How Mainstream Media Can Stop Itself and Other Institutions from Being Destroyed by Tribal Politics
David Roberts recently wrote a fascinating description of the position of mainstream media within the context of tribal politics in the U.S. today.
Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology
Back in November 2009, as the Obama backlash was just gathering steam, Rush Limbaugh devoted a segment of his radio…
As the stories of Sherlock Holmes illustrate, when one carefully observes and notes all the relevant aspects of a problem, the answer may naturally emerge. Sometimes the solution doesn’t emerge from the original observer, but from someone else from a different walk of life, who reads or hears about the original observations, and applies a different perspective.
Roberts’ article made the history and issues here clear enough to me, that potential solutions just popped into my mind, as I read and analyzed from my own viewpoint. I’m a clinical psychologist with a strong interest in social psychology. I often think in terms of systems. Systemic thinking and acting, on the part of media and other institutions, could solve a lot of the problems here.
Besides thinking systemically, a related solution is stopping one’s denial of reality. We all deny reality sometimes. It’s one of the basic defense mechanisms discovered by Freud. Sometimes denial can be related to failing to think in terms of systems. When people who are immersed in different subsystems communicate with one another, they see different aspects of the issue, and can help pull each others’ heads out of the sand. They uncover aspects of reality that were invisible to people living inside a different institutional bubble. People begin to solve problems that they couldn’t solve before, because they couldn’t see them clearly.
I earned one of my degrees at a university where the engineering department took up half of one floor of a building, while the psychology department took up the other half. The professors were quite pleased with the arrangement. The psychologists helped the engineers with their writing. The engineers helped the psychologists to fix machines they used to do research. Each side was great at doing tasks that were difficult for many on the other side of the building. I’ve often thought that every university ought to mix up their psychology and engineering department offices.
Here is one example of the power of becoming aware of systems, in the field of media. A news consumer can gain a fuller understanding of the news, when media go beyond reporting on individual events. If every event is treated as a separate fragment unrelated to other events, the whole society can easily make big shifts without media noticing it. For example, a society can slip into an authoritarian “new normal.” In contrast to this, some writers are now pointing out a pattern of violation of norms in government, and its effects. That ratchets up people’s awareness level of what is happening over time.
Roberts quotes journalist Melik Kaylan, who says that “no ‘normalization’ happens under the corrective effect of institutions. Rather institutions themselves get eroded.” That often is the case. However, what if media reported well on the big picture of events, and on the impact of events on society and its systems? That kind of reporting might fortify institutions enough to keep them from being eroded.
Roberts discusses four systems or institutions — the supposed “Four Corners of Deceit” labeled and vilified by Rush Limbaugh in 2009. They are the media, government, academia, and science. I prefer to call them Four Corners of Democracy instead.
That discussion brings to my mind some ways in which these Four Corner institutions can cooperate within their own systems and across systems. They can help each other think of ways to defend themselves and support each other.
Rebecca Costa, in her 2010 book, The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse
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advocates thinking systemically, in order to avoid “silo thinking.” Silo thinking is one of five mistakes she describes that must be fixed in order to solve systemic problems that affect organizations nations, or the world. For example, she suggests that NASA and the Department of Energy should share information that is relevant to both systems. People from other different systems could also share resource, or collaborate. Sharing among the Four Corners could help keep democratic norms and institutions from being eroded.
Let’s look at the Four Corners in terms of geometry metaphors. If we connect one or more of the “Four Corners”, we could create new structures: for example a rectangle from joining four Corners, a triangle from joining three Corners, or at least a line between two otherwise lonely Corners. For example, broad conferences on issues in journalism, science, academia and government/law could be conducted. People from those fields could brainstorm and share perspectives about how to prevent erosion of their own and others’ institutions.
Since Trump took office, the media have felt the brunt of his criticism, as compared to the other three Corners. Much of government is controlled by the president’s own party. Academia and science haven’t posed serious obstacles to Trump’s agenda. The media, however, stand between Trump and the impression he wants to convey to the public. Maybe it’s time to find ways to connect media to some of the other Corners, in ways that could help all of them.
One of the potentially positive aspects of Trump’s presidency may be that we will all have to awaken from our slumber. We’ve all been asleep at the wheel. We’re now being forced to open our eyes and ears, and to face the harsh realities of tribal politics and propaganda news, as they crashes into us all. We are becoming more aware and the awareness can help us to problem solve.
In order to safeguard our institutions, we will have face the reality of our cultural blind spots. Some of us are more aware of one blind spot, and some more aware of another. At a Four Corners Conference, people from different system can remove blindfolds from each others’ eyes by sharing what they see from different system perspectives. Our whole society will see more clearly, if media, government, academia, and science help each other.
Two areas of blindness in American culture that interact with one another, are systems and propaganda. For example, when I talk to liberal friends about the problems for our society caused by massive propaganda campaigns, their solution usually is “I don’t watch that station.” or “Just stop watching it” — as if the only possible concern I could have is about how that media outlet effects me as an individual — as if effects on whole systems don’t exist.
Many Americans don’t consider propaganda to be a serious issue at all. When the subject comes up, many people insist “Everyone just chooses the media that agrees with their own views.” While that is to some extent true, there is more to the story.
Just because someone chooses to consume media that promote lower taxes, fewer business regulations, or self-reliance in individuals, that doesn’t mean that these media won’t barrage people with massive propaganda campaigns. Some of these campaigns now have large numbers of people believing that Hillary Clinton ran a pay-to-play operation between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department, that she runs a child trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor, and that mainstream media and mainstream fact checking sites are all “fake news.”
Now it appears that Russian propaganda may have determined the outcome of a presidential election. Maybe this is what it will take to wake our citizens up to the reality that propaganda is a serious problem. Domestic Right Wing propaganda campaigns made it inevitable that this would happen. In a society as polarized as ours, it’s easy for a foreign power to Divide and Conquer or to spread falsehoods.
A large percentage of our citizens have been trained for decades now to unquestioningly believe anything said about the “enemy” tribe or its leader, as long as it is negative. If a foreign power also sees that same tribe or leader as its enemy, it’s easy for them to multiply, the stream of falsehoods, without anyone detecting it for a while.
This has been the case in the U.S. for decades — that bashing scapegoating propaganda against Democrats has been widespread and addictive.
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Roberts says media can’t afford to “be neutral toward a political movement that explicitly rejects core American institutions and norms.” He also notes that without “institutions with transpartisan credibility capable of distinguishing truth from falsehood… Politics becomes a pure contest of power.”
This has already happened. Politics already is a pure contest of power. The uncomfortable truth is that Right Wing media, at least in the eyes of their consumers, has sucked most of the politically relevant power out of science, mainstream media, academia and non-Right-Wing government. Right Wing media has substituted its own power for that of the Four Corners.
Roberts believes that media “must resist authoritarianism and tribal epistemology, which are disproportionately animating of one of America’s two political parties, without acting consciously on behalf of the other party. They cannot afford to be, or be seen as, primarily instruments of the Democrats.”
This is another case of locking the barn door after the horse has already escaped. It is true that mainstream media can not afford to BE instruments of the Democrats.
They can, however, afford to be SEEN as primarily instruments of the Democrats. The reason I am quite sure of this is that mainstream media are already are viewed like this by Right Wing people.
To be seen as partisan can’t possibly be a FWTD (Fate Worse than Death) because mainstream media are already experiencing it, although most have not have noticed it. They seem to be bending over Rightwards to find more columnists and pundits who are Right of Center, in order to appease the Right Wing and get them to stop their charges of Left Wing bias in mainstream media.
I wish I would receive a free dinner at one of my favorite restaurants for every time I go to an Internet discussion board, and someone posts a link to Vox, New York Times, or Washington Post — and then others refuse to even click on the link, because “that site is Left Wing fake news.” I wouldn’t have to buy food again for at least a year.
I know someone who is an award winning journalist, who is now retired from the field. He says that he was always pleased when Left Wing people complained that he was Right Wing biased, and vice versa. Years ago, that probably meant he was neutral and objective. Those days are gone. Today, if you are considered biased by both sides, that likely means you have a Right Wing bias.
We’re in a tribal political atmosphere where, as Roberts acknowledges “truth” is seen as “what’s good for our side”, rather than what’s true or objective. Note that truth is not “what’s neutral for our side” but what’s GOOD. In such a situation, a media outlet does not get labeled “objective” by most Right Wingers unless that outlet totally agrees with the Right Winger’s views. Obviously, that’s not where mainstream media ought to be going — although that is the direction where it’s heading.
The possibility of a media outlet being able to keep a reputation as nonpartisan, is a train that left the station years ago, even though most media outlets didn’t notice its departure. There’s no point in running down the tracks chasing it now. Some media are still running breathlessly though, sometimes ending up very far Rightward, in order to try to get Right Wingers to view the media outlet as nonpartisan.
The only way for a media outlet to really be objective under the current circumstances is for media to construct and adhere to its own measurements of objectivity. It can then cover news objectively, even if a large political faction does brand the outlet as partisan. The media can’t afford to measure its objectivity by the pressures and criticisms it receives from one political faction — any more than our judges, our intelligence agencies, or our climate scientists can. To let the Right Wing define objectivity is to lie down and surrender our institutions without a fight.
Unfortunately, that’s the process that some mainstream media outlets have been following. It is ironic that Hillary Clinton might not have been defeated, if the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other mainstream media had not tried to be “balanced” by giving an extreme amount of negative coverage to her campaign — despite the fact that many of these media outlets actually endorsed her in the election. Media focused for 600 consecutive days on her emails, as former Clinton advisor Peter Daou notes.
Mainstream media are still considered, by large numbers of non-Democrats, to be Left Wing biased, even though these media were responsible in part for her defeat. Many of these mainstream outlets include numerous Right Wing pundits or journalists on staff — even some who lack any semblance of integrity or objectivity. So the public consumes news that consists partly of objective reporting, partly of unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo attacks on powerful Democrats, and partly of inaccurate statements justifying Right Wing policies.
The media consumer concludes that the truth must be “somewhere in the middle.” They perhaps believe only half of the unsubstantiated accusations against powerful Democrats, and only half of the falsehoods that are used by dishonest writers to justify Right Wing policies. The end result is that mainstream news consumers believe half of the lies told by the Far Right, and are dragged further Rightward in their beliefs over time.
Is this the effect mainstream media want to have? Media companies must stay in business to do any good. But there are more ways than one to make money. Disseminating lies should not be the first option chosen.
Our society can’t afford to keep dragging media consumers Rightward. Sometimes it seems we are on the cusp of making a change to require witnesses in court to swear on Atlas Shrugged or The Virtue of Selfishness, rather than on the Bible. We need to come back to objectivity, regardless of whether or not those on the Far Right recognize objectivity when they see it.
One important contribution we consumers of media can make is to be the people who recognize and reward objectivity when we see it. Let’s be on the lookout for media outlets and journalists who are rising to the challenge of objective and truthful reporting. Let’s see how many ways we can find to support them. They are true heroes in our time.
The judges who blocked Trump’s Executive Orders on immigration are great examples from the Government Corner (of our Four Corner Institutions), of acting to try to keep the integrity of democratic institutions from being eroded. They saw the EO’s as being in violation of existing law. So they blocked them. The judges didn’t ask whether the Right Wing saw the judges as biased toward Democrats. They just ruled on the side of the truth and the law. The judges didn’t use the Right Wing as a mirror to reflect their images back to themselves. They already knew that the Right Wing was an amusement park funhouse mirror.
If a media outlet is truthful and objective, some some folks in the small and dwindling group of moderate Republicans may acknowledge that. But in the current environment, most non-Democrats are still likely to view objective media as Left Wing biased. That’s a reality that must be faced.
The problem of using a funhouse mirror to look at one’s political views is a common one. As good a president as Obama was, and as much as he accomplished in his 8 years, even he fell into this cultural habit of ours — bending over too far Rightward, in order to try to compromise and please Republicans, giving in to their demands in cases where it would have been wiser not to, as Ryan Cooper notes in this article. Please don’t let the title of the article stop you from reading it. It makes some good points.
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The mirror that the Far Right uses to reflect our political spectrum is quite distorted. For example, at least some Right Wingers have removed Far Right authoritarian extremism from the political spectrum. Their spectrum doesn’t range from Communism on the authoritarian Far Left, to fascism and Nazism on the authoritarian Far Right, like the mainstream consensus spectrum does. They have labeled Nazism, fascism and every other extreme authoritarian form of government as Left Wing. So there are no Right Wing authoritarian extremists, in their view. In this way, Right Wingers promote the view that people on the Right are, and always have been, incapable of extremism. An example of such Right Wing propaganda is the book below by Dinesh D’Souza. It’s interesting that the book is named The Big Lie and that the book itself is a big lie.
The relabeling of the political spectrum and rewriting of history seems to be part of the overall practice of demonizing the Left and government, and canonizing the Right. As political scientist Norm Ornstein notes, this strategy has been used by the Republican party for decades. This article by Andrew Prokop, recounts the recent history of that strategy, as Ornstein describes it.
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Far Right Wing media categorize politicians and their followers as demons or angels. This strategy works to polarize Americans. How do you cooperate with, or even manage to be respectfully listened to by, a person who is convinced that you are evil or demonic? You don’t.
That strategy is one of many effective methods that the Right Wing has, to keep people from leaving their movement. The insulation and tribalism promoted by Right Wing media serve to protect Right Wing pundits, politicians, journalists and others from even doubting their movement, much less leaving it. They’re also told not to trust or to consume mainstream media, or to use mainstream fact checkers, because that’s corrupt “fake news.”
Consumers of Right Wing media are told that people on the Left, and the mainstream media, are evil, corrupt, weak and stupid. This message produces Right Wing followers who are immersed in propaganda and who also sincerely believe in it themselves. For all we know, even Trump, Bannon, and their financier Robert Mercer, may actually believe the views they are spreading to others enclosed in the Right Wing echo chamber. Here’s an interesting article about Mercer and an interview with the article’s author, Jane Mayer.
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If you doubt that important people in Right Wing politics may be getting fooled by fake news themselves, I invite you to read the story of David Brock, Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative. This is someone who was very involved in the Right Wing movement, who found out that the Right Wing was spreading false information. He decided to change political parties and work for the other side.
Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative
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We can only speculate about how many other potential David Brocks there are, who are themselves being deceived by the messages from the Right Wing echo chamber for which they work. What would happen if we could reach all of them with the truth? But how would we do that, when even mainstream media currently serve up a concoction of falsehoods and truths mixed together, to “cover both sides?”
Some folks believe that editors and producers at the New York Times, the Washington Post and some mainstream TV stations ought to wear sackcloth and ashes for the next four years, for their part in Clinton’s defeat. Many of them did cover Clinton very negatively, including focusing heavily on numerous unsubstantiated attacks on her — a focus that may have wiped out any impact from her positive messages and from her post-DNC-convention bump in popularity.
If those editors think they made a mistake, it would be healthy to admit it to themselves and to other people. What is most important is that they reconsider their “balancing” act of how they are attempting to be objective or neutral.
The sackcloth and ashes is a terrible idea though. It is an example of the obstacle to progress called personalization of blame, as described in the book The Watchman’s Rattle, that I mentioned earlier. Blaming individuals or even particular organizations for societal blind spots is unfair to people who do what most people in their culture routinely do, without intending any wrongdoing. Personalizing blame also means that society keeps ignoring and perpetuating systemic flaws, because everything is blamed on one individual “fall guy” after another, while the system itself keeps heavily encouraging others to make the same mistake.
Behavioral psychology tells us that editors and TV producers, like other humans, will do behaviors more often if they are rewarded for them, and will do them less often if they are punished. However, humans don’t always act in these ways. If we did, a lot more of us would be drug addicts.
We do consider other factors, such as long term goals, and whether we want that person or substance or compulsion to control our lives and ruin them. It’s time to shake ourselves into alertness, if the organization doling out the rewards and punishments is an authoritarian political faction.
Here is a useful book for media leaders, or for anyone else who wants to avoid following the path of least resistance into a ditch or over a cliff.
A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin H. Friedman
A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
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Getting back again to Roberts’ article, he states that if media defend democratic norms and institutions, then it will “be at odds with an administration bent on degrading those norms and institutions. That puts political journalists in a tenuous (and if things get really bad, possibly unsafe) position.” That’s true.
On the other hand, there is also risk in inaction. Inaction could play into the hands of potential authoritarians, very early on in their game — at the crucial time when media and other institutions have their maximum power to stop authoritarianism from creeping up on us all. If institutions pass up this chance now, we may all be looking back at the current time one day, longing to turn back the clock to the day when it would have been so much easier for media and other institutions to have made a better choice.
It’s likely that the average media outlet owner, manager, producer, or editor, is no more courageous than the average human. Some courageous and assertive people have already stepped up to the plate. They and others can become role models for others in media who are initially more timid. If people lend support to one another in various ways, that will help. No one should feel alone and isolated in taking the risk of telling the truth.
There are times to compromise. There are other times to be firm. When a political faction is eroding democratic institutions, it’s time to be firm.
The bravery needed at this time reminds me of the classic TV series, Mission Impossible. If an episode were set in this time we’re living in, we might hear at the beginning of the episode: “Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is” to reflect on what values are really important to you, and to act on them in a firm and resolute way. “This tape will self-destruct in ten seconds. ” But you will find support along the way.