Rightists Are Inferior
2018-01-11 01:15:33 UTC
A major new study of social media sharing patterns shows that political
polarization is more common among conservatives than liberals and that
the exaggerations and falsehoods emanating from right-wing media outlets
such as Breitbart News have infected mainstream discourse.
Though the report, published by the Columbia Journalism Review, does an
excellent job of laying out the challenge posed by Breitbart and its ilk,
it is less than clear on how to counter it. Successfully standing up for
truthful reporting in this environment could usher in a new golden age
for the Fourth Estate, the authors write. But members of the public who
care about such journalism are already flocking to news organizations like
The New York Times, The Washington Post, and, locally, The Boston Globe,
all of which have experienced a surge in paid subscriptions since the
election of President Trump. Thats heartening, but there are no signs
that its had any effect on the popularity or influence of the right-wing
The CJR study, by scholars at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet &
Society, at Harvard Law School, and the MIT Center for Civic Media,
examined more than 1.25 million articles between April 1, 2015, and
Election Day. What they found was that Hillary Clinton supporters shared
stories from across a relatively broad political spectrum, including
center-right sources such as The Wall Street Journal, mainstream news
organizations like the Times and the Post, and partisan liberal sites like
The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.
By contrast, Donald Trump supporters clustered around Breitbart headed
until recently by Stephen Bannon, the hard-right nationalist now ensconced
in the White House and a few like-minded websites such as The Daily
Caller, Alex Jones' Infowars, and The Gateway Pundit. Even Fox News was
dropped from the favored circle back when it was attacking Trump during
the primaries, and only re-entered the fold once it had made its peace
with the future president.
The authors of the study refer to their findings as asymmetric
polarization, and they point to some deleterious effects. The Breitbart-
led sites were able to push the traditional media into focusing on Trumps
favored issue immigration and to frame it on their terms: overwrought
fears about crime and terrorism. Clinton, on the other hand, was defined
mainly by scandal coverage in the form of her use of a private email
server, the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the
Clinton Foundation. The authors of the study, Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris
and Hal Roberts of Berkman and Ethan Zuckerman of MIT, write:
It is a mistake to dismiss these stories as fake news; their power stems
from a potent mix of verifiable facts (the leaked Podesta emails),
familiar repeated falsehoods, paranoid logic, and consistent political
orientation within a mutually-reinforcing network of like-minded sites.
Use of disinformation by partisan media sources is neither new nor limited
to the right wing, but the insulation of the partisan right-wing media
from traditional journalistic media sources, and the vehemence of its
attacks on journalism in common cause with a similarly outspoken
president, is new and distinctive.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, writing about the study
earlier this week, recalled talking with a Trump voter in Pennsylvania who
said she didnt support Clinton because I didnt like how she stole those
emails and it got people killed in Benghazi a perfect storm of
But Sullivans prescription is unsatisfying. Theres another way that the
traditional press has allowed right-wing media to flourish by moving too
far to the left itself, she writes. Though its true that studies show
most mainstream journalists are liberal, she offers little evidence
suggesting that the situation has changed much over the years, although
longtime media observer Tom Rosenstiel did tell her that there are fewer
Republicans in newsrooms than there used to be.
Besides, in contrast with the partisan right-wing media, mainstream
journalists are dedicated to the proposition that facts should be verified
and errors corrected. Lets not forget that it was the Times that exposed
Clintons email habits an overblown story that almost certainly cost her
the presidency when FBI Director James Comey reopened his investigation on
the basis of zero evidence barely a week before the election.
Then, too, the kinds of people who share stories from Breitbart on social
media are politically engaged in ways that the average Trump supporter is
not. But never fear: the right-wing media machine is there for them, too.
The current issue of the National Enquirer features two front-page photos
of Trump and the headlines How Im Cleaning Up Obamas Mess! and
Amazing Secrets Behind Triumphant Capitol Hill Speech. (Also: Michael
Jackson was murdered.) I would quote from the Trump story, but that would
require me to read it.
What's at issue here is not just asymmetric polarization but asymmetric
news consumption. The left and the center avail themselves of real
journalism, however flawed it may be, while the right gorges on what is
essentially political propaganda all the while denigrating anything that
contradicts their worldview as fake news.
Doing a better job of listening to criticism and being open to change, as
Margaret Sullivan suggests, is always a good idea. But it is hardly going
to give rise to a new golden age.