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Why the cries of the media 'rigging' the election are so exasperating

People arrive to cast their ballot at a polling station as early voting begins
REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
People arrive to cast their ballot for 2016 elections at a polling station as early voting begins in North Carolina.

This past Sunday, CNN’s Brian Stelter hosted a discussion among undecided Nevada voters on the topic of the trustworthiness of the media, circa 2016. Then, on Tuesday Stelter was a guest on Kerri Miller’s MPR show revisiting the same theme.

As a listener within the media bubble, I found the thought processes of most of Stelter’s group and callers to Miller’s show exasperating. And it wasn’t just me. (And yes, I’m admittedly astounded whenever someone like Stelter comes up with “undecided” voters this late in any campaign, much less this one.)

By now everyone with access to an electrical outlet or former high school classmate Gene’s Facebook rants knows that barely anyone trusts the media. Only 39 percent say they do, according to Stelter’s numbers. So “biased,”so “skewed,” so “rigged” and on and on. ​In the latest Star Tribune poll​ of Minnesotans, generally regarded as an above average group of folks, voters were found to be essentially evenly split on the question of whether the election processed is being “rigged.”

The hour Miller, Stelter and NYU professor Pamela Newkirk spent on the topic touched on several key points in this miasma of mistrust, none of them new. But all of them exasperating to anyone who is either a) in the business of news, or b) follows it with the not-all-that-difficult critical awareness of those who are.

Forget rocket science or Rubik’s Cube. Judging the difference between an opinion and a news report doesn’t require any greater intellectual gifts than knowing how to switch from “cooling” to “heating” when fall arrives. But to listen to Stelter’s Nevada focus group, you’d think there could really be an organized conspiracy of media types, mostly liberals, twisting the daily news of the election to benefit the candidate “they” prefer, which is not Mr. Trump.

I talked to Miller after her show to assess her level of vexation with this level of media illiteracy and ask how often she runs into it outside the broadcast booth. “I hear a lot about it, all the time,” she said. “And what I tell them is, ‘I don’t get the struggle.’ I just don’t. I don’t have a hard time discerning the difference between a news show on Fox in the middle of the day and someone like Sean Hannity at night.” (Or, for that matter, a daily paper’s news story vs. its opinion page.)

“It just isn’t that difficult,” she said. “And yes, I do get that people like you and me are living in this kind of news bubble. But my perception, which we discussed on the show, is that people are taking in a lot of news and information from a lot of sources, and at least when they’re asked the question about trusting the media, all of that, all those sources get rolled together, from The New York Times to Facebook posts from people they know.”

The “slanting of the news” has long been a staple of the conservative media echo chamber. And it has proven enormously effective in creating/sustaining suspicions in the minds of partisans displeased that The New York Times, The Washington Post and any of the major TV networks do not report news in the same way as their sources of choice, be they Fox News, Laura Ingraham or Gene’s Facebook page. 

But even MPR liberals have “bubble” issues. Miller mentioned working the audience at recent “Talking Volumes” interviews with author Carl Hiaasen and feminist icon Gloria Steinem, and getting admonished for giving too much/any time to anyone on the conservative end of the spectrum.

Broken down to a sixth-grade vernacular, it’s been as simple as this for at least 20 years: People inside the liberal bubble regard the right-wing media universe as too stupid and polluted for words, a waste of time and energy (and therefore not something they want sullying their minds). Meanwhile, the conservative bubble sees the liberal media (i.e. everyone who isn’t Sean Hannity, Breitbart, Drudge, etc.) as a pack of smug snobs sorely in need of a righteous beatdown.

Within those respective bubbles (and I’m routinely amazed at liberals who have never once watched Hannity do his show), each group has developed a distorted notion of bias and, therefore, trust.

But let’s not do the usual false equivalence thing here. There simply is no comparison of the amount of partisan distortion of facts, which is to say “slanting” and “rigging” between the rival echo chambers if we’re talking Hannity, Breitbart, et al. versus MPR, NPR, The New York Times, etc. Conservative media owns that game. 

During Miller’s MPR show, Stelter noted the difference between Fox News’ midday newscasts — which, while they might be criticized for their choice of stories, play it generally straight in terms of commentary — and Hannity, who these days “is delivering what is essentially a nightly hourlong infomercial for the GOP.” 

But if voters' confusion over what is fact and what is opinion is as extreme as they say it is, how does a reporter or a broadcaster like Miller, someone making a serious effort to respect the facts wherever they may lead, mitigate the suspicion that there’s something nefarious going on? 

Miller says she personally doesn’t sense any greater listener anger this season than any other, but that “I do know we have people listening who don’t usually listen” and that her producers are getting plenty of people “calling in to swear at them.”

Hmm. So what’s the chance that those people, very likely those smelling a “rigged” election and pumped full of mistrust for the media, getting on air? Is rage taboo on MPR?

“Well,” Miller laughs, “all we ask is that you make sense with your rage.”

Given the self-segregation of our bubble cultures, there would seem to be a 0 percent chance that confusion over what is “news” and what is “opinion” — and therefore whether “the media” can be trusted — will be resolved over the course of this generation.

That said, there might be an interesting show for Miller in putting out a call for anyone certain the media is in on “the rigging” and … patiently explaining how the news business works, and how easy it is to decide what is fact and what is opinion. If anyone is actually interested.

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Comments (7)

"scholarship"

This article reminds me of a recent discussion I had with an older relative. He stated he loved to read history books done by academics. I asked who was his favorite current academic and what he was reading.

It turns out his "academic" is Bill O'Reilly and only Bill O'Reilly. He offered one of the books on the Revolutionary War to me, to which I said I would only read if he agreed to read a book about the same period written by an actual academic. He refused, as the academic would obviously obscure the facts with his/her liberal bias.

But O'Reilly is bias free..... This is why I can only talk about sports with many of my relatives: thank God for baseball.

The counterfactual

The counterfactual conservative world has been stretched to new extents by Trump. How many denials of video-taped and recorded incidents can one person make and still remain credible ?

Apparently many times.

The newfound bitterness of Trump with respect to the media arises from the transition from the "you gotta be kidding" atmosphere of the primaries to the "he's serious" atmosphere of the general election.

Unfortunately, like many other issues, reality is not kind to the hothouse delusions fostered by the right-wing media echo chamber.

While you cry for the maligned media...

...I'll speak up for the election judges, city and county clerks, and the thousands of other people who have had their honesty and integrity questioned by people who insist there is "rampant fraud" in US elections.

Left and right bubbles are not the same

OK, I got it, Hannity is right wing opinion… and he is apparently the only one since he is mentioned five times. But he is the only one on the right since no others (with their shows) are mentioned. Of course, on the left, we will have plenty – Maddow, Mathews, Schultz, Hayes, Olbermann (sure, some are gone now but I am sure they will resurface). Then there are all comedy shows that serve as both news and opinion sources for many – Stewart, Noah, Maher, etc. So now left leaning media? On the other hand, it is enough to read the “fact checkers” who are as partisan as they can be… And how can it be otherwise if 80% or 90% percent of reporters are liberals…

Rod Dreher on the right-wing

Rod Dreher on the right-wing media bubble

(quote)

http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/right-wing-media-bubble/

[T]he Right’s media monoculture has created negative feedback loops whereby people with little political acumen like Mark Levin, Michael Savage, and Glenn Beck are able to fill Republican voters’ heads with nonsensical ideas like planning to shut down the government with no backup plan or electing fewer GOP officeholders in pursuit of more “pure” ones, primarily because they grossly overestimate the number of conservatives in America. It is poetic justice that many of the same people who pushed these naive positions and strategies saw their own imbecilic noise machine turned against their preferred presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, in this year’s Republican primaries....

....Conservatives and America as a whole are poorer intellectually because of this. While center-right individuals might not always fall in line for a policy battle, having large numbers of journalists who are willing to be skeptical of all sides would be a very good thing as both Left and Right need close scrutiny. Republican elites are now paying the price for refusing to subject the consultants who advise them to the skepticism they deserved.

The seeming success of Fox News and talk radio has made many conservatives think they now have a massive media empire. In truth, they have constructed an intellectual ghetto that no one else wants to visit.....

(end quote)

What's your point?

This article is about differentiating between factual news reporting and opinion, and how many who are aggrieved about the "rigged" and "biased" media are lumping them all together in their complaints. And about how this is frustrating for those in the news business and those with the critical thinking skills to easily discern the difference between fact and opinion.

Are there more liberal opinion outlets in the media? Sure. Do the conservative media outlets distort and skew reality to a greater degree? Maybe. Does it matter? Only when people can't keep in mind that these are not facts.

I enjoy opinion, and I think taking it in from both sides is important to a deeper understanding of issues and perspectives. But to pan, for example, the whole of the Star Tribune's news coverage just because it's editorial board leans to the left is nonsensical. Both fact and opinion are valuable and I share in the frustrations of Mr. Lambert and Ms. Miller towards those who confuse the two and have leaped headlong into the realm of isolation, fear, mistrust and contempt.

I hate to admit it

…but the otherwise-loopy Sarah Palin was not entirely off the mark in labeling mainstream media as "lame-stream media." Reporters may often lean a bit to the left, though the rules of journalism say that shouldn't be allowed to significantly affect their reporting, but if the reporters lean left, it seems equally evident that members of editorial boards, not to mention television news directors, lean the other way. I've yet to hear much in the way of left-wing opinion from a local TV station, no matter where I've lived. If there are approving (or disapproving) looks or offhand comments during a newscast, they're typically in defense of whatever the status quo happens to be – local TV news is much less interested in policy and policy differences than it is in ratings and the advertising rates that can be generated therefrom.

On the whole, I'm inclined toward Sean O'Brien's commentary. When they have something factual to support them, I enjoy opinions myself, and they don't have to always be ones with which I agree. Much of the grousing about the "liberal media" or the "right-wing media" (I do it, too) boils down to "They're saying stuff I don't agree with." At least part of the problem is the relatively low level of critical thinking that's being done by at least a part of both left and right-leaning audiences. Language does matter. So do facts. That a viewer "likes" a particular broadcast personality has nothing to do with the truthfulness of what that broadcaster says on radio or TV, and something similar applies to both print and electronic writers. In recent years, not enough people in the respective audiences are using their brains to separate fact from hearsay, and the painful reality is that some opinions are more "true," in the sense of being grounded in reality, than others.