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.