Preface to Lies My Teacher Told Me
In two ways the web has made things worse. First, it has jeopardized the finances of newspapers. When retailers found they could reach potential customers more cheaply online, many decreased advertising in newspapers. The country’s largest online store, Amazon, rarely advertises in print. At the same time, subscription revenue plummeted. When readers found they could get headlines, sports news, crossword puzzles, and their horoscopes online, many stopped subscribing to newspapers. As a result, newspapers have had to shrink their staffs, especially their reporters and editors, so even less investigative journalism now gets done. As Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump and inventor of the term “alternative facts,” put it, “I’m old enough to remember when news stations reported the news and didn’t just have a parade of pundits going out there and opinionating.”
Moreover, television news programs have learned that booking flamboyant extremists on each side makes for more entertaining viewing, hence higher ratings, than serious journalism. Again, this means less real news gets presented, and the various viewpoints that remain seem to be presented as moral and factual equivalents.
Second, the plethora of outlets on the web means that people can get news stories, including “fake news,” otherwise known as hoaxes, that suit them. If they are left-wing, they can subscribe to Daily Kos and Huffington Post. If they are right-wing, they can subscribe to Breitbart or the Drudge Report. Less often do they subscribe to outlets that provide several points of view. As a result, their thinking rarely gets challenged, so they become still less likely or able to assess information critically.
I write during Donald Trump’s presidency. Even on clear matters of public record, such as the size of the crowd that attended his inauguration, President Trump has lied. To many Americans his lying does not seem to matter. During the campaign, former Republican campaign worker Salena Zito wrote famously and accurately that “his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” This interesting response diminishes the importance of truth in our culture. “They all lie,” some Americans say, referring to politicians and also to the media. Consequently there is no such thing as truth, so you might as well simply believe (or choose not to question) the candidate or news source that you like best. Cynicism has replaced skepticism. Instead of truth and falsehood, there are facts and “alternative facts,” to quote Conway. Luckily, some investigative journalism still gets done.