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News media and polarization

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

This is an excerpt from Defusing American Anger about the role of news media in our divides. It also includes some thoughts on content moderation by social media platforms. To learn more about these excerpts and see all of them, go here.


News 

News media gets a lot of attention from people in both political groups for being a part of the problem. 


On the left, conservative-leaning media, like Fox News and Newsmax, are cast as powerful villains, as extremely biased and as drumming up unreasonable rage and division. (If you’re a Trump voter and want to better understand some of those views, I’d recommend the book Broken News: Why the Media Rage Machine Divides America and How to Fight Back, by Chris Stirewalt, a former Fox News political editor, Glenn Beck’s book Addicted to Outrage, and Matt Taibbi’s book Hate Inc.)


And the right has the same view of liberal-leaning news media. Liberal-leaning mainstream news companies are perceived, at best, as very biased and, at worst, as the “enemy of the people,” as Trump has called them. Some conservatives think that liberal bias in the media is worse than conservative news bias because it’s not acknowledged as even being an issue by many people, and because liberal news outlets are much more mainstream and numerous. (For liberals who want to better understand some of those views, I’d recommend the books Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind by Tim Groseclose, an economics professor, Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy by Batya Ungar-Sargon, an editor at Newsweek, and Matt Taibbi’s book Hate Inc.)


If you didn’t already have a sense of why these views can exist, hopefully this book has made some of those beliefs more comprehensible. 


Some liberals and some conservatives see the news media in general, including media on their own side, as a big part of our polarization problem. A common criticism is that news companies have a financial incentive to focus on negative, divisive framings, because scary and dramatic things get more attention. 


As a country grows more divided, it makes sense that news organizations would decide to focus more on covering those divides. And the more that our divides become one of the primary news topics, the more the various us-versus-them narratives will be present in our minds, and the more our divides will grow. As with so many aspects of polarization, there can be a feedback loop present.


News media also have an incentive to give their audience what they want. There is real pressure to meet consumers where they’re at, and give them the product they demand. The bias that can result from this is called demand-driven bias, and there have been studies on how this influences our media (one was a 2016 study by Cagdas Agirdas). We can see that in a polarized society, this dynamic would naturally result in news media providing more and more polarized content. News outlets face real risks of losing their increasingly polarized audience to more polarized news outlets. (One example of this: after the 2020 election, Fox News lost some of their audience to further-to-the-right news channels because Fox wasn’t giving their audience the election denial narrative they wanted.)


There can be other factors to examine, too. For example, there’s a supply-driven bias theory. In this theory, because most universities are liberal-leaning, most journalists will be liberal-leaning, and therefore most mainstream news will naturally skew to the left. In this analysis, it’s also financially cheaper for news outlets to hire these people and let them produce the content they naturally want to produce, versus trying to impose a set of rules and additional reviewers to ensure less bias. 


One common misunderstanding I’ve seen that helps explain some of our anger at the news is a lack of distinction between news coverage and opinion pieces. I’ve seen both liberals and conservatives get mad at various news outlet pieces, when what they’re getting mad at are clearly opinion pieces, not attempts at objective news coverage. To take a specific example: there are many liberal-leaning opinion pieces in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and these “hot takes” are often towards the top of their websites (drama, after all, gets more attention), and I’ve seen conservatives use those opinion pieces to say “look at this biased news.” And similarly, Fox News runs a lot of shows that are clearly opinion shows, and I’ve seen liberals act as if that is “biased news.” Of course, the news coverage itself can also be perceived as biased, but this is just to say that the confusion around opinion pieces can amplify our perceptions of bias in the news. 


Some people believe there are big plots that explain bias in the news media. Some conservatives believe there’s evidence of collusion amongst liberal-leaning news outlets to cover things a certain way, to spin a certain narrative. Hopefully the chapter on conspiracy theories helped show why big plots are unlikely. Such a big collusion amongst many people would easily be outed by disgruntled members of the collusion, or by random people who happen to find evidence of that collusion. 


One criticism of modern news media is that it suffers from a “bias towards fairness,” which is referring to the tendency of news outlets to cover politics as a sports event, with two equivalent teams competing, even when one side may not deserve that equal treatment. This is explained well in a scene from Aaron Sorkin’s TV show The Newsroom: 


TV producer: The media’s biased towards success and the media’s biased towards fairness. 


TV news worker: How can you be biased towards fairness?


TV producer: There aren’t two sides to every story. Some stories have five sides, some only have one. [...]


News anchor: Bias towards fairness means that if the entire congressional Republican caucus were to walk into the House and propose a resolution stating that the Earth was flat, the Times would lead with ‘Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on shape of Earth.’


Here we can get a sense of the frustration and anger that can drive journalists and news creators in both political groups. When we’re polarized, the views of the other side on some issues can be perceived as entirely without merit. And this awareness of the “bias towards fairness” means that some journalists will avoid covering the other side’s beliefs, or will cover the other side’s beliefs with thinly veiled derision. This can lead to practices that can be criticized as bad, biased journalism. And smart and well meaning journalists can end up doing those things because they firmly believe they’re on the right side of the debate. They can see the noble path as avoiding falling victim to the “bias towards fairness” and see their responsibility as reporting the truth, as they see it. 


But there we can see the problem. When we’re polarized, our version of the truth will be very different from other people’s. People can genuinely believe many things we see as wrong and without merit. And sometimes they’ll have valid points that we aren’t able to see. And, even if we are actually entirely correct on whatever topic, people’s beliefs are real things: there are reasons for their beliefs, and their beliefs have immense power in shaping the world. In many ways, beliefs are much more important than facts. Our beliefs will always influence us; whereas facts and truth may have minimal or no impact on us.  


Journalists should see it as important to take people’s beliefs seriously. They should do that if only because, when they don’t take people’s beliefs seriously, that can counterintuitively serve to strengthen people’s us-versus-them emotions and actually make them more likely to believe the things we think are absurd. Our disrespect towards some commonly held beliefs, and our instinct to ignore them and not engage with them, may be precisely what makes people more committed to those beliefs over time. 


We can see all sorts of organic, natural reasons for why our media can be biased and can behave in ways that increase our divides. That behavior doesn’t require any deep, dark, hidden explanations. All of the reasons are right there on the surface. In a polarized society, we obviously have very different narratives. And iti’s impossible for us to avoid bias: we’re all biased, and more of us will have bias when we’re very polarized. And there are various market forces at work that amplify polarization.


In Elizaveta Friesem’s book Media Is Us: Understanding Communication and Moving beyond Blame, she examines the commonly held view that “media” is some entity separate from us, something “out there.” Often, we’ll talk about the “impact of media,” and the “power of media,” as if it’s some external force impacting us. But Friesem makes the case that the media literally is us: the media is just an extension of us humans. It’s simply an extension of human thoughts and our language, just as pamphlets and books are an extension of our thoughts and our language. Even in the absence of modern media technology, we can become polarized and have vastly different narratives, and of course we can also do those things with modern media. From this angle, we can start to see news media not as some distant force acting upon us, but as an outgrowth of human thought and human social tendencies, as an extension of human nature. (I interviewed Friesem about this for the podcast.)


And maybe part of the problem is that we simply expect way too much from the news. There’s often outrage that right-leaning or left-leaning news media, or news media in general, is biased and irresponsible. But why do we expect so much from these companies? They are, after all, profit-seeking companies. They do of course sometimes provide valuable coverage of important events, but they are also human, and therefore can be biased. And they need to make money, sometimes desperately. For these reasons, they can be prone to mistakes of various sorts. 


This isn’t to say that we can’t criticize them, or that we shouldn’t be disappointed with them for their shortcomings. But just to say that it’s possible to see the very human reasons for their bias and their mistakes. 


By lowering our expectations for news organizations, we could foster an environment where we’d all know to take news stories and opinion pieces with big grains of salt. In that world, we’d be less likely to over-react to any specific news stories. We’d foster a culture where it was standard knowledge that you should read a few different news sources and opinions before feeling confident enough to have an opinion. We’d become more humble and therefore less angry. 


Another way we might reduce our anger at news outlets and journalists is recognizing the difficult position they’re in. In a very polarized society, it’s hard to know how to approach doing the news. No matter what decisions are made, there will be many people they’ll be angering. If they decide to deliver news mainly to a certain demographic, some people will be angered by that bias. If they try to deliver news that speaks to people from across the political spectrum, they’ll anger politically passionate people on both sides with their “both sides” approach. 


It’s common these days for a specific news outlet to be perceived as right-wing by some people and as left-wing by some other people. And that’s the nature of polarization: more of us have a feeling like, “You’re either with us or against us.” Here’s a few angry tweets aimed at the New York Times showcasing this phenomenon: 


“NYT is woke propaganda.”


“NYT is leftwing propaganda sanctioned by the state.”


“NYT caters to rightwing KLAN propaganda!”


“Does anybody still believe the OpEd section in the NYT is anything but a collection of fascist dreams?”


We can also find this in some people’s opinions about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Here are some tweets from 2022: 


“Zuckerberg is a right wing white nationalist. Prove me wrong.”


“Is there any question Zuckerberg is in bed with the right wing?”


“The goal of Zuckerberg’s Cultural Marxism is to destroy institutions and family values…”


“Mark Zuckerberg and Marxist Facebook bans Donald Trump and free speech!”


Recognizing what a difficult job journalists have, and the pressures they face, can help us lower our anger when we think they’re doing a horrible job. They will often disappoint us, and there’s no way they’ll be able to avoid disappointing a large swath of us. 


If you’re conservative and angry at liberal-leaning mainstream news, and maybe even see those organizations’ behaviors as a reason to distrust the 2020 election, are you willing to examine the various factors that help account for liberal bias in the media? Is it possible to see how there are understandable societal forces that contribute to the way things are, just as there are forces that have made much of the Western world more liberal-leaning—that have made, for example, Europe much more liberal-leaning than America.


If we lived in an alternate reality where mainstream news media was mostly conservative-leaning, and liberals expressed outrage at that, what would your response be? Would you perhaps say, “That’s just how society turned out: there’s no point getting upset about it.” Or perhaps you’d say, “Well, those are private businesses: for better or worse, they can do whatever they want and be as biased as they want.” Seeing things more from that lens can give you a sense of how liberals view things, and might be anger-reducing. 


If you’re liberal, hopefully this book has helped show why there can be legitimate reasons behind people’s dislike and distrust of liberal-leaning mainstream media. A big factor in our divides is that conservatives perceive so much disdain and disgust from our predominantly liberal culture, our universities, our news. I think that if more liberal-leaning news organizations attempted to treat conservative views and people with respect and avoided reducing conservative views to the dumbest, most extreme stances, it’d have a hugely depolarizing effect. 


Amongst liberals, it’s a common belief that one of our biggest problems is that people no longer trust the “right” news sources or believe the “right” things. There’s often a focus on misinformation being one of our biggest problems. But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. For one thing, it assumes that liberal news can’t be wrong and biased. We’re simply never going to agree on what the “right” and “true” news and narratives are: on many contentious issues, there can be tremendous disagreement even in one political group. Believing we can conclusively say which news is the “real news” is misguided. Even if you believe that such a thing is possible, clearly you won’t be able to get many other people to see things that way. 


So maybe we don’t need more people to believe the “right” news. Maybe instead we need more people to be just as skeptical of their preferred news sources as they are of the news sources they dislike. 


Our problem is not a lack of trust. It makes logical sense to be skeptical of many things, especially when our news outlets have the problems they do. Our problem is that many people’s skepticism is imbalanced—it’s not evenly distributed. 


A few years ago, a Trump voting friend told me that he doesn’t trust any liberal media, and he said there’s no longer any way to tell what’s true or false. He described living in a confusing world where you can’t trust anybody to tell you the truth. But he then proceeded to tell me his confident opinions about the corruption of Democrat leaders and the crimes Hillary Clinton committed and the horrible state America was in. When I asked him where he got those views from, he said he mostly got his information from Facebook posts. But this is madness. You can’t have it both ways: You can’t be extremely skeptical of all liberal-leaning mainstream news at the same time as blindly absorbing news from friends and family and random internet posts, or the news outlets that confirm the things we already believe. We can’t just believe things because we want to believe them. 


To people in both political groups, I’d ask: Are you willing to apply the skepticism you have about the other side’s sources of news to your sources of news? If you believe that the other side has some people who are very biased and who amplify our divides, are you willing to examine how there can be some of those people making the media you consume? 


It’s also possible that we focus too much on the supposed power of various news media outlets. For example, Tucker Carlson is the focus of a lot of liberal-side outrage. But, at the time of writing this, his average audience per show is only 4.3 million viewers. That is 2.7% of the number of people who voted in the 2020 election. And it’s worth pointing out that some percentage of that audience is liberal: apparently more liberals watch Tucker Carlson than watch CNN’s Rachel Maddow. To put these numbers in perspective: at this point in time, Joe Rogan’s podcast reaches roughly 11 million listeners per episode, more than twice Carlson’s audience.


Yes, people like Tucker Carlson are influential, in how they can seem to lead the way and set the tone for a lot of political thinking, and because powerful people like Trump can absorb their views. At the same time, it’s unclear how much Tucker Carlson’s views represent the roughly 80 million conservatives in the country. Polarization results in many liberals having a perception that Tucker speaks for all or most conservatives, but a very small percentage of conservatives hear his ideas (directly anyway). 


And related to this: it will help us to see that the more we direct outrage at the people we dislike, the more power we give them. The more we post online about our anger at Tucker Carlson’s latest outrageous comment, the more viewers we help him gain. Just as when Biden mentioned the Proud Boys in the 2020 presidential debate, it was a huge gift to that group. Of course, sometimes we will think it’s important to draw attention to something and feel like that attention can’t be avoided, but looking at things more in this light can help us weigh the pros and cons of what we decide to focus on.


Big tech censorship

There’s a lot of conservative-side anger about big tech and social media companies and their influence over people’s speech and opinions. If you’re angry about that, I’d make some of the same points I made about the news.


For one, social media companies are private companies who have the right to run their companies as they see fit. As I write this in late 2022, a lot of people are angry about evidence showing that Twitter censored some conservative accounts and content. But is that surprising? We know that they are liberal-leaning. And they are a private company that has the right to do what they want, including the right to moderate content as they wish, and even the right to not be transparent about their rules. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to use their product. This has traditionally been a conservative argument: respecting the rights of a private company to make decisions about their company. 


Some people would argue that the power of these companies makes them a “public square,” and that for First Amendment, free-speech reasons, the government should force them to allow all kinds of speech. But many people would say that social media is nothing like a public square. No one needs to be on Twitter. There are plenty of influential people who aren’t using any social media. I myself use Twitter and have almost 18,000 followers on there, but if Twitter kicked me off tomorrow, I wouldn’t feel I had any real recourse, because I see it as a private company that can make any arbitrary decision they want, for better or worse. 


Since Elon Musk purchased Twitter in late 2022, we’ve seen some of these same reactions from liberals. Some influential liberals have said things like, “Elon shouldn’t have been allowed to buy Twitter,” as if the government has any power to prevent such a thing. Some of the same people who previously had defended Twitter’s decisions with the argument that “it’s a private company, they can do what they want,” now speak as if Elon’s decisions are completely unacceptable and that something must be done to stop him. But there’s no one who has the power to stop private social media companies from making these kinds of decisions. And even if you think there should be, our polarization ensures a congressional gridlock that would make it very difficult to pass any major legislation for that.  


I’ll end with some things Sam Harris said in his Making Sense podcast. This is from a November 2022 episode about his decision to leave Twitter: 


No one has a constitutional right to be on Twitter. In my view, the logic of the first amendment runs in the opposite direction. It protects Twitter's new owner, Elon, from compelled speech. The government shouldn't be able to force Elon to put Alex Jones back on the platform, any more than it should be able to force me to put Alex Jones on my podcast. 


Of course I get that social networks and podcasts are different. But Twitter simply isn't the public square. It is a private platform. And Elon can do whatever he wants with it. If we want to change the laws around that, well, then we have to change the laws. I understand and fully support the political primacy of free speech in America, and I'd like the American standard to be the global norm. That's why I think there shouldn't be laws against Holocaust denial, or any other kind of idiotic idea. And the First Amendment protects this kind of speech, at least in the United States. 


But there also shouldn't be a law, in my view, that prevents a digital platform from having a "no Nazis" policy in its terms of service. Because these platforms need effective moderation, and standards of civility, to function. They are businesses, started by entrepreneurs, supported by investors who want to make money. They have employees with mortgages. They have to subscribe on ad revenue, or subscription, or some combination of the two. Without serious moderation, digital platforms become like 4Chan, which is nothing more than a digital sewer. I'm told that even 4Chan has a moderation policy. 


Hell itself probably has a moderation policy. 


So called "free speech absolutism" is just a fantasy, online. Almost no one really holds that position, even when they espouse it. The fact that Twitter's terms of service might have been politically slanted, or not applied fairly, I totally get why that would annoy people [...] But this simply isn't a free speech issue. No one has a right to be on Twitter. 


Still, on the other side of things, it’s easy to see what it is that bothers conservatives. They can perceive liberals as slowly but surely widening the range of ideas and people that are seen as worthy of censorship. And this can seem especially troubling to them because liberal people have power over so much of our culture, from the news to entertainment to education.


This has been an excerpt from Defusing American Anger.

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