We are not yet 100 days into Donald Trump’s presidency, but by the sheer volume of news coverage alone, one could be forgiven for thinking that it has been far longer since the inauguration.
Depending on one’s choice of media outlet, one could also be forgiven for thinking there are two entirely different, but parallel, universes in which that news is being made.
The continuous news coverage is aided and abetted by a president whose communication style and media-savvy personality have proved to be a perfect fit for the fragmented media environment that has emerged during the past few years.
And the idea of a “parallel universe” is exemplified when, on two screens carrying two separate networks reporting on the same set of facts, one media outlet is reporting on the existence of classified information that shows alleged malfeasance within the administration while another reports on the failure to find and prosecute leakers of that classified information.
None of this is new or noteworthy. Partisan and polarized media exists around the world, in countries ranked high and low on the Freedom House index of democracy.
What seems new to us – or at least more transparent with Trump in particular – is how the media has chosen to package the news in a way that Americans have gotten used to consuming it: based on what suits pre-existing thoughts and narratives.
We saw this during the election with stories about “echo chambers” and “bubbles” whereby prevailing voter opinions were reinforced via the news outlets or stories chosen. To a large extent, this has continued into the present, with the end result that there is no longer one media, but rather fractured media streams that serve not to illuminate “truth” but rather to reinforce dogma.
Thus, many pundits fear that the media has lost its objectivity and, depending on its partisan slant, seeks to either support or tear down the president and the administration.
To the defenders of the administration, gone is the pretense of objectivity, replaced by partisan muckraking. The adversarial media, this argument goes, has gone too far. By framing every news item as an example of weakness in the administration, it diminishes the institutional and normative power of the presidency itself.
By contrast, critics of the administration argue that the media, by reporting facts that may be inconvenient or damaging, serves as the last line of defense in speaking truth to power and illuminating abuses. Both sides argue the other has little regard for the “truth.” Both see a diminution of trust in the institutions of governance and in the free exchange of information, which is corrosive to democracy, dangerous to the republic, and undermines the exceptional ideal of who we are as Americans.
But here’s the thing: None of this, in and of itself, is dangerous to democracy.
The real danger lies in our passive acceptance of the narratives we are given. Rather than bemoan the fact that the media is fragmenting, we should embrace it. We should make it, in truth, even more adversarial.
The key is to do it right – a modern, all-aspects debating society where arguments are based on reasoned analysis of information, and where narratives are seen for what they truly are: seductive stories imbued with meaning.
By and of themselves, they have no power. The narratives of the “crooked government” or the “willfully ignorant media” are influential only if we accept their meanings unquestioningly and blindly.
An educated, engaged populace that triangulates news sources to unpack the narratives guiding the stories will be better equipped to return the media to its rightful place in American society: As a vessel for delivery of information, not as a propaganda tool of the regime or its critics. Failing that, those who fear for the health of the U.S. are right. We won’t be so exceptional after all.
Michael Mosser is a lecturer in the Department of Government, the Center for European Studies, and the International Relations and Global Governance program at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.
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