In his first book, a former Daily Sun editor-in-chief and longtime Salon.com scribe contemplates the slippery slope of a 'post-fact society'
In his first book, a former Daily Sun editor-in-chief and longtime Salon.com scribe contemplates the slippery slope of a 'post-fact society'
By Farhad Manjoo '00
Illustrations by Marty Blake
For more than forty years, ABC, CBS, NBC, the Associated Press, and a half-dozen large newspapers, working in loose concordance, have collectively set the American news agenda. You could picture the old-time network news anchors—men like Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw—as particularly attentive and imposing hosts of a national dinner party. For decades, they guided their guests, the American people, to whichever topics they considered worthy of our attention, and we hung on their every word. Their power was legendary. Early in 1968, CBS's Cronkite, a man Americans would have trusted with their checkbooks, ended a Tuesday evening telecast with his view that the United States was "mired in stalemate" in Vietnam. "If I've lost Cronkite," President Lyndon Johnson remarked to an aide, "I've lost Middle America." Johnson soon announced that he wouldn't stand for re-election.
But the mainstream media is now an institution in winter, with the largest outlets serving ever-narrower slices of the public. The mainstream is drying up. In some ways, we are returning to the freewheeling days before radio and television launched the very idea of mass media—the era of partisan newspapers and pamphleteers. But our niches, now, are more niche than ever before. We are entering what you might call the trillion-channel universe: over the last two decades, advances in technology—the digital recording and distribution of text, images, and sound over information networks, a.k.a., the modern world—have helped to turn each of us into producers, distributors, and editors of our own media diet. Now we collect the news firsthand through digital cameras, we send our accounts and opinions to the world over blogs, and we use Google, TiVo, the iPod, and a raft of other tools to carefully screen what we consume.
This trend toward niches, which began decades ago but has recently been accelerating at a blinding pace, has itself become a topic of national conversation, feted for its capacity to return power to the people. You need look no further than your favorite political blog to understand the thrill of these people-powered movements. Now, finally, ordinary folks can propel outré political candidates to the big time and turn forgotten events into the biggest news events of the day. A peculiarly utopian sensibility colors much of the discussion about how these new tools will affect politics and society; the tone is surprising, given the magnitude of the shift we're talking about. It's probably unrealistic to think that we'll undergo these changes without any pain or that, indeed, we're not undergoing any pain now.
To continue the analogy: We, the guests at Cronkite's dinner party, have all jumped up from the table and turned the event into a stand-up cocktail affair, open bar. Now we're free to talk amongst ourselves. We mingle, flitting from group to group, or we stay put in our own circle of friends. This party is democratic and egalitarian; information no longer flows from a furrowed-brow host at the top, and now we all get to talk and listen to whomever we want, about whatever we want. The shindig is undeniably messier than in the past. There's a guy in the corner yelling about how NASA didn't really land on the moon, and he's attracting a crowd. A woman in a lab coat claiming to be the surgeon general of the United States is dispensing medical advice. You're suspicious of her credentials, but all your friends seem to believe her. On a table somewhere, people find a stash of photos of Britney Spears mistreating her baby. They make a million copies. Within minutes, a fellow is comparing Spears to Adolf Hitler. Rumors spread, cliques form. The prettiest girl in the room attracts all the attention. The people dressed in blue hold a secret meeting on the left side of the room. Everyone is wary.
The analogy may sound simplistic, but I mean only to highlight, in brief, some of the dangers I'll examine in this essay. Studies of the media and of human psychology, some conducted recently but many long before the digital revolution, provide compelling insight into the consequences of a fragmented media. Although information now flows more freely than it did in the past—and this is certainly a salutary development—today's news landscape will also, inevitably, help us to indulge our biases and pre-existing beliefs.
While new technology eases connections among people, it also, paradoxically, facilitates a closeted view of the world, keeping us coiled tightly with those who share our ideas. In a world that lacks real gatekeepers and authority figures, and in which digital manipulation is so effortless, spin, conspiracy theories, myths, and outright lies may get the better of many of us. All these factors contributed to the success of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign that derailed Senator John Kerry's presidential bid. New media, patchworks of niches, were at the scene of that crime.
To understand what I mean when I talk about how niche media cultivate bias, consider a study by Shanto Iyengar, a professor of communications at Stanford, and Richard Morin, the Washington Post's director of polling. In 2006, the pair set out to discover how the source of a particular news story affects readers' attraction to that story. For instance, is a Republican reader more likely to read a piece of news because it comes from Fox News rather than from NPR?
To do this, the researchers obtained a list of news headlines spanning six broad categories—U.S. politics, the war in Iraq, race relations, crime, travel, and sports. Without disclosing which news outlet the headlines had come from, Iyengar and Morin asked some of the participants in the study to rate their interest in the headlines. This gave the researchers a baseline measure of the intrinsic attractiveness of each headline. Then, with another group of participants, Iyengar and Morin slightly tweaked how they presented the news stories. They added one of four randomly picked news logos alongside the headlines—from either Fox News, NPR, CNN, or the BBC. How would the logos affect people's interest in the headlines?
As they expected, people were biased toward certain news sources—Republicans preferred stories with the Fox News logo, and Democrats converged on CNN and NPR. But the nature and the intensity of the bias that Iyengar and Morin found are intriguing. For starters, they discovered that Republicans were far friendlier to Fox than were Democrats to either CNN or NPR; Republicans showed, in other words, a much greater propensity toward giving in to their bias. Adding the Fox label to a story about Iraq or national politics tripled its attractiveness to Republicans. No label prompted so great a shift in people on the left. The greater Republican bias is in keeping with numerous psychological studies that show conservatives to be much more willing to consume media that toe the ideological line. This phenomenon helps explain, in no small degree, the amazingly successful right-wing pundit factory.
The team's most surprising finding, though, didn't have to do with politics. Rather, it concerned "soft" news; people showed bias even when looking at news stories about travel and sports. "It's one thing when people prefer sources that they agree with when the news is talking about Iraq or President Bush—that's perfectly understandable," Iyengar says. "But what we show is that it even applies for issues on which the boundaries between Democrats and Republicans are not as clear-cut. If you're looking for a Caribbean getaway, why would it make any difference whether it's coming from Fox or NPR?" But it did make a difference—adding a Fox label to travel stories made them more attractive to Republicans and less attractive to Democrats. People "have generalized their preference for politically consonant news to nonpolitical domains," Iyengar says—in other words, they've become addicted to their own preferred spin. "They've gotten into the habit of saying, 'Whatever the news is talking about, I'm just going to go to Fox.'"
While technology eases connections among people, it also, paradoxically, facilitates a closeted view of the world, keeping us coiled tightly with those who share our ideas. Think back to the height of the 2004 presidential campaign. Try to recall how you felt every time an advertisement for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth popped up on your television screen. If you are a Democrat, it's likely that the ads provoked in you the sort of anger whose intensity can only properly be rendered here in a string of typewriter expletive symbols (#%&@!). What the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were saying about John Kerry was plainly false. Everything you'd learned about Kerry, and everything you'd learned about the Swift Boat Veterans, corroborated this idea: websites, newspapers, and books teemed with evidence to support your view, and anyone who believed otherwise was willfully ignoring reality. If, on the other hand, you supported George W. Bush, you felt something like pure joy on seeing the same Swift Boat ads. To you, what the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were saying about John Kerry was plainly true. Everything you'd learned about Kerry, and everything you'd learned about the Swift Boat Veterans, corroborated this idea: websites, newspapers, and books teemed with evidence to support your view, and anyone who believed otherwise was willfully ignoring reality.
My guess about how you might have reacted to the Swift Boat campaign is informed by opinion surveys taken at the time, which show that Democrats and Republicans experienced the ads in diametrically opposite ways. When Democrats saw the group's first TV spot—which alleged that Kerry lied about the medals he'd earned in Vietnam—they immediately recognized it as false, and the vast majority felt no need to change their belief that Kerry had been a hero at war. Republicans, meanwhile, saw the commercial as pretty much on the mark; it confirmed what they'd suspected of Kerry all along, that his claims to heroism weren't true. In a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, 68 percent of Republicans who saw the ad reported finding it believable, while 73 percent of Democrats found it unbelievable. At first blush, such survey results might not sound too surprising. Of course people of different political parties had different reactions to this heated political campaign. Isn't that what you'd expect in politics?
But there is something remarkable about the contrary ways that Republicans and Democrats reacted to the Swift Boat ad. It has to do with the chief question that the Swift Boat campaign raised in the public mind: did John Kerry legitimately earn his medals in Vietnam? Now, unless you subscribe to a fuzzy, post-modern view of the world, it's clear that there can be only one correct answer to this question. Either John Kerry earned his medals, or he did not. There is, in other words, a definite, inarguable truth to what happened in the Mekong more than thirty years ago. This truth has been documented, and it can be verified through investigation. Moreover, the truth is universal. It ought to be consistent across party lines, whether the person who's answering the question is a Republican or a Democrat. The Swift Boat controversy over whether Kerry truly did earn his medals, then, can be seen as a fight over two competing versions of reality. In essence, the ads were asking us to look at history—the history of Kerry's time in Vietnam—and to decide which reality actually occurred.
This may sound obvious, but most debates in modern politics simply aren't like this. When we fight over important issues, we're not usually arguing over the fundamental state of the world but instead over what to do about it. Your stance on health-care policy in the United States, for instance, hinges on your specific economic, ethical, religious, legal, and civic views: What would constitute a fair distribution of health care to the public? Do you believe health care falls under the list of services a government should provide to its citizens? How much should anyone spend to save a single life? And so on.
People harbor profound disagreements about all these questions, and yet, at the same time, there clearly are facts about health care in the United States with which everyone agrees. Tens of millions of Americans currently lack health insurance. Heart disease and cancer are, by far, the nation's most deadly ailments. Prescription drug use is on the rise. These are examples of a shared political reality—empirical, verifiable measures of the world about which there are, and really can be, no argument. For any issue, we find a set of such basic shared truths, a view of the world that is largely consistent regardless of partisanship.
Whether or not Saddam Hussein was 'personally involved' in the September 11 attacks is an issue for which there is a definitive, correct answer. Either he was, or he was not.At least, it has been this way until now. But there were few shared truths in the story of John Kerry's service in Vietnam. Shared truths are absent in other areas, too—in many issues surrounding national security policy, for instance. Whether or not Saddam Hussein was "personally involved" in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is, like the question of Kerry's medals, an issue for which there is a definitive, correct answer. Either he was, or he was not. Although the Bush Administration at one time suggested (loudly) otherwise, the White House now admits Saddam didn't do it. More important, every major investigation of the issue—including by the nonpartisan 9/11 Commission—determined that Saddam had no role in 9/11, while other government reports have proved that Iraq was not tied to al-Qaeda. A stunningly large number of Americans, however, blame Saddam. In the fall of 2003, a poll commissioned by the Washington Post showed that almost 70 percent of the nation thought the Iraqi dictator had been personally involved in the attack. A New York Times survey taken four years later, at the six-year anniversary of the attacks, marked a huge improvement—but it's still amazing. A third of Americans said they saw Saddam's hand in 9/11, despite a complete lack of evidence to support the position.
Did Iraq possess weapons of mass destruction at the time of the U.S. invasion? The most comprehensive investigations into Iraq's WMD programs prove that Saddam had no banned weapons. Even President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney now acknowledge this point. But a Harris survey conducted in July 2006 showed that half of Americans reject this idea. They believe instead that the weapons were there.
It's not only in expectedly partisan national security issues that we see Americans disagreeing about what's happening in the world. Look, for instance, at global warming. Every major American scientific body that has studied the world's climate has concluded that the planet is heating up due to human activity. In 2004, Naomi Oreskes, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, surveyed the 928 studies concerned with climate change that were published in peer-reviewed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003. Not a single one, she found, disagreed with the consensus view about global warming. But the American public is not nearly so united. Polls show that, first, few Americans believe the science. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2006 revealed that only 41 percent of respondents think that there's solid evidence that humans are changing the Earth's climate. Democrats, though, are twice as likely as Republicans to accept the evidence. Even scientific fact isn't safe from politically motivated perception.
We remember the Clinton years as politically volatile, with Republicans and Democrats at odds, but Americans were largely united in their view of the nation's prospects.Perhaps the most striking example of Americans' partisan divisions over what's really happening in the world involves the economy. For several years, says Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center, Democrats and Republicans have largely agreed with one another when asked about the current state of the economy. This, he points out, isn't very surprising, because economic questions "are not as directly associated in the public mind with political parties or political figures." If someone asked you how well the nation's economy was doing, you'd probably think about your job and the jobs of people around you, rather than, say, about President Bush. Indeed, this was the case during the Nineties. We remember the Clinton years as extremely politically volatile, with Republicans and Democrats at odds on just about every issue of the day, but Americans were largely united in their view of the nation's prospects. When unemployment declined, satisfaction rose across the board, the blue lines and the red lines commingling on graphs of national opinion.
But that's no longer the case, Kohut has found. Just before President Bush's State of the Union Address in 2006, surveyors at the Pew Center called up 1,500 Americans and asked, "How would you rate economic conditions in this country today—as excellent, good, only fair, or poor?" The results were vastly divergent. Fifty-six percent of Republicans believed that the economy was in either excellent or good shape, while only 23 percent of Democrats thought this was the case. Sixty-two percent of Democrats said it was difficult to find a job in their communities, but only 38 percent of Republicans thought so. You might wonder whether this was because Republicans actually were facing better job prospects than Democrats were—could Republicans have been reporting better economic conditions because their lives were economically better off than Democrats'? Actually, no.
The Pew study found that the partisan bias held even when controlling for the respondents' incomes. Two-thirds of Republicans who made more than $75,000 a year thought the economy was in great shape, but only one-third of Democrats who earned as much had the same idea. Similarly, Democrats who made less than $50,000 annually were far more gloomy about economic conditions than were Republicans in the same bracket.
Think about this for a minute. Here were people living in the same economy as one another, folks with a roughly equal likelihood of finding a job or seeing wealth in the housing market or hitting on hard times. They were swimming in the same pool—but half of them thought the water was lovely, while the other half were dying of chill. They were, Kohut says, "living different realities."
It was in this tide of divergent, parallel realities that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched their ship. For thirty years, there had been a shared national truth regarding John Kerry— whatever his behavior after the war, the evidence showed that he'd fought honorably in Vietnam. To many partisans, though, this was an unwelcome truth. And the new truth offered by the Swift Boat campaign, the version of reality they sought to propagate, was much friendlier to the right-wing cause.
Welcome to the Rashomon world, where the very idea of objective reality is under attack.
Farhad Manjoo '00, a former Cornell Alumni Magazine intern, was a staff writer at Salon.com from 2002 to 2008. He is currently a technology columnist at Slate.com.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. © 2008 by Farhad Manjoo.