“Our politics is intensely polarized, and our media landscape is impoverished,” said Stephen Macedo, Professor of Politics and Human Values, at a panel on President Donald Trump and the politically polarized atmosphere today, especially with media.
At the panel, each speaker addressed a different aspect of this issue, from various perspectives and backgrounds. The panel comes in the context of a political landscape mired with "fake news," criticisms of bias, and distrust between the general public and the media itself.
Macedo's segment, “The Challenge to Journalism and Public Deliberation in Our Deeply Divided Democracy,” addressed the current state of American democracy in a post-fact era. Though he cautioned against use of the term "post-fact era" as hyperbole, he did address the challenges it creates. Moreover, he emphasized the “fair presentation of opposing points of view” and the “openness to those critical responses that give us confidence to the claims that survive that process.”
Macedo pointed out the issue of partisan polarization. “There is a much greater tendency for those on the right and left to associate with like- minded [individuals],” he said. “The most politically engaged Americans are the most divided.”
“Partisanship seems to Trump religion and ethics,” said Macedo, followed by an uproar of laughter from the audience.
Macedo highlighted the declining number of newspapers in print today, the fewer than 33,000 newsroom employees, and the only 17 percent of adults ages 18-24 who read the newspaper daily, as print no longer is the primary news source.
“We all need to recognize the vital role journalism plays in our democracy,” Macedo said.
Deborah Amos, Middle East correspondent for National Public Radio, followed with her segment on “Fake News: The Autocrat’s Toolbox.”
“In our parts of the world the media is not free, and the government is an autocracy,” Amos said, as an international news correspondent with experience speaking on conferences geared towards addressing “fake news.” She attributed an innate mistrust and skepticism toward state news in the Middle East. “Citizens of the Middle East are more savvy news consumers.”
Amos touched upon a study conducted by Wellesley College, conducted through a National Science Foundation grant, which examined “fake news” across the media, particularly on Twitter. University researchers set up a website to track "fake news." Still, Amos advocated for a greater focus on Facebook.
“[They] have a responsibility to be more vigilant about what goes on their site,” Amos said in a conversation on media literacy. “Part of our job now [as journalists] is to understand the system.”
“This country is no longer a place where everyone experiences the same reality,” Amos said.
Christy Wampole, assistant professor of French and Italian, spoke on “readers’ changing relationship with the truth,” in her segment on “Undumbing the Public.”
“Journalism proper has seized to exist,” Wampole said. “American news often infantilizes its audience.”
Wampole discussed how the media perceives the American public to be “in need of a kind of speculative entertainment.”
“Why should this be acceptable to anyone? We have to raise the bar here,” Wampole said.
Joe Stephens, journalism professor and a reporter for The Washington Post, entered into a discussion of “The ‘Iron Core’ of Journalism,” in which he emphasized the importance of consumer discretion and media literacy.
"The powerful have long manufactured their own facts to suit their own purposes, and the credulous public is at risk if they’re not skeptical enough,” Stephens said.
The New York Times added 270,000 new subscribers since the inauguration, and The Washington Post’s online traffic is at an all-time high, and is now, once again, profitable. CNN draws over one million viewers per hour.
“The President … has called us fake news, disgusting, dishonest … the lowest form of humanity, the lowest form of life,” Stephens said.
"If the President has said he is in a running war with journalists, should journalists go to war with the President?" Stephens asked. He offered a resounding no, reflecting on a long history of rocky relations between people in power and journalists.
“To do otherwise actually would risk journalism and democracy," he said. "If we can't get this right, democracy can't work."
Keith Wailoo, a professor in History and the Wilson School, addressed "A Crisis of Facts? Or a Crisis of Belief?"
“We are not in a post-fact era in the same way in 2009 we did not enter a post-racial society,” Wailoo said. “In some ways there is a kind of recommitment to the fact that facts matter.”
“The crisis today is not of facts, or even of alternative facts, but of what I would call the contour of belief, particularly who believes what,” Wailoo said. He discussed the issue of credibility, explaining how “we make our own news online,” such as through Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia.
“These are all vehicles by which we participate in the creation of alternative kinds of facts," he said.
The panel of journalists and humanities scholars entitled “Democracy, Facts, & the News," took place in Betts Auditorium at 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 21. The event was hosted by the Princeton University Humanities Council as part of a larger series on “The Post-Fact Era.”