The Death Of Media In The Age Of Trump

Published in Online Spin, January 22, 2016.

“An informed citizenry,” said Thomas Jefferson in 1816, “is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” (Or something to that effect; other versions include, “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic.”) America’s third president was aware that representative politics call for more than just representation -- after all, without understanding what is going on, how can we know how we want to be represented?

Information being a prerequisite for effective participation in a democracy, without freedom of speech and freedom of the press our democracy fails to function. We need access to facts and opinions that are unbiased, unafraid, and without obligation to anyone other than the public good. Without these, our perspectives, our commentary, and our votes are given blindly, the outcomes decided more by who has the money to control access to the medium and who has the greater skill in the manipulation of public opinion.

Sadly and scarily, our channels of communication are under threat on multiple fronts, starting with the fact that the companies that provide us with information have no economic incentive to, you know, inform us. There is no good business model to do so, any more than there is for policing or firefighting.

When privatized, these functions cease to prioritize the public good they were designed for, and instead become warped to the demands of the market. A for-profit prison benefits from an incarcerated population, with society the loser in the equation. Likewise, a media industry driven by pageviews and quarterly earnings benefits when we become shocked, outraged, and titillated, with our education, our compassion, and our attention to nuance ending up as -- forgive me -- huge losers.

But it’s not just that clickbait and newsertainment drive us ever further towards the lowest common denominator, sacrificing veracity for volume. It’s also the self-reinforcing algorithms of Facebook, Twitter and others, what MoveOn founder Eli Pariser described as “filter bubbles.” It is the fact that as we click on links that align with our ideology, we are shown more links that align with our ideology, until eventually we live under the false belief that only links conforming to our ideology exist -- and that, therefore, the whole world must feel as we do, with only stupid, malevolent or insane people failing to toe the party line.

And as a nail in the coffin, this: last week, after the New Hampshire Union Leader called Trump’s campaign an insult to the intelligence of voters, the candidate demanded that they be kicked out of the upcoming New Hampshire debate. ABC News, who is hosting the debate, complied.

They complied. Incredibly, unbelievably, flabbergastingly, ABC complied. An independent, established newspaper, the largest and only statewide newspaper in the small but politically pivotal Granite State, was banned from covering a political event because it disagrees with one of the candidates. How can the press possibly be free if dissent is grounds for dismissal?

I don’t believe politicians are bad people, generally speaking. But a corrupt system corrupts those within it, and if the public has no access to full and free information, there is nothing to restrain the system’s demise. As Jefferson (who apparently knew a thing or two about the human condition) also said, “If once the people become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves.”