“Misinformation” is all the rage these days — it’s the topic du jour. Polls suggest we all agree that it’s a problem, and lately liberals appear most mad at it — but seemingly only at certain kinds of misinformation that originate outside the corporate media sphere.
Notably, the ire is rarely directed at a corporate media machine that systematically rewards and praises the purveyors of misleading propaganda, and continues to flood the country with information sewage.
This selective outrage is a huge problem — because the only way to systematically combat misinformation is to construct a Fourth Estate that develops some trust with the audience. That trust will never be rebuilt if liberals pretend to hate misinformation while they patronize a media establishment that fortifies the pathologies that originally created a credibility crisis.
Consider the past week of media news, while the Joe Rogan controversy dominated headlines:
- NBC News hired Stephen Hayes, one of the key architects of Iraq War misinformation, to serve as a political analyst across all of its properties amid a media drumbeat for a war with Russia. Despite Hayes publishing the seminal book amplifying one of the most egregious lies of the Iraq debacle, NBC’s Chuck Todd lauded him as “a principled reporter and analyst who always puts truth and facts above emotion and sentiment.” Meanwhile, CNN just hired another Iraq War proponent, right-wing propagandist Jonah Goldberg.
- Speaking of CNN, its employees effusively praised their network’s recently deposed president, Jeff Zucker, even after Zucker oversaw the lionization of Andrew Cuomo while the New York governor was shielding his health care industry donors from legal consequences amid a massacre of nursing home residents. Rolling Stone reported that one source said Zucker was personally involved in engineering the Cuomo promotion — and even helped write talking points for the governor.
- Corporate media began touting a comeback for Cuomo and his brother, Chris, with no mention of the nursing home catastrophe, as if nothing bad happened over the last two years.
- An MSNBC-platformed Washington newsletter blasted out propaganda touting Kroger’s “great pay and benefits” — even as thousands of its employees are struggling to afford basic necessities, and even as the grocery chain bankrolls lobbying groups working to kill union rights legislation.
- The New York Times told its readers that President Joe Biden’s “big climate goals depend on Congress” — somehow not mentioning that they also depend on Biden, who has been using his executive authority to expand drilling at a faster pace than President Donald Trump.
- Less than two years after the New York Times told its readers that 100,000 pandemic deaths under Trump was “incalculable,” the newspaper has now decided that 900,000 deaths is now a ho-hum story that Americans are bored with. "Though deaths are still mounting, the threat from the virus is moving, for now, farther into the background of daily life for many Americans,” the paper wrote.
- MSNBC aired an interview with a New York Times columnist blaming inflation on workers getting COVID relief money, rather than on corporations using their monopoly power to fleece consumers with higher prices that then fund giant executive pay packages and shareholder dividends.
Obviously, multiple wrongs don’t make a right. Rogan platforming public health nonsense and environmental misinformation — and using racial slurs — is not somehow absolved by corporate media concurrently immersing the world in an ocean of self-serving bullshit. His behavior is bad on its own merits. Full stop.
But corporate media doesn’t get to lie the country into a war and a financial crisis, continue enriching right-wing fabulists, offer up news literally “presented by” corporate villains, and then pretend that a podcaster is the singular source of misinformation. And it sure as hell doesn’t get to feign surprise when after decades of lies, almost nobody ends up trusting corporate media about anything.
Despite crocodile tears about “free speech,” none of the central players in the hullabaloo are heroes or victims — they are all making a mint off selling controversy, garbage, and fake outrage. And it’s hardly a surprise that the loudest of them screaming about censorship have had little to say about the most pervasive censorship of all: corporate media’s near-complete erasure of economic and anti-corruption reporting that might offend business sponsors.
The real victim here is the general public.
We need television networks whose anchors don’t run out onto the airwaves to defend top brass amid reports that they helped politicians and political operatives effectively cover up a public health disaster.
And we need an information infrastructure that preferences accurate, verifiable, and indisputable facts so that the public can make informed decisions.
We don’t have much of that right now, in part because political tribalism has taught audiences to selectively love and hate misinformation based on whether it comes from “their” team.
Many liberals love monikers like “believe science” and see themselves as dispassionate protectors of the truth. But let’s be clear: If you’re a liberal who purports to hate misinformation but also cheers on Liz Cheney or Bill Kristol or some other war propagandist as a beacon of integrity just because you see them defending Democrats or bashing Donald Trump on your favorite TV network, then you don’t actually hate misinformation — you just happen to like your misinformation colored blue (even if that misinformation was previously colored neocon red).
Likewise, if you are a Rogan fan or a Fox News maven who purports to want the “real truth” while you cheer him or Tucker Carlson peddling climate denial and vaccine misinformation, then you don’t actually care about truth at all.
And if you’re in corporate media and think it’s OK for your news outlet to routinely skew and cover up the crimes of politicians and business, then you’re not actually interested in journalism’s mission to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.
The difference between “media” and actual journalism is the root of the misinformation crisis. We’re drowning in content that is increasingly valued only for its potency in the political wars, rather than judged on its factual merits and its choice of targets. That kind of media content strays farther and farther from reality because it’s about entertaining and inflaming rather than educating and informing.
The answer to misinformation, then, is not some censorship regime, and it’s not more intense fan culture around individual media icons so that everything is a self-enriching culture war between cable TV pundits and Spotify hosts.
The answer is an audience that actually values accurate and necessary information, even if it offends their preconceived notions — an audience that runs away from corporate media outlets that force-feed them lies and liars, and runs toward news organizations that report hard truths.
That’s the kind of news organization we’re working to build here. And we know it’s going to take a long time to build a true independent and trustworthy Fourth Estate in the wreckage of a corporate media landscape, where the flames of bullshit smolder and suffocate the discourse.
But that’s the only way forward.
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