OXFORD MEDIA SOCIETY
The late American demagogue Rush Limbaugh, scion of conservative talk radio, used to rail (his default setting) against what he called the “four corners of deceit”: government, academia, science, and media. These institutions, he growled to his millions of listeners, “are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit”.
Nonetheless, many will note that together government, academia, science, and media also happen to comprise almost all of the epistemic foundation which underpins open society.
Democracy allows us as citizens to make decisions – we, the ‘demos’, have the ‘kratos’, the power. Ideally, when we choose our representatives and select options in referenda, we do so with good information – sure not perfect, yet still … good.
But the thing about the modern world, this world of specialisation and complexity, is that nobody can apprehend all of it. At best, each of us can master an irreducibly narrow slice of our shared reality. The corollary is that, as the American journalist Chris Hayes put it, “what we know about the world is inescapably predicated on trust.”
In other words, when the ‘media’ tells us that x-politician has been taking bribes, when academia tells us that higher taxes on the wealthy have y-effect, and when science tells us that COVID vaccines are generally safe and effective, to some extent we believe them in the absence of our own research — we have to. After all, we did not conduct the randomised control trials, or speak to witnesses, or study advanced microbiology.
Though we may not know it all, a fundamental question remains: why exactly do we take the consensus views of the mainstream media, the scientific and academic communities, etc, on pure faith? Well, in addition to representing much of democracy’s knowledge production, the alleged “four corners of deceit” all have deeply embedded processes for self-reflection and emendation. And, these validatory processes are inseparably – and indivisibly – connected to why we trust institutions in the first place.
We accept the view of the scientific community because the system of peer review, indeed, the very core of the experimental method, prizes proof and disproof. We accept the view of the media because mainstream journalism validates truth and punishes those caught reporting falsely. In essence – though it goes without saying that these standards can slip – the four corners of deceit are self-policing. And it is this self-policing which allows the public in turn to trust them. Even democratic government is self-policing – what else are elections?
For more than 30 years, the project of right-wing media in the United States has been to decouple the receptive slice of the public from the evidentiary systems of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ which allow democracy to sustain itself. The ascendancy of social media and of its boutique echo chambers has only accelerated atomisation, and the fallacious sense that it is possible for a person to “do one’s own research”, to exist outside the structures of trust which facilitate collective flourishing.
If the right-wingers – and the inheritors of Limbaugh’s mantle – succeed in divorcing c.50% of the American populace – and to some extent they already have – from traditional systems of knowledge validation, then ‘truth’ loses whatever compromised, postmodern meaning it still has. If, say, fact-checking, rather than being a critically value-neutral method for levelling the political playing field, is seen as a partisan gambit, then the number of tools available to change opinion narrows dramatically.
Consequently, the right-wing assault on three hundred years of epistemological frameworks and developments must be seen as the ultimate reactionary act; sure a chucking-of-the-toys-out-of-the-pram, but also a profound threat to the future of people’s government.
All of us must cultivate an openness, a willingness to be wrong and then to respond to new information. Half of American partisan media – and now, no small portion of British media – have abandoned such receptivity. The consequence is an entrenchment which could entirely break democratic systems of information, [in]validation, decision, and repetition. A citizenry not uniformed, but maliciously misinformed for the sake of the bottom line, will propel democracy into dangerous and uncharted waters. Anyone seeking to work in the media has a duty to resist.