Pandering to the lizard brain: American media versus objective reality

Matt Taibbi, in typical blazing form in the Rolling Stone, asks how it can be that millions of Americans believe Donald Trump's fairy-tale about Muslims cheering after 9/11 when it just didn't happen.

There are many related questions, like how can so many people believe the (ahem) trumped-up stories about Planned Parenthood selling baby-parts, or the nonsense about how "92 percent of the jobs lost under Obama belonged to women."

Taibbi says that investor-driven media, which no longer even plays lip-service to the idea of informing the public, is partly to blame — but so is the public for demanding it.

Though I will read Taibbi all day long, I don't entirely agree with his point here. There's a lot to be angry at in today's media landscape, but I don't know that it's uniquely sensationalistic or that the public is uniquely badly informed. There have been long stretches in US history when newspapers were nakedly partisan (in Canada, there's still a newspaper called the Whig Standard, and in the UK, one major daily's name trumpets the fact that it isn't affiliated with a party, because this is still noteworthy in the age of the "Torygraph").

For centuries, the media have served to sell colonialism, racism, and sexism, from their editorial pages and from their investigative columns.

But the new bad news isn't exactly the same as the old bad news, and it is worrisome, and it makes us worse, and so I'm thankful to Taibbi for writing about it:

What we call right-wing and liberal media in this country are really just two different strategies of the same kind of nihilistic lizard-brain sensationalism. The ideal CNN story is a baby down a well, while the ideal Fox story is probably a baby thrown down a well by a Muslim terrorist or an ACORN activist. Both companies offer the same service, it's just that the Fox version is a little kinkier.

When you make the news into this kind of consumer business, pretty soon audiences lose the ability to distinguish between what they think they're doing, informing themselves, and what they're actually doing, shopping.

And who shops for products he or she doesn't want? That's why the consumer news business was always destined to hit this kind of impasse. You can get by for a long time by carefully selecting the facts you know your audiences will like, and calling that news. But eventually there will be a truth that displeases your customers. What do you do then?

America Is Too Dumb for TV News
[Matt Taibbi/Rolling Stone]

(via Kottke)

(Image: The size range of Allosaurus and possible synonym Epanterias (largest), compared with a human, Scott Hartman, CC-BY-SA)