The U.S. must invest in local journalism and rid public schools of corporate influence in order to become a functioning democracy, argues Nolan Higdon, co-author of “United States of Distraction”.
JAISAL NOOR: This is part two of our conversation with Nolan Higdon about his book, United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America.
Now we’re going to talk about what we can do about it. One of the really interesting parts in your book is you talk about key regulations that existed around the control, the ownership of the media that have been gutted over this past century, and the key role they played, like the fairness doctrine, the 1934 Communications Act. Talk about what those regulations were and what it’s meant that we haven’t had, well, the fact that they’re gone now, what. What impact does that have?
NOLAN HIGDON: Sure. Yeah. The 1934 Communications Act was sort of the really big change in the sense that activists actually lobbied for that. They lobbied the government to pass that bill, and what it said was the federal government was going to limit how many media outlets any corporation could own in any market or any business could own any market, and the idea being that democracies are dependent upon a diversity of views, right? We talked about this reciprocal purpose of the first amendment, that it’s the right to have freedom press, right to freedom of speech, but it’s also a right to hear, that is that our democracy depends on us hearing these other ideas and hearing these perspectives.
So, it protected that diversity of views and particular people at the time were concerned about radio and eventually television. Of course, this had already been applied to newspapers. For most American history, every town had roughly about two newspapers. That was pretty standard, bigger cities obviously had more. Then in the 1940s, there was a concern about maybe having too much of a bias perspective in media, despite this limited ownership. What if we get too bias of a perspective? So we created the fairness doctrine. The fairness doctrine said if you give one perspective, you need to give time for opposing views or space for opposing views in your media outlet. The idea kept everyone kind of honest.
But after the 1970s, there was a lack of faith in government solutions and government regulation due to things like Watergate, Vietnam, going communist, the Church Committee hearings, which revealed the crimes committed by our intelligence community against folks here at home and abroad. And so the answer became like the dismantling of government, and so in 1987, the FCC stopped enforcing the fairness doctrine. That same year, through no coincidence, Rush Limbaugh ended up launching his radio program where he was able to sort of make up these crazy, unfounded conspiracies about liberals, and build an audience based on fear and hate without having to get any other views and sort of that station or that network.
Similarly, in 1996 Bill Clinton signed with a Republican Congress the Telecommunications Act, which got rid of those ceilings on how many media outlets you can own in particular market. And this saw about the 50 corporations who control 90% of your media reduced down to six. So, about 50 corporations in the ’80s reduced to six in the ’90s. There are current merger attempts right now in the books, so we may go down to four, which means in my lifetime, theoretically, we could just have like one news outlet. One news out the dominates like 90% of media.
The same year the Telecommunications Act passed, Fox News came out. And Fox News, again, figured out that don’t try and get like a national broad audience, try and really scare and play into the hate of a smaller audience. And get them really addicted and you can change their perceptions; you’ll change the perception of discourse and you’ll change the politics of America. Ailes, who had worked with the Reagan administration and political tricksters like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove and Roger Stone, soon to be imprisoned. They were able to really use Fox News effectively.
And so what that did was it created a new focus on news media. These corporations were competing against each other largely in terms of profits. As a result, they started getting rid of things they saw as non-profitable. The first thing they got rid of was the overseas bureaus. They thought Americans didn’t need to know what was going on in countries they couldn’t find on maps and stuff like that, so they cut all that stuff. So you end up with one reporter who covers a continent, which is if anybody works in journalism realize how absurd that is. They got rid of that. Then they started getting rid of reporters who were not in major cities, because this where they sort of came with this idea that only major cities matter; what’s happening in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, maybe like a Dallas. But anything smaller than that, they got rid of reporters there.
So what do you do with the extra airtime and space? You fill it with op ed writers who give you their opinion or on the air you fill it with reporters or critics–reporters who take the work of journalists and tell you about it or critics who give you their opinion. So the amount of actual journalism that’s available to most Americans has dramatically decreased. We talk about in the book the problem of how Americans cannot determine falsehood from fact or even opinion from fact. It’s even and a whole other problem is how do you find fact-based reporting in this sort of sea of opinion and falsehood. But that’s kind of where news media has transitioned.
And as a result, a lot of journalism schools closed, because they said, well, we don’t really want to teach you to be a journalist since there’s fewer and fewer journalism jobs. And so we kind of end up with a crisis where the press, the fourth of estate of democracy, has been emaciated, and that’s kind of sort of the story of what happened. I will say just on a one sort of footnote that I always try and remind folks: We don’t want to sort of glorify the past. This isn’t a message of Make America Great Again or something like that. It was that the consensus amongst the journalism class that lead us to things like Vietnam, for example. So it’s not to say that everything was perfect back then, but we at least did have a couple more tools to play with to protect us from the problems we’re facing today.
JAISAL NOOR: One of the solutions you lay out is funding local journalism. And you cite a lot of people have been thinking about how do we fund independent local news outlets? You mentioned this in your book, a lot of people don’t know that the founding fathers actually subsidized on a huge scale. They subsidize the press, because they knew how important it was. You talk about how little compared to other countries the United States invests in, the federal and state governments invest in local journalism. What do you propose as far as government resources on these programs and to build independent news?
NOLAN HIGDON: Yeah. I think we need sort of a change in consciousness. We talked about this in the book. These public institutions, that is institutions paid for by tax dollars, are supposed to serve the public. So I really think schools and higher education can be locations where we can train journalists, we can run school papers to focus on local stories, things that are going on in the community. And we as citizens as well, I find we spend so much time talking about fake news. We spend very little time talking about journalism. The average person doesn’t know much about what a journalist is or what they do. One, because you’re not taught it schools, and two, because so many people claim to be journalists who don’t do journalism, right. Bill O’Reilly comes to mind.
So sort of maybe taking a journalism class or looking up the basics, like 101 of journalism could be critical if you’re someone who wants to be able to find journalism, but also if you’re going to be able to practice it in your community. What’s going on in your community that’s important? Like right now, we’ve had like wall-to-wall 24 hour coverage of this scandalgate story about Ukraine and the potential impeachment of the president. We really don’t know more than what has already been said in the last couple of weeks. Imagine if we filled that time with things that are going on in your community. What’s going on locally that’s more important to you? Like we talked about here in Baltimore sort of financial scandals, right, in the city. So things like that are way more important to your life. That’s where your tax dollars are going. That affects your life. So focusing on those things.
Also, I encourage folks to remember that time is our most precious commodity. We only have so much time on earth. Do you really want to spend your time being glued to the 24 hour news network talking about an issue that’s not really going to affect your life? Also, do you really want to be an informed citizen of a democracy or do you want to be a fake news Disseminator? When you go online, what’s your goal? Is your goal to inform yourself to be a better voter, or is your goal to find the most catchy headlines and share them? If so, you might be helping out the fake news cause. I think there’s a lot that we can do at the individual and local level before we even talk about sort of national politics, or CNN, or MSNBC, or Fox and those folks.
JAISAL NOOR: And finally, there’s changes we can make to public education you argue. I think Baltimore is a great example, because there’s groups that already exist here that are really using public schools as a way to actually empower and educate young people, which is not really the goal of public education right now. It’s not really what it’s trying to do, but it’s working here on a scale in Baltimore. But talk about around the country, people want to make public schools actually a place where we can learn these critical skills and have a meaningful participation in our democracy. What kind of changes could make?
NOLAN HIGDON: Yeah. I’m always fascinated by that point, that regardless of where you are throughout history, there’s been examples of people all over the political and identity spectrum who recognize there’s a connection between education and empowering people in a democracy. And we’re talking about Thomas Jefferson trying to get universal education in Virginia, who’s a slave owner, or talk about Frederick Douglas who comes from slavery, who first thing after escaping slavery focuses on education. So this has been recognized throughout history. America’s just sort of lost its way with this corporate talking points about the purposes of education.
I think number one, you sort of need to let the professionals do their job. That is, let the educators educate. I was kind of comparing it to, I can never imagine if I was in the midst of surgery turning over and telling the surgeon, “You know, I think you really, you’re doing this bad.” So in some respect for the profession of an educator. These were folks who go to school, they hone their craft, they’re held up to standards by colleagues, so let them kind of dictates that. I think you’ll find that most educators, at least anecdotally I can say, really recognize that standardized testing is crippling what they’re trying to do in the classroom.
They spend so much time preparing students for the test. If you’re in K-12 education, then if you’re in higher ed, you spend so much time kind of reminding students that a lot of the skills they learned of how to take the test isn’t going to serve them well in a college classroom. There’s a whole different type of education, so it’s really turned a curve ball.
JAISAL NOOR: I used to teach remedial classes in New York City for college students. Like 18 year olds that just graduated high school had to take these classes, and they often would come in with a fourth grade understanding of history. And so they are not taught history, which is fundamental to understanding our role in society.
NOLAN HIGDON: Agreed. And then they go to college and because they don’t have those remedial skills, right, they end up not being able to pass or whatever, and they I put like a $30,000 student loan debt bomb that they have nothing to show for. So yeah, changing that whole process and also emphasizing sort of the things you’re talking about there that history is important. A very diverse, a ethnic studies model of history is very important for students to develop things like cultural competency and understand the true history our country. One of the biggest mistakes we make is we look at contemporary issues, problems, or events in historical vacuum. And so we don’t see the events that led up to it.
Like even in our book, we talk about how Trump is a symptom. If you’re focused on Trump all the time or you have so-called Trump fatigue, you’re really missing the big picture is that Trump is sort of the outcome of 40 years of policies and errors, so we need to go back and look at those before we can address Trump. Then, I definitely think a critical media literacy education is necessary, and where a media education puts these sort of tools in the classroom and ask us to analyze media, a critical media literacy says, let’s look at the power dynamics behind it.
Let’s look at the political economy. Let’s look how certain identity groups are framed. How are they represented in media, and what does that tell us about our society, the way we sort of want to pigeonholed certain identity groups in certain places, the way we privilege certain ideologies over others. These ideologies like the market will solve everything, for example, is privileged over the idea that there’s some value in cultural competency or being worldly.
So kind of experiencing that, looking at those things in media I think is really crucial. I think we also need to emphasize critical thinking in our classrooms. Some teachers conflate this with critical theory, but I mean actual critical thinking, using evidence to draw conclusions, logical fallacies, and stuff like that. And I encourage educators, I know folks are doing this already and I’m inspired by them, but to be somewhat, if you will, subversive in the classroom. Like how can you sort of integrate this content into the stuff you’re already doing? So make sure we get a critical awareness of media critical thinking, a civics education where you teach about democracy, where you focus on cultural competency.
Lastly, community engagement, getting students outside of the classroom with their educators to go into the community. Schools are public institutions. We should be serving the public. I say that as a teacher and a student, and there’s some strong value in there. In addition to work ethic and things like that, learning what it means to actually be a civilian in a democracy, you’re supposed to be a part of your community, aiding in your community, learning from your community.
And so, for over a century, educators have found it really valuable to get folks out of the classroom to do various projects like artwork, or running food drives, or interning with like nonprofits and interning with news outlets so they can learn about journalism and things like that are I think the ways we need to start directing education, and direct it away from so-called marketable skills. Things like critical thinking, awareness in media and civics, those will be skills that will help folks in the market. If we focus on those, we can focus on the market afterward.
JAISAL NOOR: All right. Nolan Higdon, thanks so much for joining us.
NOLAN HIGDON: Thank you.
JAISAL NOOR: The book is United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (And What We Can Do About It). It’s out now. You can get it at your local bookstore. Thanks much for joining us.