Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

Media, politics, and truth in the struggle for dominance in the marketplace of ideas

Democracy as a marketplace of ideas is under attack, and the news media as a primary source of ideas in the market is at the center of the battle. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a spike in awareness and activity relating to political misinformation and disinformation in media, and in particular, online media. As we chase solutions to the problems of fake news, news bias, and other similar concerns, we would do well to remember that our system of free press has always been vulnerable to manipulation by special interests, be they foreign, commercial, or our own government and advocates.

Bursting the Bubble

To get a better view of the condition of the marketplace today, contrast our current Babel with the peak of mass media in the 1960s and 70s. Back then, many Americans got their news from one of the nightly news programs airing on the three national television networks. In their quest for larger audiences and ratings, the three programs all hewed to a similar centrist, non-partisan view of the news, as did many of the large national newspapers and news magazines. Walter Cronkite’s signature sign-off at CBS, “And that’s the way it is”, speaks to the leading characteristic of mass media news at the time, giving what people wanted from their news — reassurance free from partisan rancor.

Losing Our Common Ground

So effective was the conservative assault on the marketplace that the journalists and politicians who hawked their popular, left-leaning wares there for decades barely felt the ground shifting underneath them until 2016 when Donald Trump shook the political establishment. Beginning in the 1980s, the Right attacked the mainstream media with the one-two punch of political correctness and liberal bias. On the one hand, the accusation of political correctness addressed the alleged suppression of ideas that were outside the mainstream — ideas that conservatives had claimed for decades were being ignored. And on the other, accusing journalists of liberal bias suggested that they were unfairly ignoring those conservative ideas.

Putting the Market at Risk

Conservatives’ strategic refusal to respect and accept the validity of scientific findings, corroborated evidence, and easily observed truths has successfully destabilized the marketplace, sowing confusion and mistrust among media consumers. It has also created new political and social opportunities for long-silent groups whose vision of America does not include a marketplace of ideas reflecting the output of a melting pot of diverse people. As these groups moved the political center further to the right, they have brought into question the nation’s cultural identity as the world’s leading light for democracy.

Restoring Trust, Winning Back the Marketplace

The erosion of trust in media and our democratic institutions is a much more complicated tale than bias and the spread of falsehoods via filter bubbles on the Internet. Powerful people, not algorithms, have purposefully exploited vulnerabilities in the media in order to gain a platform for economic ideas and social views that the marketplace had long ago rejected. In order to make their voices heard, however, they have damaged the foundations of the marketplace. Now, to retain the power they’ve achieved, the conservative and alt-Right alliance seems willing to complete the destruction by suppressing progressive thoughts and votes. What started as an effort to promote business interests has morphed into a war for the identity of American democracy, if not for the existence of the democracy itself.

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