Takes from a Plane

At the risk of sounding like Tom Friedman, I am going to tell a story about a conversation I had with a stranger on an airplane a couple months back.

About halfway through the flight from Houston to San Diego, the woman in the middle seat next to me offered up a comment about the newly elected president as I looked at the route map in the in-flight magazine. She said something along the lines of “lot of things getting shaken up these days around the world with the new president.”

I don’t recall what the Tweet of the Day was from Donald Trump that had provided the most recent outrage, but I was keyed up enough about it to be willing to engage in what was sure to be some argument with this woman, who, I would later learn, was in her sixties and hailed from rural Oklahoma.

She noted my lack of enthusiasm regarding the president-elect’s ideas and worldview and, to her credit, she was genuinely interested in hearing my opinions. My telling her that I lived in DC elicited an audible grunt, though. There was a distinct generational divide between us, but the geographic divide seemed to be more relevant considering the makeup of the Trump electorate and the Clinton electorate.

So commenced the back and forth between two caricatures of the 2016 election: a young liberal from a big city and an old conservative from a small town. Excited as I was to talk to someone with whom I had almost nothing in common, the upshot of the conversation left me as pessimistic as ever about the state of the country.

The points of contention were nothing new or surprising. She asked how I could have supported Barack Obama if he lacked the citizenship to legally run for and win political office. She scoffed at my assertion that the birther movement was born of racism and xenophobia. I asked why owning a shed full of guns and assault rifles was necessary to ensure the protection of her family and property. She was speechless after I told her I had never held a firearm before. She even wondered what kind of fun one could have in a city. Our ideas of entertainment were at odds, to say the least.

As much as I can enjoy a good argument, I quickly realized that this conversation was not going anywhere. So I switched gears and instead of talking about issues, I started asking about where she got her news. What were the information and news sources that informed her opinions? She admitted pretty clearly, “Mostly FOX News, honestly.” She also noted that Facebook had become a good aggregator of opinion and information for her.

I asked how recently she had moved to an all-FOX media diet. It was not recent. I also asked why she had eschewed the likes of the network newscasts (CBS, NBC and ABC) and traditional print outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, or even USA Today. Her response was revealing: she “gave up on them years ago.” Too much liberal bias, she said. It also turns out that her local paper folded years ago, and she found the Tulsa paper too liberal for her taste.

Although I tried to make the case for taking another look at those sources and not reflexively dismissing them, she had clearly made up her mind — and no liberal millenial on an airplane was going to change that .

I told her point-blank that until or unless people like us can agree on basic facts, Americans will continue talking past each other, and the nation’s inexorable path towards total polarization will become that much clearer. On this, she agreed — a first for the entire conversation. We agreed that we could not agree on anything. That was hardly satisfying.

I tell this story mostly because I believe that the information divide, and what people consider credible versus ‘fake’ news scares me about as much as anything in politics lately. And there is no obvious or easy way to rectify this.

It is heartening to see subscriptions to the Post and the Times skyrocketing since the election and inauguration. I’m glad to see protests advocating for press freedom and news outlets publicly demanding access and information.

Irrespective of this progress, we must not be blind to the universe of media that millions of people have turned to in rejection of media that was once considered conventional or mainstream and is now decried as liberal or primarily anti-Trump. Alex Jones, a well-known propagandist and shirtless BBQ enthusiast, has the ear of the president and has hordes of followers who believe every conspiracy he peddles. Steve Bannon, the former(?) editor of Breitbart, has an office adjacent to the Oval, and is not shy about his desire to destroy government from within and to diminish American geopolitical supremacy as we know it. (It remains unclear whether or not he has officially or unofficially relinquished his role at the website.)

Trump himself boasts millions of Twitter followers and any one of his online outbursts can move markets and media coverage, not to mention galvanize his supporters — particularly and most dangerously against the press.

I’m no huge fan of the network evening newscasts. The propensity to always include some uplifting story is unfortunate and essentially an abdication of their important role in delivering relevant news. Twenty-two minutes is hardly enough time to give viewers the world. However, the average nightly audience for those shows hovers around 24 million. For some perspective, about 130 million cast ballots last November. Still many of those people vote. The information they consume here matters greatly.

Gone are the days when it seemed like the whole country would sit down to dinner and be guided through the day by Walter Cronkite. The news moves too fast now, and the balkanized and highly competitive nature of the news media does more to hinder credibility than nourish it.

All that said, the mainstream outlets that still account for at least a large plurality of news consumption have not adjusted well at all to this reality. It’s existed for some time; the surprise of the last election and the current occupant in the White House simply brought it into higher relief.

For all the attention that conservatives in general and Trump voters in particular have received for abandoning conventional media outlets, some liberals have also been driven away from those sources. This aversion seems less about ideology as opposed to substance and the vigor of reporting, I assume. Still, few on either side of the political divide can be pleased with how traditional media have failed to adjust to the new political climate. The faces the media put forward are hardly a mirror to America, either.

Take, for example, the makeup of the Sunday morning talk shows. Viewership is low relative to the voting population, but 10 million viewers between Meet the Press, Face the Nation and This Week is not insignificant. Few if any changes have been made to the format, and most unfortunate of all, the same is true of the “experts” upon whom they call to provide analysis in their roundtables.

Take today’s episode of Meet the Press. The four panelists were Tom Friedman, Danielle Pletka, Kim Strassel and Cornell Belcher. With the possible exception of Belcher, these analysts have been perennials of the Sunday show circuit. Their analysis betrays this.

Plenty of other reputable journalists and chroniclers of today’s politics exist beyond this reservoir of familiar faces. It’s extremely important for the media to include these voices and faces. This is true for voices on both sides of the aisle.

However, I worry that any movement traditional media may take to assemble voices from both sides will result in including Trump apologists as opposed to actual Republicans. To be sure, there are millions of hard-core Trump voters out there who have found sympathetic voices in the likes of Jones, Tomi Lahren and others. But there still exists a large contingent of Republicans who hitched their wagons to Trump out of convenience more so than ideological loyalty. For example, now a majority of Republicans are in favor of deeper investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. This contingent lacks a home right now, too.

During the campaign, CNN brought on and paid people like Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh Mcenany to provide election analysis. (I use “analysis” very lightly here.) Ostensibly this was to provide “balance” in their coverage. However, it provided legitimization of Trump as an actual Republican or an adherent to even part of what conservative espouses. I suspect many tuned out CNN because they tired of Lord going at it with Van Jones, but I digress.

My gut tells me that the mainstream media have lost people like the woman I spoke with on the plane back in December. I similarly find it hard to believe that any significant number of Americans who currently get their news from Alex Jones or from Breitbart will soon be purchasing subscriptions to the Washington Post.

That’s not to say there’s not a massive potential audience for traditional print and broadcast outlets to compete for. I just think that the credibility gap of greatest import right now exists among the ones whose minds are malleable and open to change. In other words, those who have yet to fall under the spell of a legion of outlets that exists for the sole purpose of defending Trump’s actions and their version of nationalism. Unless traditional media outlets actively fight for that loyalty through tough, dispassionate reporting as opposed to false balance and both-sidesism, I fear too many Americans will find themselves in the same place as the woman in seat 27B on her way to San Diego.

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