Their Success is Our Failure: How the Media is Dividing Us

Kenosha, WI is in flames. Portland is under siege. Major sporting leagues have boycotted several games, potentially the season. Oh, and we’re still in the grips of global pandemic. As human beings, we have an innate need to blame someone or something for the problems we face. So, who’s to blame for 2020?

Trump? 

Congress? 

White people? 

There’s no shortage of blame foisted upon the individuals and groups listed above. Some of it is justified. But there’s one group that too often escapes blame for its role as an agent of unrest. That group is the mainstream media, or MSM.

When I talk about MSM I’m referring primarily to the Big 3 - CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC - but valid criticisms of MSM extend well beyond the top national outlets on both the left and right. In a healthy society MSM functions as a check on the power and influence of government and private industry, exposing the truths that those in power are often motivated to hide. 

At a superficial level the MSM still serves this purpose, and to be sure there are many people within MSM who still do high-quality, impactful investigative work. But when you dig a bit deeper into how the MSM machine operates and how that operational paradigm impacts society, you begin to arrive at a more unnerving conclusion. 

Namely: the MSM is helping create the widespread social and emotional distress we see today by manipulating our perceptions of reality - for profit.

The bias origin story 

In the mid 1900’s, the media faced much greater restrictions on how they could present the news. The rules were codified by the FCC into what was called The Fairness Doctrine, which stated loosely that if a media outlet wanted to present a story from a non-objective angle, it was also required to dedicate time to present the story from the “other side”. While this was always a bit of idealism, this approach did at least create a measure of objectivity within the major news outlets, at least through most of the 1980’s. 

That all changed in 1985 when the US Supreme Court ruled that The Fairness Doctrine violated the media’s 1st amendment rights around freedom of expression. Political leaders made multiple attempts to revive the doctrine in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, but to no avail. Then, just over a decade after the Supreme Court ruling, the first “entertainment” media outlet was born: Fox News.

The OG of MSM bias is Fox News...

Fox News changed the game by moving away from objective news to entertainment news. While it was still beholden to libel laws, it was no longer beholden to objectivity. Fox News was a conservative organization, and it could present a narrative that aligned with that political temperament. 

My first light-bulb moment of MSM bias came when I saw how Fox News treated and portrayed Barack Obama. The hosts and guests on Fox threw out every right-wing pejorative to describe him: “Muslim”, “Socialist”, “Not born in the US”, despite having not a shred of evidence to back up their assertion. When the opportunity presented itself, they willfully and deliberately misrepresented everything he said, from “You didn’t build that” to “American exceptionalism”. 

Having voted for Obama and having been left-leaning for my entire adult life, I was outraged when I continually saw this pattern emerge again and again. I ultimately chalked it up to Fox News being Fox News, and assumed that it was an outlier. And while that may have been more or less true in 2008, it became gradually less so as time progressed. 

Donald Trump’s election accelerated everything.

...but they’re no longer the only one

I’ve stated it before and I’ll state it again: I don’t like Donald Trump. I think he’s narcissistic, petty, and dishonest. I don’t think he’s a fundamentally good person. That said, I don’t think most national politicians are good people - some are just better at masking their character flaws (see: Bill Clinton). 

More importantly to me than his character, Trump hasn’t delivered on what I believe was his important campaign promise: “draining the swamp”. I don’t think you’ll find many people, myself included, that disagree that removing industry insiders, pay-to-play, and corporate influence in DC is one of the most important issues facing our country today. During his campaign Trump claimed that as a political outsider he would be able to succeed where others have failed, but by any measure corporate influence and corruption in DC are as strong as ever under his administration. 

However, there’s one area where I do give Trump credit for raising awareness around a legitimate issue: “fake news”. When I first heard him use the term “fake news”, I laughed and brushed it off as another absurd statement from an absurd human. Then I started to look more closely at how the media narrative aligned with right-wing incidences that were well-documented from start to finish. It was eye-opening, to say the least. 

Let’s discuss two:

Trump's “very fine people on both sides” comment

This quote has been used over and over again by the liberal media to claim that Trump supports neo-Nazis and white nationalism. However, when you read the full quote in context it’s immediately clear that Trump is not talking about neo-Nazis when referring to “fine people”. In fact, he explicitly denounces them. Even the arguably left-leaning Politifact agrees

You may believe Trump is racist. He may very well be (though I think there’s a more likely explanation for his rants). But at an objective level, there is virtually no difference between how the liberal MSM intentionally misrepresented his “Very fine people” statement and how the conservative MSM misrepresented Obama’s “You didn’t build this” comment. Both were taken out of context, intentionally, to create the desired narrative/reality.

Nicholas Sandmann

You probably recall the photo of Nicholas Sandmann, the MAGA hat-wearing teenager who smiled while a Native American elder stood chanting in front of him. I, like many, were appalled when this photo came out. Kudos, CNN.

However, shortly after the initial outrage peaked and in which thousands of adults were calling for this teenager to be assaulted, to be harassed, to be denied college or future job opportunities, additional video evidence came out. That evidence showed not only that it was the elder that intentionally came up to him, but that the entire confrontation was exacerbated if not started off-camera by a group of Black Hebrew Israelites (a well-known hate group).

When the additional footage was revealed, some MSM reporters admitted their error. However, CNN doubled down. Instead of admitting their mistake, they attempted to justify their portrayal on the basis that a teenager wearing a MAGA hat was a direct incitement to violence. Furthermore, even after Sandmann’s vindication, people on the CNN (and other liberal MSM) staff continued to promote and justify both the story and their subsequent harassment of a teenager. It’s not wonder that Sandmann won a massive lawsuit against CNN and the Washington Post.

This was just the tip of the iceberg.

How the media creates our reality

Imagine you’re asked to make a decision as to whether a coin is “honest” - gambling speak for something whose odds are what you’d expect in the absence of cheating or collusion. There’s only one catch: you can’t take any physical measurements of the coin (width, weight, etc). How can you tell whether the coin is honest?

“Ah” you say, “I don’t have to inspect the coin. I can flip the coin, and measure the distribution of heads and tails.” Since an honest coin will hit either heads or tails roughly 50% of the time, the distribution of heads and tails should converge around 50% as the number of tosses increases.

So you toss the coin 10 times and get the following results: THHTTHHHHH. Instead of the expected 5 heads and 5 tails, you threw 7 heads and 3 tails (70% heads). What conclusions can you draw about the coin from this distribution? The answer, of course, is that you can’t say anything about the coin from 10 throws; the sample size is simply too small. 

So you run the experiment again and complete another 10 throws and end up with 5 heads and 5 tails. You’ve now completed 20 throws, of which 12 (60%) are heads. Closer to 50/50, but still too small a sample to be useful. 

You then repeat the experiment over and over in increments of 10 throws and although the results of each set of 10 vary wildly, you notice that as the total number of throws increases the proportion of heads and tails eventually converges to around 50/50. You thus conclude confidently that the coin is honest.

Easy right?

Now imagine that there’s a MSM reporter who wants to write a story about your coin-tossing experiments. The reporter writes the story and presents the following headline to the editor: 

“Coin ruled honest after a series of hundreds of careful experiments”

But the editor is aghast: who in their right mind is going to read a story about an honest coin? The editors know that uninteresting stories are anathema to the modern MSM, since uninteresting stories drive less engagement (i.e. clicks, viewership) and less engagement drives less ad revenue (the dominant revenue model). Yet the editor knows that they can’t lie outright either. 

What should they do? What would you do?

What many within the MSM do today is simple: they misrepresent, largely by including information that is emotionally charged (since emotions, particularly feelings of outrage, drive clicks) while minimizing (if not outright removing) details that paint a nuanced or more complicated picture. So instead of focusing on the hundreds of individual 10-toss experiments, the reporter writes a headline based only on the first one that yielded 7 heads and 3 tails.

“Coin ruled honest after a series of hundreds of careful experiments”

becomes

“Coin toss experiment yields 40% more heads than expected”

What the reporter did is straightforward:

  • Focus only on the data that fits the desired narrative

  • Write a headline that reinforces that narrative

  • Bury the complete data deep within the article where it’s much less likely to be read (if it’s included at all)

The success of this approach relies on two predictable quirks of humans:

  1. We experience negative emotions much more strongly than positive ones

  2. Most of us are either too lazy, too busy, or too uninformed to be able to parse the facts of the story from the narrative

So how does the MSM’s narrative-driven approach impact our perceptions of reality? Let’s use a real-world and currently relevant example by asking two questions:

How many unarmed black people do you think were shot and killed by police last year? 

How does that number compare to the number of unarmed white people shot and killed by police last year?

If you don’t know the answer, take a guess. 

.

.

.

.

.

There are databases that track this data, and the actual numbers have been shared much more frequently than in years’ past so I’m sure many of you know the answer. However, someone posed this question to me earlier this year and my instinctive answers were “Several hundred” and “A few dozen”, respectively. Turns out, my estimates were conservative compared to the estimates of many others:

Here’s a recent tweet from a (black) college professor:

9 unarmed black Americans were shot and killed by police, compared to 13 white Americans, in a country of 350,000,000 people. Furthermore, the total number of unarmed people killed by police has dropped by more than 50% in the past decade. 

However, when you look at rates of viewership of of articles written about these topics, the difference is stark: inter-racial police shootings receive more than 3X the coverage of intra-racial police shootings, and coverage overall has increased significantly over the past decade despite the sharp decline in total shootings.

For every terrible killing of a black person, there’s been an equally terrible killing of a white one. We’ve all heard of George Floyd. How about Timothy Coffman? Coffman is a white man who in 2018 died much like Floyd: with his neck under the knee of a police officer. We’ve heard of Breanna Taylor, but not about Duncan Lemp who was killed while asleep during a no-knock raid. These examples are in no way meant to diminish what happened to Floyd and Taylor, merely to show how the MSM chooses its stories and angles in order to present a narrative that it knows will drive engagement, consequences be damned.

Despite being generally aware of the media’s preferred narrative around race and policing, I was shocked to have only recently learned the extent to which it is promulgated. And while the overall numbers of black Americans killed by police are still disproportionate relative to their representation within the US population, it casts doubt on the narrative that unarmed black men are being targeted for murder by police. To be more specific, that narrative is in fact entirely a creation of the MSM.

Some of you may be upset by this statement, so let me be perfectly clear as to what I’m actually saying vs what I’m not saying:

I’m not saying that police violence doesn’t disproportionately affect black Americans.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a history of terrible and racist policing and profiling against black Americans.

I’m not saying that other forms of policing, e.g. traffic stops, aren’t subject to racial bias

I’m not saying that there aren’t remnants of slavery and Jim Crow that still impact the black community today.

I’m not saying that there aren’t excessive uses of force and other abuses of power perpetrated by police departments around the country, and that they aren’t tolerated or covered up leadership/unions within those departments. 

To the extent that the current protests (but not violence) help to rectify these wrongs, I am fully in support. However, while all of those things may be true, the narrative that police are wantonly targeting and killing unarmed black men is not.

Why false/misleading narratives matter

I’ve had this same conversation with friends of all races. And the question I get most often is “It may be true that the extent of the problem is exaggerated by the MSM, but if it leads to some positive change then isn’t it worth the trade-off?”

I don’t believe so, and here’s why.

False narratives somewhere lead to distrust everywhere

If you’re a liberal, do you believe anything you hear from Fox News? If you’re a conservative, do you believe anything from CNN? I doubt it - most people don’t trust sources from the other side of the political aisle, and the other side doesn’t trust your sources either.

Once that trust is repeatedly broken, you begin to summarily dismiss what you hear from outlets you don’t align yourself with, and it becomes virtually impossible to align on even basic facts. A society that can’t agree on even the most basic facts is a society that cannot solve its most basic problems.

False narratives empower bad actors

Want to know why Trump’s attacks on the media have been so successful? Because it’s been reinforced by the half-truths, omissions, and outright lies propagated by many people within the MSM. An honest media, by contrast, is much harder to subvert.

False narratives create unnecessary emotional distress

Of the black people that I follow on FB, Instagram, and Twitter, many have expressed significant emotional distress - anxiety, depression, anger - at events that have occurred over the past few months. Those emotions aren’t solely a reaction to those that have been shot and/or killed already - many are seriously concerned that they or their families are at risk of being killed by police. 

In reality, most of the people I follow on social media are middle to upper middle class, whereas nearly all police shootings occur in poor communities and nearly all of those involve a weapon of some type; the risk to my social media circle is virtually zero. Yet that they feel these very real emotions and concerns over the safety of their families demonstrates the extent to which the MSM’s narrative can shape the feelings that guide our realities.

False narratives obscure real problems

There are real issues with policing in this country. 

  • Too many citizens (1000+) are killed by police every year, and too many police officers (300+) are killed by citizens every year. 

  • Bad cops are too often protected by their departments or simply transferred to others

  • Too little is being done to address mental health and substance abuse issues, which were significant factors in both the George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks killings.

  • Too many cops are undertrained, overworked, and overstressed. Many have undiagnosed PTSD.

  • Irrespective of how you feel about the 2nd amendment, the 300M+ guns on our streets pose unique threats to officers not faced in most other developed countries.

  • Our economy and social programs haven’t done nearly enough to address issue of poverty and despair

While many of these issues do disproportionately affect the black community, they are by no means limited to it. Bad policing, bad economic policy, and issues with mental illness affect everyone

San Francisco is Exhibit A, a city where the persistent narrative of “rich vs poor” and “tech vs everyone else”  leads to fragmented communities that are increasingly hostile towards each other. A cogent intelligent narrative built around the root of these problems could potentially galvanize people of all stripes and political persuasions to come address the problems. Instead, we’ve been stuck with the same narrative that has done nothing to solve the increasingly intractable problems facing the city.

False narratives drive division and violence

Modern society can only function with a baseline level of mutual trust and respect. Despite the historical injustices committed against black Americans, there were significant economic and social gains made by black Americans in the late 90’s and early 00’s. While they are by no means sufficient, they did lead to significant improvements in black-white race relations up through the early 2010’s. 

That changed sharply between 2013 and 2015, as you can see below:

This shift occurred well after the 2008 financial crisis ended, well after Obama’s first term, and well before Trump was a candidate for President. So what happened? 

Take a look at this graph, which shows how often the major media outlets used the word “racist” or “racism” (or some variation thereof).

The use of race/racism-oriented language in major MSM publications increased by 5-6X between 2010 and 2020. That increase in usage began to rise in 2011 after several years of steep decline after Obama’s first election. Crucially, that rise began a couple years prior to Americans’ increasingly negative collective feelings about race relations. 

While it’s impossible to draw a causal conclusion from this data alone, there’s no question that MSM has stoked a narrative that positions black vs white, cop vs citizen, and right vs left. That narrative has in part led many to feel frustration, resentment, anxiety, and in some cases outright hatred. Given that, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that at least some of the current animosity and societal division is the direct result of coverage shifts within the MSM (as an aside, I believe this is at least in part due to how social media has changed the MSM landscape, something I’ll cover in a future newsletter).

In summary

Despite all of the problems we’re facing today, I believe the vast majority of Americans (myself included) want the same things: equitable and just economic, law enforcement, and judicial systems. I believe that the problems facing our country are mostly solvable with common sense-reforms that the majority of Americans would support. I also believe that the MSM is both incentivized by and an active participant in a world where narrative dominates truth, and that they are complicit in shaping our increasingly divisive reality.

I believe that the advertising model of journalism needs to be replaced with something better. I believe that social media as we know it needs to be largely shuttered and redesigned from the ground up (a future piece on this is forthcoming). I believe that there needs to be increased financial accountability when the media misrepresents a story in spite of evidence to the contrary. I believe some version of The Fairness Doctrine needs to be implemented for the major “news” networks.

But it all starts with you, the consumer. Next time you see a headline or an article, especially from an outlet that you align with politically, don’t just take at face value the headline or the story. And crucially, don’t just blindly ingest the stories you’re being shown. Ask yourself: what am I not being shown, and why?