KEEPING THE REPUBLIC IN OUR NEW ERA OF POST-TRUTH POLITICS

wsj-trump-re-voter-fraud-222Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2016

Well, Doctor, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?  

A republic, if you can keep it.

Benjamin Franklin, 1787

Post-truth, adjective

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

Oxford English Dictionary word of the year, 2016

Rarely have fake news websites received so much attention in the 2016 presidential election and days leading to Donald Trump’s inauguration in January.  As a consequence, many commentators are newly addressing the serious challenge to the role a free press plays as a critical check on public malfeasance.

Despite explanations regarding the failure of the media to hold Donald Trump accountable for his many exaggerations and contradictions, citizens are left feeling powerless to do anything about it, especially if they have deficient critical media literacy skills.

Never has there been a better moment for citizens to play an active role in understanding how commercial media both profit from and encourage our new state of post-truth politics, and begin to do something about it.

Such as contacting the Wall Street Journal about their failure to provide critical coverage of his false claims of voter fraud and potential massive conflicts of financial interests as President. Or thanking Buzzfeed News and PRI for their coverage explaining how teenagers in Macedonia make money generating fake news stories appearing on American social media websites.

Critical media literacy education (CMLE) is suddenly something our democracy needs to take more seriously. Were Ben Franklin around to comment, he would surely agree.

THE HIGH UNACKOWLEDGED COST OF “FREE MEDIA”

trump-5-5-5The question I’d have when it comes to the media is how do we create a space where truth gets eyeballs and is entertaining, and we can build a common conversation?

Barack Obama interview with Bill Maher

President Barack Obama described the current problem with the media to Bill Maher just days before the 2016 election this way:

When I leave here, one of the things I’m most concerned about is the balkanization of the media where you’ve got 800 stations and you’ve got all these websites. People have difficulty now just sorting what’s true and what’s not. If you don’t have some common baseline of facts, you know, we can have a disagreement about how to deal with climate change, but if we have a big chunk of the country that just discounts what 99 percent of scientists say completely, it’s very hard to figure out how we move the democracy forward.

In his view, the imperative of the media is to reach a wide audience, to attract attention as the means to pay for itself. Unfortunately, this conflicts with respecting baseline facts and telling the truth. It certainly does in the realm of commercial TV and cable news, but not in the realm of non-profit, public service media. The distinction is worth examining more closely.

Since public media do not rely on this kind of advertising revenue to exist, they are not driven to grab the attention of viewers and listeners as a set up to see and hear spot ads for which commercial TV and radio are paid by their sponsors depending on the size and demographics of the audience, calculated minute by minute.

Obviously public media need resources to create their content via donations, subscriptions, grants, and a variety of subsidies, but they do not rely primarily, if not solely, on advertising revenue. As Katrina vanden Heuval makes clear, commercial media too often ignore difficult and important subjects because they do not cater to the audiences they want to reach and are generally much more costly to produce.

Like President Obama, most citizens think funding news and public affairs programs is mainly done through advertising that requires large, engaged audiences of the kind Donald Trump was able to deliver throughout the 15 month election season. As previously mentioned, this narrow thinking has perilous consequences, and is too glibly referred to as the “free media” Donald Trump was such a master of exploiting.

Citizens with critical media literacy skills understand these distinctions. Unfortunately, few do, apparently including President Obama.