From Liberated to Disillusioned: How far did we come, baby?

Something of a debate is afoot: Are nuclear families a good idea? Do they work in 21st Century America?

David Brooks, in a provocatively-titled Atlantic magazine piece, argues that “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake“. He recognizes the utility of the extended family, which predates the nuclear variety, but points out that “while extended families have strengths, they can also be exhausting and stifling.” Conversely, he observes, “family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmented into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.”

Brooks goes on to argue in favor of “forged families” — meaning people who voluntarily adopt the roles of extended family even though they are not biologically related. Brooks’ piece, while a worthy read, raises more questions than answers. For one, is it not more typical for conservatives to raise concerns over the state of American families? What would prompt a liberal journalist, however obliquely, to critique the impact of individualism on society?

And why now?

While mulling this question over, I decided to revisit aspects of history I recall studying in college. I watched the Amazon Prime documentary “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry“, which depicts the way in which women of the 1960s began to redefine roles within the family and the workplace.

While there is great value in the first-person recollections of the women who helped raise the nation’s consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, I am struck by a question only a post-baby boomer would likely ask: In an era dominated by Greatest Generation Americans, how did a movement of this kind achieve critical mass — devoid not only of social media but beholden to a national media bound to an FCC-mandated fairness doctrine? This, of course, begs another question: Are we correct to attribute second-wave feminism to entirely organic (spontaneous) causes? The documentary acknowledges, for example, that J. Edgar Hoover planted informants in women’s consciousness-raising groups. What is less clear is at what stage government involvement occurred. That matters because the “when” and the “why” may very well be informed by a history we have yet to fully explore. (To that end, the documentary scarcely touches upon Gloria Steinem’s pivotal role in the feminist movement and her self-admitted associations with a CIA front group.)

It is said that history is written by the victors. In this case, the victors consist of self-described student radicals, most of whom are well into their Golden Years. But there is another history this documentary doesn’t touch upon — that of the post-World War II period: the Cold War, Korean and Vietnam war era. It’s a glaring omission that that circumscribes this documentary to the anecdotal recollections of long-ago activists.

It cannot be stressed enough that the Cold War was not merely an arms race or a tale of two competing ideologies. The stakes were far higher: freedom vs. tyranny; mutually-assured destruction vs. prosperity; patriotism vs. sedition. However it is remembered, it was a time of, by and for the politics of patriarchy. When President Nixon vetoed a bill in 1971 that would have granted the pro-family policies the women’s liberation movement championed, his explanation reflects Cold War chauvinism as much as it reflects upon stereotypical gender-role expectations of the time. Similarly, the contrasting roles of Soviet and American women appear to have been propagandist ploys as much as anything.

If this kind of bravado occurred in the open, what kind of behind-the-scenes social engineering efforts went into winning the Cold War on the home front?

In the documentary, a leader of the 1960s women’s movement relates — still with an apparent sense of awe — that women’s consciousness groups arose “spontaneously” around the country. For a country that was still decades removed from social media, is this not curious? Is there any research to suggest that the timeline of government efforts to monitor, if not influence, activist groups occurred well after such movements caught on? Has anyone within the journalism sphere, for that matter, pursued Freedom Of Information Act requests to explore whether the government played a direct, if not lesser-appreciated, role?

Having come of age during the 1980s at the height of the crack epidemic, yuppie culture, latchkey kid debates, urban gang proliferation and the tail end of the nuclear arms race, my sense is that early second-wave activists who credit themselves with continuing where Suffrage left off seem to miss the fact that, far from being non-beneficiaries of women’s liberation, men — and more specifically the federal government— were working to advance one overarching goal: Proving that the United States, and by extension Capitalism, was superior to that of the U.S.S.R. (Communism).

While political leaders of the era may have continued to pay lip service to the traditional roles of women, there was only so far the image of American nuclear family bliss could go in the hands of “happy homemakers“. The effort to defeat Communism, after all, was also cultural and economic. The Soviets, for their part, actively worked to project cosmopolitan values, in which female labor was a man’s equal (or so the propaganda maintained). Soviet women’s children were supported by collectivist programs even as American women and children were not. Machismo undoubtedly shaped American foreign policy and that, in turn, dovetailed with key aspects of second-wave feminism. Conversely, less masculine aspects of the movement, such as access to universal childcare, floundered then and continue largely unchanged today.

Why might that be?

Could the thinking have been — if not explicitly, tacitly — that while less robust Soviet citizens might require Marxist concessions to secure their cooperation, Capitalists are a tougher, more independent, patriotic and industrious lot? Might this explain why aspects of the women’s liberation movement, such as labor force participation, succeeded in changing expectations and norms, whereas efforts to confront domestic inequality and to alleviate racial inequality, among other burdens that continue to fall disproportionately upon women, have been less successful?

The support garnered in 2016 and 2020 by a self-professed democratic socialist, presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, reveals not just a desperation to unseat the current president but a declining belief in the merits of Capitalism. College-age women today still envision for themselves what women of an earlier generation sough: liberation. To a Millennial generation disproportionately raised by single and/or overworked dual-income parents, equality does not look like the gender-defined domestic roles one’s grandmother or great grandmother shouldered, a lifetime of student loan debt servitude or the seductive, if not disingenuous, women-can-have-it-all messaging of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s (loving marriage, fulfilling career and quality, if not quantity, time with the kids).

While second-wave feminism paved the way for women to pursue fulfilling careers, the law of unintended consequences was not far behind. Within two decades the conversation was less about choice and more about economic necessity. As household incomes began to rise as a result of women’s entry into the workforce, the buying power of a dollar began to slip. Despite surging numbers of dual-income households, financial security continues to elude many middle class households. What began as women’s choice translated, for too many families, into a man’s license to abandon his children. The result is that women have been left to juggle responsibilities they have been tasked with for hundreds, if not thousands of years — even as women are now socially and culturally obligated to demonstrate their worth to kin and country, alike, in a monetized manner.

Is this the “choice” our liberation-minded trailblazers promised?

Disillusionment with the nuclear family reflects a loss of faith in something else entirely. With the exception of the affluent, who can readily hire the help they need to strike a better work-life balance, middle class and working class women have been sold a bill of goods about “having it all”. In reality, something was bound give: the career; the marriage; non-work friendships; waning influence over the values of one’s own over-scheduled children; and, in the end, support for the nuclear family if not Capitalism itself.

Conservatives have long decried the unraveling of the nuclear family and, in some ways, their worst fears have been realized over the past 60-some years: By the 1980s, self-medicating yuppies and their latchkey adolescents had begun to fuel a demand for recreational drugs; gangs overtook the inner cities to deal to users — while disproportionately maiming and killing each other in the ensuing turf wars; addicts dropped out of the workforce and/or began to commit crimes in support of their addictions, contributing to mass incarceration and a still-proliferating homelessness crisis; violent crime rates hit new highs in the 1980s and 1990s, divorce rates climbed and, in a mea culpa that is just now beginning to make the rounds, Brooks’ assertion that the nuclear family was a mistake.

Is this chain of events purely a fluke?

Second-wave feminism did not occur in a vacuum. The U.S. was left with a sky-high bill for the cost of rebuilding Europe after WWII and for our subsequent commitment to NATO. Against a Cold War backdrop we pursued a costly nuclear arms buildup, sparking fears not only of a “hot war” but of ballooning deficits. In the span of only a few decades, the United States went from an isolationist foreign policy to one of unprecedented global responsibility, which demanded two things as a means to assure our national security interests: rapid economic growth and an increase in the tax base — meaning more working-age adults, male and female alike, in the labor market. Fast forward to the 21st Century, and women and children are still lacking in access to affordable childcare, healthcare and other quality (or equality) of life and family indicators one might expect in a First World country.

Against this backdrop, is it any surprise that the Millennial generation is inclined to believe that the only way to achieve a work-life balance is to challenge the Capitalist system their mothers and grandmothers worked so hard to participate in? Similarly, might falling marriage and birthrates among Millennials, first noted among Generation-X, who were themselves less financially secure than their parents, explain why politicians and pundits increasingly condemn efforts to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration? Do our leaders genuinely believe unsecured borders pose no terrorism risk or that limits to immigration carry xenophobic overtones — or is it the case, rather, that our deficit-riddled federal government would rather open the door to “pyramid scheme migration” than implement family-supportive policies that may serve, much as they have in socialist countries, to curb precipitous demographic declines?

If these observations are in any way prescient, they illustrate one of the most ironic, if not tragic, developments in the entirety of this Great Experiment: whereas the Soviet Union disbanded into a quasi-Capitalist Russian state, Americans are increasingly inclined to romanticize the greener grass on the other side of the socialist fence. To bring this full circle, we must ask a fundamental question: How historically certain are we that the second-wave women’s liberation movement was entirely grassroots in nature? For all that it ultimately came to represent in the 1970s and beyond, is it possible the U.S. government’s early efforts to gain the upper hand in the Cold War were so all-encompassing that it motivated policymakers — who were largely answerable to traditional values-driven voters — to disavow social engineering efforts that were too radical to endorse outright? Could this explain, in turn, why Steinem — who at the face of it might have been expected to be at odds with a male-dominated, hierarchical government — said of her relationship to the CIA, “In my experience The Agency was completely different from its image; it was liberal, nonviolent and honorable.”?

To reflect upon Steinem’s words, perhaps the radicalism-driven image we hold today obscures the Cold War-combating cooperation that existed in those days, in defiance to its apparent contradictions.

While it may be a bridge too far to assert, as some do, that second-wave feminism weakened the family unit and made more Americans dependent upon government for their welfare, there is no getting around the fact that Cold War posturing backed the United States and the former Soviet Union into ideological corners from which we have only recently begun to emerge. The question is, what does that emergence look like? Will it take the form of a more family-friendly version of Capitalism — or a wholesale exodus to a Socialist future in which economic growth, even more so than our European counterparts, is stifled by the impossible burden of over-ambitious entitlements we can ill afford to keep?

We now have seen two, if not three, generations of Americans faced with untenable choices: one in which they attain the education, career and financial stability necessary to support a family but are severely delayed if not denied the opportunity by virtue of a prolonged pursuit; the other in which life stages such as marriage and family are realized within traditional time frames, but all too often without the requisite skills and economic mobility to adequately sustain those choices. A generation of political leaders has done so little to address real-world domestic concerns — to include a wholesale failure to shore up the entitlements retiring baby boomers will soon deplete!  — that Americans have been conditioned to expect inaction. Nonetheless, failed leadership has begun to extract a price: Faith in the Great Experiment itself.

A government in which top elected representatives spend their time appearing on Right vs. Left-wing media to shift blame is a government that is actively deflecting from its collective public policy failures.

How do we derive change from division, reform from partisan gridlock and pragmatic progress from ideological purity?

As American citizens, do we still believe, as our idealistic counterparts of the 1960s did, in the power of activism? Are reform efforts best served in an ideology-driven sociopolitical climate — with or without our current president to blame! — in which an ever-expanding federal government continues to serve every cause but our own?

Much like the 1960s, we are at a crossroads. We can plunge down the rabbit-hole to a post-nuclear family oblivion, polarized and unappreciative that our passions have been exploited, our energies redirected and our problems unchanged. We can bog down in the weeds of identity politics — conservative/liberal, male/female, black/white, they/them, majority/minority, secular/religious, Capitalism/Socialism. Alternately, we can identify the challenges we share in common as a means to evolve what is really at stake: a better work-life-opportunity balance.

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What’s Driving the Media Wars?

If you get the impression that Americans’ grasp of the news scarcely overlaps, you are not imagining things. Americans have been bemoaning “media bias” for years. Still, it is hard to chalk up today’s level of public polarization to garden variety media bias.

There is so much effort to maintain an overt “narrative” on the part of leading cable, digital and print news sources that some public figures are scrambling to account for the shift. FOX News’ Tucker Carlson suggests that the actions of American intelligence agencies — the so-called Deep State — helps to explain the American divide. Indeed, the frequency with which cable news outlets recruit former FBI officials and intelligence heads, such as former CIA Director John Brennan and former NSA head James Clapper, as paid contributors is unprecedented. Given that a majority of former Obama administration bureaucrats under contract to cable news providers are antagonistic to the current president — shamelessly proclaiming America’s dirty laundry to an Internet-connected world — the impression that a Deep State is at war with the Trump administration is not wholly unjustified. What this theory fails to acknowledge, however, is that Americans in all walks of life, at every level on the income and education spectrum, are under the influence of a national media that is arguably doing as much to divide as to inform.

For cable news anchors and journalists at the national level, contending with the partisan whims of career politicians and DC bureaucrats is nothing new. What is a relative newcomer on the journalism scene, however, is the rising influence of “stakeholder-driven journalism“. That’s journalistic jargon to describe the formation of strategic alliances between journalists, advocacy organizations and nonprofits. And therein, arguably, lies the least appreciated aspect of our highly divisive national climate.

Big Activism and the Fourth Estate

“Even as journalism is overlapping with activism in some ways, some activists are also venturing into journalism, writes Michael Blanding of Neiman Reports, a publication of the Neiman Foundation at Harvard University.

Although the Internet has given rise to a plurality of voices, Joshua Benton, a fellow Neiman Reports contributor, documents a paradox. Increasingly, mainstream media has become geographically concentrated — a phenomena that threatens to grow a bubble mentality among journalists who are clustered in just a handful of major cities on the East and West coasts.

“You see this pattern over and over again in digital news: What was once pitched as opening up a space has led instead to greater concentration of power in the hands of a few,” Benton writes.

Although the melding of activism and journalism can also be attributed to the ideological leanings of those who are inclined to enter the journalism profession, as Mark Levin writes in his bestselling book “Unfreedom of the Press”, mounting pressure to establish a collaboration between advocacy organizations and journalists is also driven by unchecked media concentration. Media concentration began long before the Internet dominated so much of the news delivery business. But in an environment where legacy media has struggled to create a profitable online presence, the pitfalls of media concentration are only amplified.

Ben Bagdikian, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and author of “The New Media Monopoly”, has described the five media monopolies that control the lion’s share of American media as a “cartel” that wields enough influence to change U.S. politics and define social values.

Over the years, the press has shifted from papering over the sins of our leaders — President John Kennedy’s extramarital affairs, to cite an example — to pouncing on any and all scandal, particularly in an election year. In elections past, an extramarital affair might derail a candidate’s run for office — John Edwards, as an example — and lying about one under oath might contribute to one’s impeachment (President Bill Clinton). But in today’s media concentrated, social media-dominated environment, critics don’t just lament bias — but a blatant lack of curiosity on the part of journalists.

In the era of Dogpile and its better-known counterpart, Google, anyone can become a fact checker with the help of a search engine. And yet, paradoxically, mainstream media is apt to promote buzzword narratives that are not as open-and-shut as they appear. Case-in-point: As multiple caravans began to head toward the Southern border, media took the position, much like outspoken Democrats in Congress, that the surge was “manufactured“. Americans were told that the numbers of migrants did not rise to historic levels — and yet, record-breaking or not, the sheer number of caravans that arrived at the border soon overwhelmed the federal government’s limited ability to process and house migrants. When it could no longer be denied that a series of caravans had indeed overwhelmed the border, media recast the border crisis as manufactured in the sense that Trump administration policy created a “humanitarian crisis”. Omitting, as a point of contrast, any and all reference to the cyclical nature of border crisis — President Obama, too, petitioned Congress for funding upon facing a 2014 surge of “unaccompanied minors” — helped to drive home a public impression that the Trump administration had fabricated the crisis. Rather than hold members of Congress accountable for putting hapless migrants in the middle of a battle of the wills with the president, enabling behavior on the part of the press and pundits allowed Congress to deny and delay much-needed humanitarian assistance.

In another example, The Hill’s John Solomon recently published evidence that Hunter Biden’s then-Ukraine employer retained American legal assistance to stave off an effort on the part of a Ukrainian prosecutor, while President Obama was still in office, to investigate Burisma, the natural gas company on whose board then-Vice President Joe Biden’s son sat. Nonetheless, mainstream media in recent weeks has doubled down on their quixotic lack of curiosity, stating that a Hunter-Biden conflict of interest in Ukraine — and even the president’s controversial July 2019 request of the current president of Ukraine “to get to the bottom” of Ukraine’s alleged involvement in 2016 election meddling — is little more than “right-wing conspiracy”.

As part of the effort to attribute the alleged Biden-Ukraine conflict to a baseless conspiracy, media outlets have embarked on a campaign to tar John Solomon’s reputation as a reporter for daring to dig too deep. In the rush to promote a “no-evidence” narrative, media outlets conveniently ignore the fact that Solomon’s reporting isn’t the only place where eyebrows have been raised. The New York times reported that Hunter Biden was warned while his father was still in office not to get involved with the oligarch-run natural gas company. What’s more, a 2015 NYT article acknowledges that it was unclear even then what, if any steps, the Obama administration took to ensure Biden’s son was not undermining his father’s work in Ukraine. Steven Pifer, a former American ambassador to the Ukraine told the NYT, “I would hope that [somebody in the vice president’s office] has done some kind of check, because I think the vice president has done a very good job of sending the anti-corruption message in Ukraine, and you would hate to see something like this undercut that message.”

President Trump’s current whistleblower allegations aside, all the speculation in the world about whether the former vice president wielded his influence to force out a Ukraine prosecutor on the eve of an investigation ignores a simple, incontrovertible fact: Only Joe Biden can account for his own motives. Assertions that Ukraine’s then-prosecutor was corrupt, in no way preclude the fact that Biden’s son, as a Burisma board member, was in danger of being swept up in an investigation, which if nothing more would have brought dishonor to the Biden family name had he in any way been connected to such a scandal.

If the optics in Ukraine were questionable before Trump entered office, they would become relevant yet again when Biden entered the 2020 race — no matter who the former vice president faced off with on the Republican side of the ticket.

That President Trump may have crossed a line by bringing up his 2020 competitor’s Ukraine history in a July phone call to Ukraine’s current president is one thing. To imply, as the national media has done, that there is no conceivable reason why candidate Biden should answer to the electorate — after openly bragging in 2018 about getting the prosecutor in question fired! — is to renege on a long tradition of a free and independent press reporting upon current and past scandals — on any candidate of any party! — in the lead up to a presidential election.

In any other era in American journalism, an appearance of impropriety, if not an out-and-out conflict of interest on the part of a presidential candidate, would be fair game. But because news organizations are increasingly pressuring readers and viewers to ascribe the mere existence of questions as evidence of a tinfoil hat affliction, it raises yet another question: Is a professional lack of curiosity, and the press uniformity it fosters, is in any way a product of external pressures?

To be sure, politicians leaning on media to be friendly toward their causes and interests is nothing new. Social media, for its part, certainly favors a more sensationalized brand of “clickbait” news coverage. On the flip side, however, social media is a place where journalists are forced to contend not only with trolls but citizen fact checkers who will call out the error of a news story. Under such conditions, journalistic independence is difficult maintain — yet more imperative than than ever. When reporters add to these existing pressures the obligation to walk the line between the public interest and the objectives of advocacy organizations and nonprofits with which media outlets are increasingly inclined to collaborate, the result may very well be a conflict of interest of a far less appreciated variety — a journalistic catch-22.

The polarization that has wracked the country in recent years isn’t just a product of Trump-come-lately on the national political scene — it’s the snowballing impact of decades worth of media concentration. When the casual observer can readily identify that a large percentage of our national news is essentially waging a “media war” — for which the evidence is the increasing frequency for which partisan news outlets lob the journalistic atomic weapon of “conspiracy” at one another — all bets are off.

Hard Questions

Pundits and partisans on the Left — even as they express grave concerns for the influence of the libertarian Koch brothers! — dismiss as “conspiracy” the notion that the Left-leaning financier, George Soros, is a distorting influence in domestic politics. Look closely, however, and one can appreciate that low profile behavior on the part of Soros is in no way synonymous with “no impact”. Consider: The Los Angeles Times has acknowledged Soros’ role, in the name of sentencing reform, behind district attorney races across the country. (Various scandals involving refusal to prosecute crimes, the most notable being the Jussie Smollett hate crime hoax, have arisen in conjunction with Soros’-funded DAs who are working, in conjunction with other Soros’-funded efforts, to reduce incarceration rates.) In a similar vein, California Propositions 36 and 47 were Soros’ backed. And the Influence Watch website confirms that Soros’ extensive network of nonprofits operate not just in the U.S. but internationally. Why does this matter? Because logic would seem to dictate that a self-respecting journalist, regardless of their personal politics, would seek to save face for their own reputations, if not their professional credibility, assuming they are in a position to do their jobs independently — that is, without outside pressure.

And yet that’s not what we’re seeing.

“Evil orange man” in the Oval Office or not, at some point the journalism profession must return to some semblance of normal. Whether there is any turning back to pre-Trump journalistic standards is the more telling question, however. Media outlets appear hell bent on boxing themselves into a corner from which emergence would require copping not just to credibility-damaging spin — but behaviors that will undoubtedly appear in long-view of history as the actions of political hacks. The more the so-called fake news piles up, the less and less likely it is that news organizations will come clean about partisan overreach — even if the result of investigation on the part of Attorney General William Barr, the Inspector General Michael Horowitz and the U.S. Attorney John Durham should demonstrate, to any reasonably honest person, that the mainstream media oversold their dismissive stance toward the notion that Trump has been targeted first as a candidate and subsequently as president.

When the dust settles on the Trump era, the reckoning Americans saw in the national media upon belatedly acknowledging the error of parroting Bush administration claims about 9-11 terrorism links and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq will not be forthcoming. For better or worse, mainstream media is determined to remain in the hot seat they have created by over-investing in presumptions-of-guilt news narratives.

Honest people, of course, are free to draw their own conclusions. For that matter, it is not even particularly noteworthy that mainstream media outlets no longer pay lip-service to the aim of objectivity, which has been openly challenged in the Trump era. Lockstep reporting, nonetheless, is another phenomena entirely. One is all but forced to infer — to deduce — that outside pressure has contributed to observable declines in journalistic independence. Research into this area suggests that cash-strapped media operations have been more inclined in recent years to enter into “strategic alliances”, with philanthropists’ help, to push stories to the forefront for the sake of promoting a policy agenda. And so, in addition to the usual political pressures upon journalists to portray politicians and their policies in a favorable light, mainstream media organizations are in some cases binding themselves to contractual agreements to further stakeholder objectives. That such efforts dovetail with Soros’ Open Society Foundations (OSF) advocacy objectives — among them drug decriminalization and paperless migration — is, at best, a poorly-guarded secret.

There is an argument to be made that private-public partnerships are a win-win for struggling newsrooms and social justice advocates alike. But that does not absolve the risk that behind-the-scenes collusion has wormed its way into the newsroom — a trend that has arguably already taken hold given the absence of public debate about how the modernization of media improves vs. harms the public interest. Drastic shifts in media business models without a corresponding effort to self-report the shift suggests, if only indirectly, that news organizations grasp that sacrificing press freedom for the sake of financial sustainability is all but inevitable.

The public, for our part, may simply observe that the news media of today isn’t the news media many of us remember.

Social media is frequently blamed for this change. After all, even as the president over-exposes the pedestrian, petty and sometimes outrageous inner workings of his mind on Twitter, the press, too, has become more speculative, hyperbolic and accusation driven. We know this, in part, because once-respected news outlets such as CNN have invited guests on to make increasingly wild assertions, perhaps most notably a former Duke University psychiatrist who went unchallenged upon asserting that President Trump may have more blood on his hands than Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined. Unfortunately, putting a finger on the broader context for this media war phenomena — when domestic and foreign media, alike, have remained largely silent about the profound restructuring of the journalism business model — is often beyond the reach of busy news consumers. As a result, media bias and Deep State fears predominate at the expense of the more apropos question of how much press freedom the mainstream media can reasonably expect to retain in the wake of hitching themselves to so many collaborative wagons.

Shadow Influencers

All things equal, it should follow that prominent pundits, anchors and journalists, irregardless of politics, should be wary of losing face. After all, in a day and age when Americans can readily use a search engine to appreciate that they are being subjected to a hyper-politicized, black-and-white spin, one would expect the journalism profession to be more cognizant of approaching a story with an even hand. The fact that some observations are self-evident — i.e. “the sky is blue” — suggests that there should be limits on how far partisan news outlets, even, will push their viewers and readers to adopt a dogmatic point of view. Instead we are witnessing what can only be described as a race to the bottom against an overly concentrated, increasingly integrated, social media-sensationalized, preach-to-the-choir backdrop. So pervasive are the silos in which journalists on the East and West coasts operate, that they are inclined to attribute such headwinds to only one source: Donald Trump. One shudders to consider that if the American people reelect this controversial president, how the bulk of the American media — and the voters they have unduly influenced — will react. If it was difficult to accept the outcome of the 2016 election, will we face civil unrest in the event of a Trump win in 2020? In the overheated climate that passes for modern-day journalism, such questions cannot be excluded.

In a Digital Era that favors integrated social and economic networks, traditional journalistic norms that favor independence invariably clash. And something is bound to give.

Americans, for our part, must be willing to confront the next logical question: How many “beds” are top cable, digital and print news journalists climbing into in order to satisfy a multiplicity of competing expectations: favor that is curried for access to high-profile individuals and politicians, stakeholder collaborations, advertisers, editors, publishers — and the public interest? Perhaps most tellingly, do these strange bedfellows involve billionaire-backed philanthropies?

Enduring the drama that accompanies a controversial public figure, such as Donald Trump, is one thing. A media that actively perpetuates an agenda, as opposed to allowing the chips to fall where they may, is another. Selective reporting — that is, cherry-picking the news to fit a preordained narrative — is increasingly a fact of life. Still, the fragmenting psychological impact of media warfare is nothing to trivialize.

A bifurcated electorate that scarcely agrees on basic current-events facts is a disenfranchised one.

There is a difference in a Democracy between an informed citizen participating in a robust debate — and a misinformed citizen who, without appreciating as much, marches to the drum of a Big Activism agenda, none the wiser to their role in parroting what amounts to propaganda. To a larger extent than most of us would like to admit, what is best for the country is a subjective proposition. We all need basic things like clean air, clean water, access to food, affordable housing and jobs. Beyond the basics there is plenty of room for honest people to arrive at differing conclusions. News that is driven by a change agenda, whether the product of public-private collaboration or an ideology-driven newsroom, tends to be most successful when complex issues are grossly oversimplified. By its nature, this method of communicating tends to distort, if not dumb-down, the public conversation. Nonetheless, it requires no ill intent on the part of proponents. Deleterious impacts simply come with the territory.

Unintended consequences do not require a conspiracy.

Activist agendas are often distilled into “talking points”. Talking points, in turn, are good at conveying the broad strokes of an idea but are terrible at encouraging nuanced debate. They over promise, underestimate obstacles and reject dissent. Not surprisingly, then, attempts to shift public opinion through the sheer force of repetition of those points is a disruptive, if not manipulative, act. Non-organic shifts in public opinion, in turn, rely not just on hard news facts but emotional ploys such as guilt, casting aspersions on the intentions of critics and pressure to question less and conform more. Under such circumstances, it’s not hard to see why accusations of conspiracy have become a daily news occurrence.

Making America Divided

Big Activism, no matter how well intended, isn’t just about carrying out a vision for a better world. It is about manufacturing the pace of change. The stakeholders are “them” — the collaboration between nonprofit and for-profit interest groups, of which journalists are increasingly a part — and the target is “us”. Even under the best of circumstances, this sets up the object of that influence — the public — to feel like pawns caught up in a war.

And arguably, we are.

Beyond hackneyed complaints of media bias, the increasing prevalence of partnerships between journalists and advocacy organizations helps explain why Digital Era media rarely touts its independence and objectivity. Career journalists come to understand, if they ascend to the national level, that the price of integration — collaboration — is an insidious, if not overt, loss of press freedom. While it could be said in the past that a free and robust Fourth Estate is an “equal opportunity informer” and an “equal opportunity offender” of those in power, what we see today is a news media that is increasingly unapologetic — to the point of refusing to retract demonstrably false stories — in the interest of towing their respective Right vs. Left partisan lines. It is no surprise, under such circumstances, why the love-hate reaction of the American people to one man — Donald Trump — also encapsulates so much of what is wrong with the media’s relationship with the public and, in turn, the public’s increasing cynicism towards the press.

When roughly half of the American people perceive a flawed but benevolent leader, it is in no small part attributable to the position staked out by their most favored news outlets. Likewise, when the other half of the American people perceive a malevolent national leader, it is in no small part attributable to the position staked out by their most favored news outlets. And so, while the most expedient explanation is that more Americans have become captive to partisan silos, it is rarely as simple as pinning the blame on any single public figure — even an opposing party leader.

Media coverage has far more impact in shaping the degree to which we feel a leader has sought to do good vs. evil than we generally acknowledge.

Digital Era media, rather than bridging divides or challenging assumptions, plays into entrenched differences. Why is this problematic? Because our assessment of the actions and intentions of public figures, news consumers, is only as good as the information we have by which to judge our leaders from behind a newspaper’s pages or a camera’s lens. When one part of the media reports no evil and the other reports no good, it demonstrates that our gatekeepers across the political spectrum have failed in their civic and professional duty to serve the public interest. Billionaire philanthropists with sociopolitical agendas, meanwhile, may not be personally involved in day-to-day newsroom operations, but through intermediary think-tank experts and nonprofit partnerships, a Big Activism-backed echo chamber is an all-too-real component of modern journalism. And that begs a question.

Isn’t it in the public interest for media professionals to disclose stakeholder alliances?

When a lockstep news narrative is demonstrably wrong, even by Google search standards, one can only conclude that the underlying message is contrived. No amount of persuasion by a politician or a party should account for this. If, however, political action committees, philanthropists, nonprofits and ideologically-driven journalists form collaborative networks, the resultant stakeholder journalism may very well account for the blatancy with which top news outlets cherry-pick facts and skewer critics for the sake of maintaining predictable, partisan narratives. So little daylight is left between professional journalists and the people and issues they cover at the national level that “Who’s pocket are they in?” may be the only reasonable question left.

And no, it is not a conspiracy to pose a question — unless it is a conspiracy to think.

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Resources

Political Bias is Destroying People’s Faith in Journalism | New York Post

Wall Street is Killing Local Newspapers | Truthout