All the News That Gives You Fits

In August, researchers write in the journal health communication reported results of a study on media consumption habits. In findings that will not surprise anyone who spent five minutes on Twitter, they found that Americans who engaged in “problematic media consumption” — that is, watching excessive amounts of news online, in print, and on television — had harmful experiences Effects on mental health as well as sleep disorders and in their personal interactions with others. “While we want people to continue to engage with the news, it’s important that they have a healthier relationship with the news,” one of the researchers noted in a press release.

Luckily Chris Stirewalt is here to help. in the Breaking News: Why the media rage machine is dividing America and how to fight backthe former Fox News Channel political editor and current contributor at the American Enterprise Institute, offers a sharply observed and at times hilarious journey through our contemporary media ecosystem, with a particular focus on how Americans helped build the “anger” and now feel merry “Machine” of the book’s subtitle. (Full disclosure: I recently became a colleague of Stirewalt’s at AEI.)

For a book about an industry torn apart by political unrest, Broken News is refreshingly free of party chants. Indeed, Stirewalt makes it clear that journalism’s problems affect everyone across the political spectrum: “What’s wrong with my calling and the industry I work in hurts Americans left, right and center,” he argues.

Why are we so angry and polarized? Stirewalt traces the shift from print to radio, television and the Internet and the challenges these different modes of communication pose to citizen health. He describes how these developments have contributed to the growth of national media, often at the expense of local news. And he passionately advocates the importance of healthy media in American life. “The American creed requires written words and a shared culture to understand them,” argues Stirewalt. Today, however, “much of our messaging is not aimed at making ideas understandable, but rather at generating strong emotions—often fear, anger, and resentment.”

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Stirewalt reminds readers of historical moments when these shifts took place, such as the radio reporter saying, “Oh, humanity” while describing it Hindenburg Catastrophe. “The listener is not connected to the event itself, but to the reporter’s reaction to the event,” Stirewalt notes. As a result, “the news consumer passively receives emotional meaning.” We remember the emotional response just as well, if not more so than the event that triggered it.

That’s because emotions are sold, specifically fear, anger, fear, and hatred. “The hate people feel for their fellow Americans is not just a by-product of political reporting,” Stirewalt argues, “but a necessary component to making much of that reporting profitable.” Media institutions are now in the business of “optimizing for anger,” as one writer described the change in tone of reporting offered by the Washington Post during Donald Trump’s presidency. Stirewalt is appropriately critical of the mainstream media for her initial flirtation and eventual masochistic embrace of our former President; Fifty Shades of Donald Trump proved too lucrative and racy franchise for media outlets to resist. “Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were both good on TV,” Stirewalt writes. “Trump was TV.”

“Balanced, well-reported news is hard to make, expensive, and often boring,” Stirewalt reminds us. “Tribal outrage is easy, cheap and fun.” It also speaks deeply to lower human instincts – and we’ve perfected technologies and platforms that make its expression seamless. No doubt when people log on to Twitter, they mistake themselves for thoughtful, rational lockeans. However, as soon as they see a provocative tweet from a political opponent, they head to Hobbes country.

Stirewalt knows firsthand the consequences of this new style of journalism. He was fired from Fox News after making the decision desk call that Joe Biden won Arizona on 2020 election night. Fox News viewers and even Donald Trump took to social media to protest the call, even though it was the right one. “Fox viewers were even more used to flattery and less willing to hear news that challenged their expectations,” he notes with admirable indifference to his former employer.

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Stirewalt describes other factors that contribute to our broken media institutions, such as the respective political parties’ declining power which exacerbates partisanship, as well as the way the media rewards the pursuit of glory by so many of our elected officials. “If Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez really wanted to tax the rich, she wouldn’t do it by writing ‘tax the rich’ on her butt and going to the Met Gala,” Stirewalt notes. “But if she wants famous because they want to tax the rich, then they’re on the right track.” Again, this is a bipartisan affliction, as illustrated by the careers of Rep. Matt Gaetz and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Throughout the book, Stirewalt dismisses journalists’ efforts to practice “post-journalism,” which focuses on generating emotional responses (and connectedness) from users and a sense of group identity based on shared values, rather than reporting facts. Its close cousin is “moral clarity” journalism, which argues that journalists should abandon objectivity in favor of the larger goal of writing stories that promote the social justice they seek to advocate.

I would have loved to hear more of Stirewalt’s thoughts on how cultural trends are affecting what people expect from the media. We have raised several generations of Americans who believe that life can and should give them what they want, and who believe that their opinion counts in everything (but who also believe that any questioning of what they say is a form of violence). Twitter makes everyone their own editorial page editor, all day, every day, in real time. Endless opportunities to argue online clearly haven’t strengthened our union’s bonds, but we continue to spend a lot of time doing it.

Stirewalt offers several excellent solutions; Call them Stirewalt’s Rules of Reporting, and if you’re a budding journalist, memorize them. I would summarize the best of these as follows:

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Journalists should take journalistic practice more seriously, much less themselves.

Practical experiences that report on the day-to-day details of local government are far more valuable than fashionable endeavors like “morality” journalism. practice, not theory. reporting, not opinion. Facts instead of overly emotional apocalyptic.

Strengthen local reporting. Resist the temptation to see every issue and idea through the lens of national news. Cover what’s happening in places that coastal elites and big media outlets all too often ignore. If all politics is local, then more journalism has to be local too.

There are many more lessons buried in this wonderful book: journalists should stop relying so much on anonymous sources. News consumers should stop demanding that political reporting sound like a Real housewives Confrontation. Journalists should stop behaving like butchers, picking at the carcass of party politics in search of scraps, and instead pursue the ideal of objectivity, even if they don’t achieve it.

And above all, don’t do everything politically. This path leads to moral impoverishment.

George Orwell hovers throughout the book as a patron saint, and Stirewalt quotes him as a warning of the dangers of an information environment where lies are accepted as truth. Stirewalt is more optimistic than Orwell, but his message is just as important: we must not abandon journalism to the forces of cynicism and anger. We need it. We need a healthy media environment because journalism well done serves an important societal purpose. It reminds us that despite our differences and disagreements, we must find a common purpose, a common story—only then can we fully appreciate the remarkable freedoms we enjoy.

Breaking News: Why the media rage machine is dividing America and how to fight back
by Chris Stirewalt
Center Street, 256 pages, $29

Christine Rosen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a media columnist for comment Magazine.

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