A line I often quote from Mr. Mom, the 1980’s comedy movie, “No, lie to him, he likes it.” is funny, but possibly true.
Research suggests that people will believe lies if they support our biases. In fact people get a dopamine rush every time they hear something that supports what they believe, and they tend to disregard all else. And when confronted with facts to remove the basis for that belief, they will usually still cling to their originally formed belief even if there is no longer a reason to. Read this thorough New Yorker article for research on this phenomenon.
The lesson here is to form your beliefs cautiously, using good information in the first place. But that is getting harder.
The thing is, the news industry has become more conservative and manipulative in recent decades. The American myth of “The Liberal Media”, based on a couple misinterpreted studies in the 1980s, helped Conservatives carve a niche for opinion-based reporting which has grown and undermined fact-based reporting. This has resulted in both conservative, liberal, and fringe “news” outlets. For a solid understanding of this I recommend you read The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How it Corrupts Democracy written by former Republican David Brock in 2004, but eerily and urgently relevant today.
We already know how much Fox News correlates with less informed viewers (in study after study). One study even found that Fox viewers may be less informed than those who consume no news at all. Yet Fox wields power in the public consciousness and can force other networks to cover stories differently. Recall Fox’s premature call for Bush in the 2000 election creating a chain of events which disenfranchised voters across the state of Florida and affected the nation’s leadership at a pivotal time.
That is why it is noteworthy that MSNBC recently surpassed Fox news in weeknight prime-time viewer ratings. I attribute much of that to Rachel Maddow whose ratings have soared since the Presidential election. She may repeat herself like a Kindergarten teacher, but she reports well-researched and relevant news to you like you are a grown-up, without screaming/streaming talking heads. Her interest in discovering the truth through actual investigative reporting reveals real journalism. Thank you, Rachel.
But watch out for Sinclair Broadcast Group, a penny-pinching Trump-supporting propaganda news outlet poised to take over Tribune Media and become the largest TV news outlet in the nation, thwarting monopoly rules all thanks to the Trump administration recently paving the way for the merger. This news company forces content onto local news outlets, the ones you trust because they are from your community. Watch John Oliver’s piece on Sinclair Broadcast Group in “Last Week Tonight” and cringe at the middle of the segment when he shows the scripted news clips echoing from stations around the country using the exact same propaganda language to brainwash people into thinking the FBI has a vendetta against Mike Flynn. Incidentally, “Last Week Tonight” correlates with the most informed viewers (as does NPR).
Complicating matters further, our news sources have also been corrupted by an unholy alliance between the alt-right and Russia, and an army of Russian bots and trolls, ushering in the modern era of fake news. This includes targeted campaigns that push propaganda messages to U.S. military personnel and their families. Our technologies in social media–Facebook, Twitter–presumptuously and relentlessly push extreme and fake news in front of you, allowing lies and hatred to spread like viruses (SEE: This Video Will make You Angry and its sequel).
Many Americans respond to all this by ignoring news, instead of taking the effort to sort it out and find reliable sources. Instead they focus on their jobs, their families, their biases. Sounds fair until you consider that the upshot of that approach chills democracy. If we all put our heads in the sand, it will allow the corrupt and power-hungry to constantly manipulate us and take over completely. It will make us all only slightly more informed than Fox viewers.