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The United States of Distraction
by Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff
Saturday Aug 17th, 2019 8:30 PM
Reviewed by Leon Kunstenaar

Media in a Post-Truth Era

At a time when many Americans are suffering from the cognitive dissonance resulting from Trump’s horror show, United States of Distraction, Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (And What We Can Do About It) by professors Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff is a welcome guide, not only to the what, the how, and above all, to the why of how it all happened, but also offers a road to recovery.

Ralph Nader sets the frame in a brilliant introduction that accuses the commercialization of society’s information and political dialog of undermining what was supposed to be a democracy of informed citizens.

How it happened

The book starts with Les Moonves, executive chairman and CEO of CBS on coverage of Donald Trump.

“It may not be good for America, but its damn good for CBS.” (page 21)

A statement emblematic of our current political and journalistic dysfunction, the media knows it’s bad but profits come first.

Trump is shown to be both the icon and the terrible reality of a media devoted to hyper partisanship, entertainment and profit. He is revealed as the resulting master manipulator and exploiter of a society whose dysfunctional media and educational system long preceded and enabled his ascendancy.

We see how the decline of the fourth estate, the press, is the product of the counter-attack on the New Deal, financed and organized by the “private sector” (a euphemism for the rich, as the authors note).

In this saga, the “Fairness Doctrine”, the requirement that broadcasters present controversial issues in a “fair, equitable and balanced manner,” was abolished in 1987.

The Communications Act of 1934, under which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created and mandated to curb monopoly and foster broadcasting to serve the information needs of an informed citizenry, was weakened in 1996.

In this continuing campaign of “free enterprise” propaganda, the Right framed the market as the true source of generalized prosperity. Government, with its public interest and anti-monopoly requirements, was framed as the subverter of liberty and democracy. In Ronald Reagan’s words, “the Government is not the solution, but the problem.”

The profit motive, unencumbered by public accountability, came to dominate the communications industry. The results are not pretty.

Where we are

The simple, the scandalous, the entertaining took over the “news.” Radio and television, overtaken by corporate values and goals, became devoted to maximizing audiences and little else. News became “infotainment” delivered by telegenic “personalities.”

Speculative reporting; Will Biden run? Will the latest revelation hurt Trump? is Beto too young? etc. dominated the airwaves. Catering to people’s anxieties became more important that reporting verifiable facts. It is easier to declare what could happen than it is to accurately report what did happen.

The press devolved into the business of, in Chomsky’s words, “selling eyeballs to other businesses.”

The Internet revolution, where anyone can publish anything to a virtually unlimited audience, allowed a fragmented media landscape. One’s choice of information source from an unlimited selection is now algorithmically fed back into further choices, allowing for a self reinforcing hardening of attitudes and ideologies.

Into this world came massive misinformation, propaganda outlets masquerading as news organizations, extremist sites exploiting grievances and anxieties. And Donald Trump.

We see Trump, the entertainer, the weaver of comforting fantasies, the con man who liberates us from reality with “alternate facts” and “post truths” where the level of accuracy is measured by the number of believers. What is left of real journalism becomes “fake news” purveyed by “enemies of the people.” Journalists are harassed and even assaulted. The President openly champions racial persecution.

In Trump’s world, where facts are meaningless, there can be no lies and being wrong does not exist. When criticized, attack, attack and do the media swerve; divert and distract. When you are the President what you say now is today’s headline and replaces what you said yesterday which is forgotten by a media always looking for the latest outrage. The greater the outrage of the message, the greater the attention it generates and the higher the media’s ratings.

Trump gives his supporters a comforting world where they always win, at least he does so on their behalf, almost as good. A world where it is okay to hate the others since they cause all our problems. He brings his “base” back to a never never land when they were great, but for the rest of us, he brings a racist Hitlerian nightmare.

Media distortion

The book provides an excellent example of media manufactured outrage with the story of Russia’s 2016 election interference.

The interference was framed as an outrageous “attack on our democracy”; an attack unique in exceeding all the norms of international behavior. The events were framed as a worldwide scandal. Their importance was inflated with massive coverage.

Authors Higdon and Huff effectively expose the absurd notion that nations, all nations, do not routinely act to influence political events in other countries. Of course the Russians did it. The U.S. does it even more.

In fact, the notion that the leadership of any county would refrain from promoting what they view as their national interest by influencing events in other countries is naive. Standard, if regrettable, operating procedure was presented as an extreme deviation from international norms in order to garner more interest.

Corporatized education

Along with the over commercialization of the media, we see the education system, originally developed to serve the needs of an emerging industrial age, but losing relevance in an world dominated by television and social media.

Corporate perspectives have invaded schools. Microsoft and Apple, contributing hardware and buying influence with claimed generosity, have touted the highly arguable benefits of replacing teachers with computers.

“In U.S. corporate culture, students are shaped into customers and teachers into customer service representatives.” (Page 73)

Recovery

The authors propose to restore media’s responsibility to the commons and reintroduce media literacy by “making America think again.”

The goal requires revamping public education by emphasizing media literacy and teaching the skills of critical thinking. Local investigative reporting with community engagement must be enhanced. Meaningful media competition must be restored and corporate consolidation reversed. Non commercial programming and independent media must be encouraged.

The authors share the basic political frame that democracy requires an educated, informed, and committed citizenry, a citizenry able to cope with the massive, often deliberate, disinformation on the Internet.

In this frame, the citizenry must be active participants in both the national and local political conversations and have an appreciation of democratic values and structures. This must be promoted with a reinvigorated civics curriculum.

Accordingly, with rational debate and what the eighteenth century called “reason,” the best decisions, however defined, will tend to float to the top and a viable democracy is possible.

Conclusion

The authors call for a revamped educational system and for reinvigorated controls over a media now subservient to wealth and power. Is what is left of our democracy up to this political task? The New Deal is the shining example of having done this before but much has been undone.

We are still a nation that lives in many different cultures and traditions. The melting pot has not worked quite as well as we might have previously imagined.

Concentrations of incredible wealth and areas of dire poverty and injustice remain. The separation of church and state is still a work in progress. We worry that the Civil War has not delivered the final word. There are many conflicts still unresolved and many debts still unpaid.

This is the environment in which the authors call on us to implement a media that embodies a renewed devotion to ideals of the common good, truth, and intellectual honesty. They have provided us with a well document road map. The political task remains.

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