Why Americans Must Break Away from the Media Tribe
The following post was written by our recent podcast guest, Ashley Rindsberg. In this episode, Ashley and Patrick spoke about the past and present misreporting of the New York Times. While Ashley and Patrick do not share the same faith—Ashley is an observant Jew—they do share a deep respect for the Hebrew Bible and the ninth commandment: do not bear false witness.
In this article, Ashley well articulates our own fears about the future of news media in the United States, warning against what happens when humans refashion themselves in the image of their favorite news media outlet rather than the image of the living God. We hope you find this to be thought-provoking and that you’ll consider listening to more from Ashley on our podcast.
Over the past two years, we’ve learned as a society that our ability to manage a major crisis depends on a flow of reliable, credible information—and a public willing to accept it. But a second crisis was layered onto the pandemic, which is the crisis of public trust in its news media sinking to all-time lows.
This trust gap has been filled by chaos, confusion, and the social manipulation of bad actors. Perhaps worse than this, Americans seem no longer stratified by class, sometimes not even by race, but by media tribes. These media tribes have leaders and celebrity media figures whose opinions and ideas are debated more fervently than the underlying issues. And, of course, the tribes war with one another, endlessly skirmishing until the flare-ups become a full-fledged battle.
What Happened to News Media?
It wasn’t that long ago that the news media was a calming force. We don’t have to stretch back to Walter Cronkite wiping away a tear and promptly returning to duty, to locate it. It was there on 9/11, so distant from the events of that day, but so close to their impact, when the news was all we had.
In the minutes after the planes struck, the country collectively rushed to the nearest available screen. We needed to know—something, anything. And we were willing to wait, in cold, thudding silence, to find out what that was.
On my college campus in upstate New York, I rushed to the library to find an available computer and typed CNN.com into the browser. It didn’t matter to me how CNN had covered the Mideast, the election of George W. Bush, or anything else. I needed to know, and those three letters were the first that came to mind. Implicitly, I trusted them.
Maybe I was naïve to place so much trust automatically in the media. But if that were the case, then we were all that naïve. America believed in its news media. And, for the most part, from what it seemed, the media believed in America. What happened?
It would be a wonderful thing to be able to lay the blame on technology. The buzzwords—algorithms, social media, deep fakes—are so buzzy that their din fills the space hollowed by the question. It doesn’t hurt that the technology story brings a man-bites-dog charm: Innocent media swallowed by a merciless tech monster. But the media has faced down innovation before. It adapted to TV and, before that, to the radio. It turned the telegraph into an invaluable news-gathering tool. Its boats rose together on these technological flood tides.
What changed is that media in general, and with it, the news media in particular became not a means of informing and enriching our lives but a worldview through which to understand them. In the words of Fran Lebowitz, media has replaced all institutions. Simultaneously courthouse, statehouse, and the house of worship, it became the place where our politics are enacted, are convictions are tested, and our judgments are meted out.
Can the Media Make a Comeback?
In order to trust an institution, there must be an institution to trust. That is, there must be common values, shared boundaries and behaviors, and a jointly held notion of what the point is. There has to be a sense of order. That’s gone. In its place, we have something amorphous and adversarial, a great smog that makes even the simplest moral and epistemological navigation next to impossible. Worse still, it’s inside of us as much as around us. It’s a part of us, and we are becoming a part of it.
Can the news media return to its exalted station as the Fourth Estate of government? It has to if there is any hope for the future of liberal democracy. There is simply no force equal to it. But, to clear the air, we must stop fueling the media by burning ideological coal. We have to switch to a cleaner source—one we can turn on and off, one that doesn’t need to be stoked to sustain itself.
We would be mistaken to think we are living in the digital age. We aren’t, at least not yet. What we are living in is the media age. This singular force shapes our lives. But, overwhelmed as we are by its immense spread, we have forgotten that we can—and must—also shape it.
People frequently ask me where is this all going? They’re usually media skeptics, but not cynics. They’re clearly worried about a future without reliable, credible media. My answer is that while legacy media has become almost obscenely concentrated in the hands of a few corporate players, we are on the verge of a renaissance for independent media.
Small news shops are popping up, highly regarded journalists are turning to Substack to do their reporting, and podcasters are exploring news through an entirely new format. But consumers have a job to do too. They have to sacrifice breadth in the amount of news they consume for depth. They need to be active participants, seeking out sources and outlets they trust, confirming facts, and assessing stories rather than passive spectators.
Times are indeed a’changing. It’s up to us to coax that change along by recognizing the kind of power we already have rather than bemoaning the kind we don’t.
Check out our recent podcast episode to hear Ashley Rindsberg elaborate on the future of news media in the U.S.
Posted by Ashley Rindsberg