromise or to try to calm irrational fears. Nor was there any reason for Rachel Maddow to stop portending Trump’s demise at the hands of Mueller when she was enjoying record ratings. And The New York Times benefited from a record number of new subscribers when it had a reason to get into the partisan trenches with Trump.
The media profits from maximizing ideological outrage and from exacerbating the “us” versus “them” mentality. This narrative of division is wedging America apart by encouraging people to hold ever tighter to the warm, reassuring bosom of their tribe. The tribes, in turn, are pushing further toward ideological extremes, where we pliant tribesmen too easily follow.