By George Coyoy
You may have noticed that we’re living in a time of hyper-polarization. You may have noticed that your conversations with friends and family members seem a bit more hostile, more bitter, more frantic. And you may have noticed that everywhere you turn you’re bombarded with alarmist rhetoric. What you’ve noticed has been noticed by many. What you’ve noticed are the symptoms of the plague infecting our culture at large, and it’s time we let those spreading the disease that we won’t just passively take notice.
This is a moment of mass hysteria. From print to prime time, panicked headlines and ledes have become the norm in the partisan storm that is the 24-hour news cycle. Editorializing and alarmism are the defining characteristics of today’s journalism, whereas plain-spoken facts are becoming rarer by the day. The Superhero movie-fication of our national conversation – where every debate is had on adversarial, all-or-nothing terms – is in full swing, complete with bad actors, abusive directors and lethargic audiences all too eager for mindless consumption. In short, a plague of yellow journalism has infected American culture and the results have been socially devastating.
Yellow journalism is nothing new. Media outlets have abused their unique position of power from their inception and have no incentive to stop. Such business practices have proven to be highly, highly profitable, making the sensationalization of news somewhat understandable. What is new is the simultaneous rise of the 24-hour news cycle and technology which allows breaking news to be consumed in multiple mediums from a device that fits comfortably in the palm of your hand. Media has thus become inescapable. The amount of media consumed by the average person has increased and with that increased consumption comes increased business opportunities, which implicitly means an increase in the spread of salacious, frenetic news consumed by an increased number of people. With this in mind it’s no wonder polarization has, yes, increased. Given everything considered the more shocking state affairs would be if it had not.
The understandable chasing of profits, however, does not absolve legacy media of any responsibility. Those behind the dissemination of information – the journalists, editors, and even entire outlets – are the infectious agents spreading this plague. To suggest otherwise is to assert that the default position of the media is to be purposely misleading, partisan actors. It is to assert that common people with bills, families, and innumerable other worries should watch the media like hawks, dedicating a considerable chunk of their time to fact checking the news and going to primary sources to get their information. Such a task takes the kind of time that most people simply do not have. Such a task is also what the legacy media purports to do professionally. The legacy media has taken as its job the distillation of all of the day’s information into what is most relevant and the presentation of it in an honest way. This is not to say news outlets must be perfectly objective and down the middle. It isn’t clear if that is even possible. As such, partisan leanings are acceptable so long as the outlet is honest about those leanings. This is why claims of neutrality from obviously partisan outlets such as CNN are such an insult to our collective intelligence and a slap in the face. Such outlets are premised on a lie – some would say they sit on a throne of lies. It also means that the outlet is either dumb enough to think the public is dumb enough to buy their lie, or that they’re so lacking in self-awareness that they don’t realize what they are doing. Having watched CNN over the past few years, it is easy to see the cause being a lot of both.
In this regard the legacy media has not only failed, it has largely behaved in a morally bankrupt, corrupt manner. Lying, distorting, concealing, misleading, cheating; editorializing and falsely moralizing… but enough about CNN. Enough complaining and enough analyzing the paralyzing, sickening effects of the legacy media on the culture at large. I’ve gotten enough off of my chest, plus those effects are widely understood, even if only implicitly. And yes, I realize the irony of accusing the legacy media of being responsible for a cultural “plague” while simultaneously chastising them for their alarmism. But such is life – sometimes ironic, often paradoxical, and always complicated.
The broader, more relevant point here is that our legacy media is decidedly not holding up their end of the bargain and it is having a disastrous effect on American culture. To put it plainly: I am absolutely asserting a strong cause and effect relationship between the irresponsible way in which our media reports the news and the way our conversations have become so toxic. The good news is that we common folk are not powerless. As such it is up to us as engaged citizens to hold their feet to the fire. It is up to us to aggressively call the legacy media out when we catch them spreading their lies and smears, to stigmatize lying journalists and unethical reporters. It is up to us to hold them accountable with our eyes and dollars – to change the channel and turn to alternative sources as often as we can. Look, I get it – the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, etc. are virtually unavoidable. That doesn’t mean we have to use them as our primary sources, or that we can’t criticize them when necessary while using them as sources. What it means is that we have to consciously support alternative outlets, with our eyes and our wallets, so that we can build them up and help introduce more competition into the media marketplace. Think of new media outlets as experimental, disease-fighting drugs that can help us cure this plague. The alternative is passively sitting by while we watch our republic rot away from within.