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Co-author Nolan Higdon discusses “United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (And What We Can Do About It).”

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JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor.

Are we too distracted to preserve democracy? Well, that’s the thesis of a new book. And as proof that we are, the authors point to Donald Trump. Think about it. How did we end up with someone who’s been called the most corrupt president in U.S. history? He’s withdrawn from key treaties tackling climate change and the global arms trade; he’s backed coups and imposed draconian immigration policies; pardoned soldiers convicted of war crimes; he’s been accused of money laundering, bribery and much more. And just today, a key witness expected to support Trump’s account in the impeachment hearings, Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, confirmed a quid pro quo and the withholding of military aid to Ukraine to get dirt on the Bidens. This is Trump responding to the news.

DONALD TRUMP: I just noticed one thing, and I would say that means it’s all over. “What do you want from Ukraine,” he asked me, screaming. This is Ambassador Sondland speaking to me. Just happened. They said he was not in a good mood. I’m always in a good mood, I don’t know what that is. And now here’s my response that he gave–just gave. Ready? You have the cameras rolling? “I want nothing. That’s what I want from you, Ukraine.” That’s what I said.

JAISAL NOOR: Well, a new book seeks to address the role corporate media and corporate influence played in the rise of Donald Trump. It’s called United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (And What We Can Do About It). Well today we’re joined by one of the book’s coauthors, Nolan Higdon. He’s a history and media studies lecturer at the California State University East Bay. He wrote the book with his coauthor Mickey Huff. Thanks so much for joining us.

NOLAN HIGDON: Thanks for having me.

JAISAL NOOR: So I wanted to talk about the quote you used to start your book. It’s the infamous quote from the chairman of CBS, Les Moonves about Donald Trump. He said, “It might not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He’s talking about how Trump boosted ratings for these networks, and they gave him unprecedented, unbridled coverage of his campaign. And the media has featured him in the news and in talk shows for decades. And so he really had just an easy entrance into the public psyche and into American homes and across the country. Talk about why you wrote this book and why you chose to start with that quote.

NOLAN HIGDON: Yeah. Immediate media is such an influential part of our lives, these different media companies, media content, it really influences a lot of our perceptions of reality. And so those who can get the most coverage really have an out measured or outweighed influence on public opinion. So the goal of any campaign is, get as much media attention as possible. Some folks have tried making rational arguments, some have tried to back their opponents into corners. Trump figured out the, that at some level these news media outlets are junkies and he could be the stuff these folks need. And so he basically created things that they couldn’t avoid covering. So he had one of the most sensationalistic campaigns in history and Trump was made for this stuff, right? He’s already this reality television star. And he said these scandals and married to Marla Maples and the casino mogul and all that.

So he wedded that to get media attention with also crossing the lines you’re not supposed to cross. The media loves covering people crossing the lines you’re not supposed to cross. And in Trump’s case, I mean this was rampant misogyny and sexism. He married this white supremacy, white separatists, white nationalist movements with his sensationalistic campaign and they simply just couldn’t stop covering it. And so Trump I think he really made himself the anti-politician politician and the media couldn’t get enough of it. And this isn’t some hyper-partisan perspective, 75% of Americans polled said, “We think they covered Trump way too much.”

JAISAL NOOR: And it’s something that they acknowledged or at least began to acknowledge on some level. I’m talking about the corporate media.

NOLAN HIGDON: Yeah. This was kind of a funny moment. The reputation of the corporate media was so bad after the election and it was bad before the election in general. I mean, that’s why Trump was able to use the fake news moniker and get so much attention. But it was even worse after the election when they had sort of incorrectly assumed Hillary Clinton would win and incorrectly assumed that Trump supporters had no shot in the electoral college and all this stuff. So they had to kind of this “mea culpa” moment, right? Where the New York Times comes out and says they’re going to reassert their commitment to truth. And CNN runs this commercial about even if someone calls a banana and apple, they’re still going to call it a banana or something like that. And Washington Post talks about democracy dies in the dark.

But here we are, gunning up for another presidential campaign and there have been no real substantial changes to traditional media like those folks are social media. So it really was kind of a PR stunt to manage the impression they had had before the public. And that’s why I’d Trump strategy is still working. Trump is still popular. Trump is still leading in swing States because the game hasn’t really changed. We learned nothing from 2016 and that’s one of the kind of most frustrating parts about writing this book is watching no lessons really be learned amongst those in the media.

JAISAL NOOR: You cite studies about just how effective misinformation is today. In one of the studies you found that three out of, the study found three out of four people fell for fake news. They believe fake news when it showed up on their computer or their phone. Why do you think misinformation is just a key to changing people and why is it so effective today?

NOLAN HIGDON: We kind of have this myth and our American founding, right? We have this first amendment commitment to the press, which is incredible. We’re the only nation to do this in our constitution. Others have set legal barriers. We have constitutional right to freedom of the press. And the founders assumed that if they had freedom of press, truth would get out there and the average person would be able to recognize truth from false, or at least the majority of people would. As we’re finding out in the 21st century, most folks can’t discern fact from fiction. So even though fact, that’s why I don’t think we’re in a post truth world. Facts still exist. True still exist. Some people just choose not to recognize it.

We lack the skills to be able to determine fact from fiction. You can go back about 30 or 40 years ago when nations in Europe and Asia, they started adding what they called media literacy to their schools. Let’s try and help students sift through this information bomb. It’s increasing with the creation of 24 hour television and the internet. Be able to determine fact from fiction. We didn’t do that here in the United States. One, we have no federal mechanism to do it, but two, media education has always been kind of viewed as artsy fun and you watch film and maybe you get to toy around as a journalist, but then you do your “real job.” But we’re learning now in the 21st century, those jobs are crucial to democracy. Those perspectives and knowledge are crucial to democracy. But we didn’t do anything like that. So that’s one reason why fake news is effective.

A second reason is that the game has kind of been reframed by social media companies. Before propagandists would have to make content and kind of use age old wisdom to determine whether or not it would be effective, right? This was the Nazis trying to figure out how they could construct fake news and get the public to believe it or the U.S. and Soviets during the cold war. Well, social media companies, they use data collection, so they collect data from everything you do both on and offline. These are everything you click, like, recording phone calls, facial recognition, retina scanning.

And they claim that through that data collection they can determine which content will uniquely alter your view or alter your behavior. They call these predictive analytic products. And so what’s changed now is it’s not that there’s fake news everywhere and some of it may convince you and some of it not. Some, it’s actually designed specifically for you based on your behaviors and attitudes. So for all those reasons we’re kind of in quite a conundrum if you’re a person who cares about democracy. And that falsehood has really been empowered and there hasn’t been some counterbalance in education to privilege journalism or fact.

JAISAL NOOR: And you also talk about the role of corporate education reformers, this emphasis on standardized testing as part of that picture because at the same time when corporations realize that the public was a threat, in the sixties and seventies you had these big movements that were really pushing for structural change. You also saw this increase in emphasis on this corporatization of education, which doesn’t necessarily emphasize, and as a former educator, we go to public schools today, kids are trained to fill out bubbles on a scantron but not do critical thinking, really analyze history and contextualize what’s happening around them.

NOLAN HIGDON: Yeah. The period of the 70s in particular was really important. You had the rise of ethnic studies programs, bilingual programs, and this was a threat to the white patriarchal structure and women’s studies and things like that. At the same time that is happening, you had corporate America start to move a lot of these middle-class jobs overseas. You saw the economic gutting of cities like Detroit, most famously with Gary, Indiana and a bunch of places in Ohio, etc.

JAISAL NOOR: Right here in Baltimore.

NOLAN HIGDON: Right here in Baltimore, where we sit, as well. And so these corporations and a lot of their adherence in the political class, they really blamed a lot of the economic anxiety and suffering on our education system. And so teachers became public enemy number one. You started to see this thrust in the 80s, to we need to reform education. Despite 40 years of education reform, we’ve seen no notable differences by the way through all of this. But one of the major things they want to do is standardized tests. And a common misconception is that the tests were testing students. They actually were not. The standardized tests for testing teachers. And so when students took those tasks was to determine how good of a teacher that this educator was.

Of course, there’s a lot of problems with that. Some students don’t take the test. Some students just fill in bubbles so that it can be done because they realize it’s boring. But it really reduced education to what we call a banking model, where you choose the best answer–fill and drill model, if you will. We fill their head with little factoids, and they’re supposed to pick which one. It’s not really critical thinking or critical analysis. They’re sort of skills you need across the spectrum, whether you’re a janitor or whether you work in the trades, whether you work in corporate America, critical thinking skills is necessary. We don’t teach those kinds of things anymore.

So unfortunately, we have about 20 years of schooling now where we’ve taught folks to choose the best answer, but not really equip them with critical thinking skills. And closely related things like civics education, democracy were seen as too political. And it was tough to pick the right answer as oftentimes in our politics there is no right answer. So they gutted those. You only have about 20% of our high schools mandate some sort of civics education for graduation. So we have a lot of the population that doesn’t have sort of the critical thinking skills to sift through information or even know how the democratic system works. And that creates a real problem for democracy. And I think that’s sort of fertile ground to be exploited by authoritarian proclivities.

JAISAL NOOR: And what’s interesting too, especially in a city like Baltimore, it just brings together so much of what you’re talking about because there is a right wing emphasis on why students in Baltimore don’t perform as well on tests. And they blame and they’re basically, their agenda is privatization. And at Sinclair broadcast, which is also what you talked about in your book. And one of the main sources that the Sinclair affiliate uses is a local libertarian think tank, which is part of the Koch donor network, which has sort of pushed these policies around the country.

And now you have our governor who served on that same board of that libertarian think tank. He’s faced with a new report that came out saying that Maryland needs to invest $4 billion more a year in education. And his response is, it’s not about funding. It’s a lack of accountability. So this like similar this, you know, this refrain that you hear throughout the news, but they never talk about how inequality is a predictor. Family income is a predictor of test scores. So they don’t talk about the underlying issues, which actually is the root of inequality and unfair education.

NOLAN HIGDON: Yeah. For them. I mean, it’s a pretty simple answer to everything. Everything is the market will solve it, the market will solve it. This has really been tested since then, late 1970s in the United States. And I don’t know someone who’s really advocating for where the United States is ended up. So I think these markets solutions have kind of bore out that they’re not really solutions at all. The market, some things simply have, cannot be commodified. I mean education is a prime example of that. We’ve now been able to commodify critical thinking. So instead of we sort of create standardized tests and things like that, but you’re right in that increasingly they believe in market solutions for education and for media.

To your point about the think tanks is something we’ve covered in the book that I find really fascinating. And the sixties and seventies, conservatives were sort of angered that their arguments were not making it through the peer review process in higher education. Higher education, if I want to publish something and it gets a blind review, someone who doesn’t know me and I don’t know them, they review it on its merits, and they tell me if it should be published or not. Those weren’t making it through. So rather than sort of reassess their arguments and their validity, they created think tanks that don’t operate in peer review and operate outside of academia. And slowly from that period of the 1970s through the present, they’ve increasingly influenced policy inside the United States. So we have a really narrow scope of thinkers that really are not accountable to anyone dictating policy and wouldn’t you know it with their corporate funding, a lot of them conclude we need more market solutions and less public oversight.

JAISAL NOOR: And their backers are, and because often they are a 401c4 status, they don’t have to disclose who their funders are. But thanks to investigative reporting, we know that billionaires like the Koch brothers are pouring vast sums of money into these groups to push their agenda. And I wanted to end on Russiagate because I think that that’s a critical piece to all of this. Just how that’s unfolded. We’re seeing the impeachment hearings specifically focused on Ukraine now. And so there have been echoes of the ongoing Russiagate reports. So give us your take. How does this illustrate what is wrong with the media today?

NOLAN HIGDON: Well, one of the major distractions of political class and joys is that we really don’t talk about what they agree on. I mean there’s quite a bipartisan consensus on a lot of things. This legal path to immigration, for example, the prison industrial complex, the U.S. empire. These are things where there’s consensus by both political parties. And so you can’t really defeat each other in policy when you agree on most things, right? So instead, the way they try and win elections is by attacking the other party. So it’s not “vote for me because here’s the policies I’m going to pass that you want,” it’s “vote for me because I’m not them.” And Russiagate was kind of a prime example of this. Rather than put a legislative policy dream forward of what the Democrats could be in a post-Trump America and why that’s you should vote for them, instead it was all about taking down Trump and his supporters. And they tried to make this case that Russia somehow had cost them the election. Never mind kind of the hubris that’s behind that.

It’s funny how the Democrats will blame everything but themselves for the loss in 2016 and Russia just became the latest kind of scapegoat. And I think they really thought that they could kind of play into those cold war sensibilities of maybe Republican voters and get them to switch and support the Democrats. But the thing failed miserably. They couldn’t prove this point that Russia tilted the election. At some level, we’ve proven that Russia tried to tilt the election, they made efforts to tilt the election, but there’s still been no data-driven study that illustrates that Russia tilted the election. But the Democrats kind of held onto this thing is going to be their victory in 2020 and it fell apart.

Think back to the 18 months to two years it took to go through Russiagate. That’s a distraction from crucial issues and policy we could be talking about. My students are always fascinated. We go back and look at news reports from the 1990s when immigration was an issue and climate change was an issue. And I pointed them here we are in 2019 and those are still issues but these massive distractions between party infighting or at least the image of party and fighting, distract from those crucial issues. And Russiagate is just one of what we call Scandal Gates, which is the major weapon of mass destruction. So that you keep falling scandals to take down the other party, so distracts us from talking about the policy that actually matters to people’s lives.

JAISAL NOOR: Nolan Higdon. The new book is called United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America. And the next part we’ll talk about the rest of that, which is what we can do about it, which I think is very critical. Thanks so much for joining us.

NOLAN HIGDON: Thank you.

JAISAL NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

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Dr. Nolan Higdon is an author, podcast host, and lecturer of history and media studies at California State University, East Bay. Higdon’s scholarship focuses on news media, propaganda, and critical media literacy and social justice education. He is also a host of the Along The Line Podcast.