Where are you getting your information? Or your ideas generally? How much do you know about what’s happening in the world, or in your own country? I’m not asking about what you believe or know but where do you go to get whatever it is that you believe? If you go back in time some, people’s beliefs and their information had some common sources: books, educational, political, and religious institutions, parents, friends, and neighbors, public opinion, news media, whatever social norms prevailed in a given time and place, artists and maybe philosophers too. What about today?
Where, for example, do you get your news? Traditional newspapers and TV networks are having a hard time competing with free content on the internet and have seen their readership and viewership decline for some years now, also their hold on public opinion. Let’s think about some of these sources. When you get your political news from CNN, for instance, what are you getting? You’re receiving information, to be sure, but to call it information isn’t quite accurate. You’re being informed in the minimal sense that you’re receiving a certain number of facts, but those facts are carefully selected and mixed in with them, and also inseparable from them, are the political opinions of journalists, their employers and their advertisers, usually without quite telling you so. You’re being informed by what they deem newsworthy, and for them to deem a story newsworthy it needs to meet certain conditions. Like any news organization, they’re selective in ways they’re not about to make explicit and will often deny. That political news story needs to contain information, be stimulating, please their advertisers, not alienate their audience, and avoid being too obviously slanted while nonetheless following their party line—and don’t imagine they don’t have one. They are as fully partisan as any political party, and so are most of their competitors.
I used to be a long-time watcher of CNN, beginning from the first Gulf War in 1990. They provided 24-hour-a-day news coverage and I was hooked on it, at least at that time. In the years that followed I stayed with it, being something of a news junkie. You could tune it at any hour of the day or night and something always seemed to be happening. How, I wondered, had journalists ever managed to cram a full day’s events into a mere thirty minutes when all this other stuff is going on? Then there’s the 24-hour-a-day weather channel, sports channels, and so on. How does a weather channel manage to come up with that much material? There’s a whole lot of repetition, of course, but then there’s the other stuff: the bad news, stories and camera footage of natural disasters, weather emergencies, and anything and everything that’s shocking and capable of holding the viewer’s attention. The name of the game is attention: getting it and holding it, by any means necessary. This is how money is made, and there’s no longer any difference with news organizations. The point is to stop you from changing the channel, and there’s a formula for it: report bad news far more than good (there’s no money in good news), report anything and everything that’s extreme and likely to provoke anger, and in a thousand ways provide a steady diet not just of information but of entertaining and emotionally charged material, whatever it is. When one politician, for example, issues a statement that’s moderate, more or less reasonable, and cool-headed, while another issues one that’s angry, righteously indignant, aggrieved, accusatory, bombastic, and extreme, which do you suppose is deemed newsworthy?
For the last couple of years I’ve found CNN utterly unwatchable, their website unreadable, and here’s why: anyone who tunes into CNN knows they have a political party line. They deny it, as most news organizations do. They’re just here to report the facts, they say, and let the viewers form their own conclusions. The opposite is true, of course, as some of their viewers well understand or even expect, while others don’t. A couple of months ago I wrote to CNN to say that as a longtime viewer I’m finding their political news in particular impossible to watch, not because I particularly disagree with the commentary—much of it I agree with—but because watching CNN today gives me the same feeling I had as a boy going to church. They didn’t reply, and I didn’t expect them to, although I did go out of my way to assure them that it wasn’t the content of their party line that bothered me but the fact (1) that they have one, (2) that they deny it, and (3) that any commentator they have on who disagrees with them is outnumbered and essentially shouted down or fired.
I single out CNN not because it’s any different in this way than the other major American TV networks but only because it’s the one I’ve followed most closely over the years. Tuning into any one of these networks, reading virtually any newspaper, and so on, today resembles nothing so much as choosing which church you’re going to attend. In you’re an American liberal, CNN is about as likely to challenge your political beliefs as a Christian church will challenge your belief in God. The similarities don’t end there. Both provide constant reassurance that your beliefs are right; you don’t need to reexamine any of them, and we’re all in the same boat. We’re the saved ones, the enlightened and the progressive, and anyone who doesn’t agree with us doesn’t need to be taken seriously and they’re probably bad people too. If you’re an American conservative, Fox News will provide the same service for you, which is not to open your mind but to lock you into a camp and an identity, a demographic and a voting bloc. No real questioning is practiced or even allowed in contemporary journalism, or the lion’s share of it, although they will adamantly deny this. What’s happening today—not only in our politics but in our journalism much more—is a retreat into tribalism, and it’s a tribalism less of identity than of thought.
What I’m calling post-news didn’t suddenly appear yesterday, but it has reached an extreme that we need to be aware of and somehow get around if we want simply to know what’s happening in our world. Knowing this should be easier than it’s ever been, given the state of our technology and the variety of news organizations to choose from, and it has probably never been so difficult. If what we want is news—not liberal news or conservative news, or whatever church one prefers, but news, information about what the government did today, how the economy is doing, and so on—what we now need to do is multiply the sources and adopt a specialized filter for each of them. I have a separate filter for all the major American networks, the Canadian ones, and a few others, and if you spend enough time combining the carefully filtered half-truths from one with the half-truths from another, screen out a lot of it altogether, learn what journalists are journalists (and there aren’t many) and which are activists who refuse the name, learn to see through subterfuge and cultivate a lot of suspicion, you might just end up being decently informed about what’s happening in the world. Post-news isn’t “fake” but something far more insidious: it’s information together with editorializing, distortion, manipulation, marketing material, propaganda, stimulation, and entertainment, all mixed together in a way that’s calculated to appear seamless and politically neutral. It’s calculated to be profitable while preserving some semblance of journalistic objectivity, and the semblance has become a fig leaf.
When people rely too unquestioningly not just on news sources but any source, it makes them easy prey to the various forms of manipulation and propaganda that we see today. The danger of getting your ideas, whatever they are, from too few sources—which today tend to be internet sources—is that it has the effect of confirming what you already think, reinforcing orthodoxy, and retreating into whatever group you belong to rather than challenge your way of thinking.