RECAP: “Divided We Stand?” February 24 KIRC Invited Lecture w/ American University Prof. and Author Jane Hall

“The U.S. is the only democracy that organizes its national election campaigns around the news media.”
—Thomas Patterson, Out of Order

As author and American University Associate Professor of Communication Jane Hall noted in opening her February 24 Kinder Institute Residential College Invited Lecture, we could think about Patterson’s statement as the byproduct of anything from floating voters to weak political parties, and it would remain true regardless of whether or not the media ever wanted to bear the responsibility he describes. More to the point here, however, is the fact that the sheer volume and magnitude of what we’ve witnessed over the past few years—from January 6 to the Covid-19 pandemic; from 2022 midterm surprises to seemingly interminable congressional gridlock—has stress tested the relationship between the fourth estate, the politicians it reports on, and the public consuming this reporting. We find ourselves, Prof. Hall argued, at an extraordinary moment in history, and it would be wise to take stock of the present-day landscape of media and politics if we want to move forward with sobriety regarding the challenges we collectively face.

We could, Prof. Hall continued, disentangle media and politics or examine their points of intersection, and the story would be a similar tale of “good news/bad news.” The 2018, 2020, and 2022 elections brought historic levels of diversity to political office at the same time as violent polarization soared and faith in democratic institutions proportionately plummeted. If we turn toward the cable news revolution of recent decades, the conundrum only re-presents itself in new terms. Deep set partisan loyalty to particular cable outlets has, on the one hand, led to a corrosion of trust in media writ large as well as a surge in punditry and opinionating that doesn’t report on but instead offers a parallel version of reality. On the other hand, if we look closer, we can see the excellent, innovative investigative journalism that’s still happening in all corners of the media world, even if certain subsets of viewers, readers, and listeners might not notice (or might not want to). And for every time we applaud another Tik Tok challenge to the traditional, top-down power structures of media and politics, we see another massive news conglomerate consolidating ownership across new media platforms in such a way that claims to offer choice when, in actuality, perpetuating hegemony.

Where does this leave us? In a precarious place. For one, the Trump-ian playbook of painting the news media as not only partisan but dangerous—as “enemies of the people”—seems to be gaining steam. For example, a recent poll conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation showed that half of respondents disagreed with the statement that most national news organizations don’t intend to mislead or misinform the public, while 43% believed that these organizations don’t care about how reporting can negatively impact society (and while such distrust skews Republican, Democrats are still very much part of this equation, as are young Americans, whose rate of negative perception of the media tops older generations’). Couple this with the fact that commercialization and deregulation have led to massive layoffs, less coverage of government in general, and, in some places, genuine “news deserts,” and the straits begin to seem even more dire.

Americans, Prof. Hall assured the audience, still very much want members of the news media to fulfill their shared constitutional responsibility of acting as a watchdog on government, but realizing this promise will be an uphill battle. The two-party system seems to encourage, even if incidentally, the kind of polarization that has led to the bifurcation of cable vs. non-cable news and the perception of coverage as conflict. Regardless of how seriously fair and balanced journalists take their jobs—and so many do—the very real economic pressures they face exacerbate a disconnect between satisfying commercial imperatives and fulfilling the public-interest needs of a democracy. And as the means of transmitting information grow faster seemingly by the day, the rate of transmitting misinformation seems to grow with them. Though if we’re looking for a silver lining, as we saw in the weeks prior to Prof. Hall’s talk, exposure and condemnation of the willful dissemination of misinformation can make the rounds just as quickly.