If Facebook has taught me anything, it’s that thoughtful political debate is an endangered species. People now just dig in their heels, broadcast their opinions, and don’t budge an inch.
My problem is I grew up in a world where facts mattered. People expressed their opinions, but they were expected to include at least one scintilla of verifiable supporting evidence. That world, apparently, is passé. Today, political debate is all about ad hominem labels (“repugs” and “snowflakes”) and scripted talking points.
I blame Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News, who died last week at the age of 77. Building the network from scratch in 1996, Ailes eschewed the traditional model of objective news delivery in favor of news with a decidedly partisan bent. His model worked — catapulting Fox to the top spot among all cable TV channels — because Ailes knew that people would gravitate to news they liked, facts be damned.
Not surprisingly, Public Policy Polling found Fox News to be America’s “most trusted” TV news network by 2010. That designation seemed ironic at the time, considering Ailes’ unabashed commitment to slanted news delivery. Today, Ailes’ model is the industry standard for cable news as Fox News retains its “most trusted” title.
“I built this channel from my life experience,” Ailes said in a New York Times article. “My first qualification is I didn’t go to Columbia Journalism School.”
“I built this business to throw off a billion dollars in profit,” he added. “That was the goal from Day 1. In my own mind.”
Along with that goal, Walter Cronkite’s time-honored model of journalism — the one where “a professional journalist recognizes his or her prejudices and biases, and avoids them in writing and reporting” — was history.
And so were rational, fact-based political conversations. Which brings me back to Facebook.
I like the opportunities for give-and-take that Facebook offers. But too often nowadays the exchanges are give-give-give, as in, “I don’t want to consider your point, and I definitely don’t want to read any relevant article you posted, but I do want to give you my opinion repeatedly and belligerently with no fact-based evidence.”
Ailes’ timing was perfect. His formula of “all the news I want, just the way I want it” hit the scene at the same time the internet was busting loose —
when people could, for the first time, find a “source” to back up any idea, conceivable or cockamamie, they might have.
“While new technology eases connections between people, it also, paradoxically, facilitates a closeted view of the world, keeping us coiled tightly with those who share our ideas,” wrote Farhad Manjoo in his 2008 book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. “In a world [the internet] that lacks real gatekeepers and authority figures, and in which digital manipulation is so effortless, spin, conspiracy theories, myths, and outright lies may get the better of many of us.”
No one understood this reality better than Roger Ailes. So he provided a channel where a certain segment of tightly coiled Americans could find “their” TV news to complement “their” websites.
“The internet did not, as is so often alleged, usher in the siloed media environment in which we find ourselves today and likely forever,” wrote Jon Klein, former president of CNN/U.S. “Ailes did that — by proving that there is money, influence, and power to be found in serving well-defined interest groups instead of trying to please the widest possible audience. What’s more, by unreservedly infusing news with a right-of-center agenda, Ailes popularized the notion that all journalists are biased.”
Consequently, more people today see the mainstream press as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people,” while a president whose epic proclivity for lying has been exposed time and again still garners the support of 40 percent of the voting population.
Thank you, indeed, Roger Ailes.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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