Why Americans can't debate politics anymore | The Chris Hedges Report

The consolidation of American media by a handful of monopolies has had wide-reaching effects on our politics and culture. A real decline in media literacy and political debate has occurred as separate audiences become increasingly polarized and isolated to the benefit of media corporations both old and new. How did things get so bad, and what can possibly be done to salvage our political culture? Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff join The Chris Hedges Report to discuss their new book, Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy.

Nolan Higdon is a lecturer in media studies and history at California State University, East Bay. Higdon sits on the boards of the Action Coalition for Media Education and Northwest Alliance for Alternative Media and Education. He also cohosts the Along the Line podcast. He is the author of several books, including The Anatomy of Fake News and The Media and Me.

Mickey Huff is the director of Project Censored, president of the Media Freedom Foundation, co-editor of the annual Censored book series from Seven Stories Press (since 2009), co-author of United States of Distraction (City Lights, 2019), professor of social science and history at Diablo Valley College, and lecturer in communications at California State University, East Bay. 

Studio: Dwayne Gladden, Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino

Post-Production: Dwayne Gladden


Chris Hedges:  Democratic debate and dialogue have all but vanished in the United States. There’s widespread censorship imposed by social media platforms, private corporations about which we know nothing, while they know everything about us. Mainstream news outlets champion censorship and de-platforming in the name of democracy. Brian Stelter, for example, on CNN, justified banning Donald Trump from social media because as he said, “Reducing a liar’s reach is not the same as censoring freedom of speech.” Sean Hannity on Fox News spent 40 minutes talking over former New York mayor Bill de Blasio, the same tactic CNBC host Rick Santelli used to shut down debate about COVID-19. The impulse is to silence opponents rather than engage in dialogue and debate.

This extreme polarization, as Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write in How Democracies Die, is one of the primary signs of a failing democracy. Nolan Higdon, a lecturer at Merrill College and the education department at University of California, Santa Cruz, and Mickey Huff, the Director of Project Censored and the president of the nonprofit Media Freedom Foundation, join me to discuss this dangerous inability to communicate among antagonistic groups in the United States, all issues raised in their new book Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy.

I think this book’s a very fine primer, not only in terms of how we can discuss issues, but I think you do a very good job of dissecting the nature of the media itself. I want to begin with – You actually open it by quoting the great Eldridge Cleaver – But I want to begin by this polarization, this inability to communicate, and how you believe we got here. Why don’t we talk with you, Mickey, first?

Mickey Huff:  Well, thanks for having us on, Chris. It’s an honor to be here with you. And this is our second book together, Nolan Higdon and I. The first book we did together was called United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (And What We Can Do About It). And in that book, we really outlined at least a half a century of the decay of our social political institutions, privatization, sort of a collapse of the public sphere. So all of this is a long time coming.

And what we noticed in coming out of the last book we did together, we had a chapter called “Make America Think Again”, which we could argue about in terms of its historical accuracy. But the sentiment was that we really need to engage each other on the basis of transparently sourced facts. We need historical context. We need to support public institutions as a glue that basically holds us together as a society.

And when we were on talks for the last book, a lot of people were really excited about the what we can do, and we’re not all gloom and doom. And it’s not a several hundred page book of dire warnings and signposts that leaves the reader with three paragraphs of some faux hope somewhere.

And what we did in this book, Let’s Agree To Disagree – We can talk about the title too later if you’d like and the many meanings it has for people – We wanted to create, like you said, a primer, a how-to, a manual for how to be a critically media-literate citizen, to be able to more meaningfully practice civic engagement. And part of that is understanding, historically, how we got here. Again, there’s many, many things that have contributed to this, including the collapse of public education, the enclosure of the commons, increased privatization of just about everything, modification of everything including information, social identity.

And with all of that came the growing sensationalism of the corporate media, and a real collapse of the fourth estate. So all of these things happening through the 1950s, the ’60s, much of this was a reaction in the right from the movements of the ’60s, the Free Speech Movement, Civil Rights Movement, the Lewis Powell memo. There was a real concerted effort among the right wing to really “take back the power from the people” to control the direction of the society. So in short, we can get into details here, and Nolan can fill in blanks too, but we’ve been headed here for a long time. And if we’re not careful, we may end up where we’re heading.

So in this book, we start with the idea that it’s important that we learn how to communicate – Not just critically think, but critically and empathically listen to each other to understand. And then we get into understanding a history of why free expression is important and the free press and free speech. Then we get into the tenets of critical thinking, then we start talking about the importance of understanding theory, ideology, and then we begin deconstructing media and its role in all of this.

So it was very methodical, our approach here. I suppose you could say it is textbook classroom centric, right? The unfortunate thing is, as a Routledge book, is the price of it for the classroom. But we try to take as much out of the classroom as possible, as we think, as a society, the United States of America is desperately in need of the lessons that I think this book teaches.

Chris Hedges:  Nolan, I want to ask, I want to juxtapose Manufacturing Consent by Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky, because I think the media landscape has changed since they wrote that book. That essentially the media, and you have in your book the fact that 90% of the media is controlled by six corporations, and I think that’s right, correct? Are you talking about electronic, or are you talking about print as well?

Nolan Higdon:  The major six corporations, they control what’s often referred to as the legacy media, but there’s still just a handful of corporations that control digital media as well. So we’re looking at about maybe 10 or so corporations that control all of the media that people use. And I think that’s a really important factor when we talk about this, because increasingly, people of all age groups say they get their “news” from these digital outlets. And as we talk about in the text, a lot of these digital outlets are moderating content and only allowing access to news content that comes from those six major corporations. So in a way, it’s exacerbating the problems that have existed since the end of the 20th century.

Chris Hedges:  And yet the model’s changed. So when Chomsky and Herman wrote Manufacturing Consent, you had huge media platforms, [inaudible] three major networks, they dominated the media landscape, and they sought to appeal to a broad demographic. 

The whole commercial model is different now. You have media outlets that have essentially created silos where they reach out to a particular demographic. As you note in the book, publications like The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR cater, MSNBC cater to those who would traditionally vote for the Democratic Party. Fox News, right-wing radio caters to Republicans or the cultists around Trump that have taken over the Republican Party. And that’s very different, and that has proved commercially successful. But that is something that is very different from the old media landscape.

And what comes with that siloing of the demographic is the fostering of antagonism, that you’re constantly demonizing the other. The left does this, the right does this, or I don’t know if it’s left. Let’s call it the mainstream Democratic Party figures, the famous Hillary Clinton attack on Trump voters as deplorables. I want you to talk about that difference, Nolan, that difference that’s, I think, seismic change in the media itself within the United States. And I think we do have to acknowledge that this is done for commercial reasons. It’s done because it’s commercially viable for for-profit corporations.

Nolan Higdon:  I completely agree. You can’t talk about news media in the United States without talking about the commercial interests. And to unpack what you said a moment ago, which is spot on, the model traditionally for news media has been to garner the largest audience possible. So you have the left-wing and the right-wing, as it be, watching or reading the same content. But with the advent of cable, we started to see cable news, particularly Fox News, try and target one demographic and maximize that demographic.

And this trend was exacerbated by the internet where we started to see legacy media go to the subscriber model, where you target one group of subscribers and maximize that demographic as well. And they use a lot of tools, honestly, from professional wrestling, which was popular in the late 1990s. You make the audience cheer for the so-called good guy, they boo the character of the so-called bad guy.

And we know less and less about the “other side” because we just have a character of it. And this proves pretty viable in terms of economics. But for democracy or community, it’s disastrous. Polls show Americans’ number one fear is other Americans. People believe, in overwhelmingly huge numbers, the population believes that a civil war is going to happen in the United States in their lifetime. And again, it’s largely because of this constant media diet that makes us hate and fear anybody who’s different than us and makes us feel absolutely correct in our views and we should go unchallenged. And that’s really the story of the ways in which news media are contributing to the problems we describe in the text.

Chris Hedges:  I would wonder if it’s not really before the internet. I think it’s the rise of right-wing radio. I’ll ask Mickey this because I know he knows it, but the abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine, Ronald Reagan or whoever was Ronald Reagan’s brain realized after his failed presidential bid that he should go on the radio rather than… I think he’d been offered the ambassadorship to the UK and head of the Republican committee or something. And then you saw the rise of these figures like Rush Limbaugh and Savage. And it’s interesting that Donald Trump, who has no ideology of his own, essentially parroted back almost word for word. But, Mickey, talk about the walking away from the Fairness Doctrine and the rise of right-wing radio, which all preceded the internet, but I think it’s an important element in the corruption of American media.

Mickey Huff:  Yeah, Chris, that’s unfortunately true. We see the conflict between historical legacy and establishment media, corporations pretty much, and their new technological rivals. And we see how the new arrivals often glom on to some ideologically strident position to really attract eyeballs, or ears in this case. And you can go back to the ’30s and radio, the advent of television, we’ve seen these things.

And so by the time we get to the ’80s with cable and the network feuding with each other, a lot of attention was focused on television. Meanwhile, a lot in the Democratic Party, they pretty much abandoned the notion of what was feasible through radio. And AM radio in particular became a fertile ground for what appeared to be, at least on the surface, maybe astroturf, but what looked like a grassroots right-wing populist kind of movement. Rush Limbaugh speaking for the working farmer or trucker, working people that had radios on all day. Whereas the neoliberal corporate centrists that were manifest in the Clinton regime, the Clintons coming in and really shifting the Democratic Party to the right, they didn’t champion the Fairness Doctrine that died in the Reagan years, in 1987.

And in fact, to double down, the Clintons worked with Newt Gingrich and others in the 1996 Telecom Act, the second major telecom act in US history after the 1934 Telecom Act, which really gutted regulations, allowed for corporations to own increased shares in markets. And that was manifest, I think, nowhere more explicitly than in radio, and it really blew up. And don’t forget, 1996 is also the same year that you’ve got Roger Ailes, former Communications Advisor in the Reagan administration working with Rupert Murdoch, kind of the Hearst of our day, to kick off Fox News.

But AM radio, the right-wing echo chamber of Rush Limbaugh, really paved the way for Fox News in a lot of ways. And then, when the other corporate media cable outlets began to see Fox’s ratings, because they were constantly appealing to a certain demographic, so they always got consistent ratings, they tried to out-fox Fox. And then that’s where you get an extraordinary hyper-partisanship among the corporate parties, the corporate right, the corporate left, Democrats, Republicans. I mean we say left we mean neoliberal, centrist, corporate-center, the Democrats, really, sort of represent.

But that was the model for a media moving into the 20th century. When we add to that the explosion of social media, we really get into a sophisticated algorithmic manipulation that caters to people’s confirmation bias, and it even further isolates and silos different demographics so that not only are they only talking to each other, but they’re only hearing each other. In what’s later referred to as a post-truth world, everything becomes a matter of opinion, but your opinion is the correct one. Everyone else’s is simply wrong.

So I see a lot of our current conundrums, which are manifest in big tech and big tech monopolies with algorithmic gatekeeping and censorious control, shadow banning and so on. That seems to me to be a natural outgrowth of the concentration that we saw in radio coming out of the ’80s, out of the ’90s.

I don’t think enough American media “consumers” are aware, sleight of hand, that all that was happening, and it was happening by design. And one of the things we really try to do in this book, certainly things we do with Project Censored, is we try to unpack that by teaching critical media literacy, and how it’s connected to civic engagement. So while we do outline and decry the challenges and problems, we do try to prescribe ways that people can get around this and broaden their media habits and diets in ways that they can really open up the possibility that just the things that they think are the only things going on. That was manifest extraordinarily in a recent interview at CNN with Smerconish and Roger Waters, where you have this one establishment media figure that’s not even a journalist, just cannot possibly see outside the neoliberal corporate bubble to understand the language that Roger Waters, as more of a cosmopolitan global figure, how he thinks and what he’s saying.

Add to it, they distill a 30-minute interview to seven minutes to frame and control the arguments. Well again, that’s mastered at Fox, right? They were masters of that. But then MSNBC and CNN, they go on to co-opt those tactics. And unfortunately, what we’ve seen is an extraordinary decay in media that has left this. Now only about 16% of the American public has a favorable view of legacy and establishment media, which is why we need to focus more and more on intrepid investigative reporting, the kind of reporting that you are known for doing, Chris, and the kinds of reporters that we highlight every year in our annual reports at Project Censored.

So there is hope, but it’s connected to a lot of work, and it’s the kind of work that we all have to be willing to put in, because democracy’s not a spectator sport. And we really need to remind people that civic engagement is a real, crucial feature to trying to wrest control from these handful of corporations that control not only our communications landscape, but increasingly our entire civic sphere.

Chris Hedges:  I think one of the strongest parts of your book is that dissection of the media to provide what you call media literacy, give very strong examples of how Bernie Sanders’s facts are manipulated to create impressions. I won’t go into it now. And this was MSNBC, was all of the media, was essentially working to minimize Sanders’s clout in the primaries. But I want to go back to the Fairness Doctrine. You should, Mickey, explain what it was, because it was really set up to prevent the kind of corruption within the media landscape that has now taken place.

Mickey Huff:  Yeah, Chris. The Fairness Doctrine coming out of the late ’40s, post World War II, around the same time the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, pro freedom of expression, the right to impart ideas and also hear them. The Fairness Doctrine comes out of that spirit, and goes up through 1987 when, politically, the support for it collapses as we get more and more hyper partisan in the Reagan years –

Chris Hedges:  But explain what it did, because it was an important instrument.

Mickey Huff:  It mandated that you had equal time for different sides and different views. It meant that the media needed to… And again, there’s more than two sides, so I don’t want to oversimplify this. But the point is it meant that if you were going to be featuring figures that had a certain view, it meant that the media had an obligation to find other sides, other views, and present those in a fair, transparent way to the public, so that the public could then decide on the basis of all the views that were being presented, with the assumption that these were a relative sampling of most of the main views about societal affairs. And so it was a regulator, if you will, the Fairness Doctrine, a regulator of fairness that simply meant that people had a likely or a realistic expectation that they would be hearing from as many important sides as existed, and that there was a good faith effort to impart that information.

And then it was expected that the public could be trusted to make up their decisions, to make up their minds on the basis of the factual material that had been presented with the persuasive arguments that went along with them. When that collapsed, there was no longer an obligation to it, but worse, I would argue, there was no longer any pretense. And that’s what I was saying earlier when I was going off about the history of it, is that we lost even the desirability to achieve any semblance of what was objective debate and discourse about key issues that we face as a society.

Chris Hedges:  Nolan, I want to raise the issue, because there were attempts by liberals and leftists to counter the rise of right-wing media. Most famously Air America, I used to be on, especially Marc Maron’s show quite a bit. And it failed. It failed for two reasons. One, it wasn’t commercially viable, because these right-wing talk shows bring in staggering sums of money. It’s why radio stations, why they proliferated throughout radio stations. But I think the other important point is that they dealt in nuance. And in the new media landscape, nuance became a kind of anathema. I wonder if you could speak about that.

Nolan Higdon:  Yeah, that’s a great point. We do have a media system that oversimplifies. But I think your point gets to something deeper, which is if you turn on something like [inaudible], there was a version of it, or if it was around today, it’s speaking a totally different language than what people are used to. Mickey, a moment ago, brought up the Roger Waters interview on CNN with Smerconish, and it wasn’t even necessarily that Smerconish was arguing against what Roger Waters was saying; he just didn’t understand it. Waters has a totally different frame, a totally different historical understanding. And I think that reflects how a lot of audience members are. They’re very used to this Republican versus Democratic Party frame of all issues. And if you operate outside of that frame, it’s almost like speaking a different language.

And that’s why Mickey and I really center critical media literacy in the text, with the hope that we can use the classroom to get people better prepared to recognize these frames, recognize the ways in which these narratives reduce what we listen to, what we read, what we see. So I think that’s one of the problems, or one of the challenges that a lot of so-called alternative media faces against the legacy media megaphone.

Chris Hedges:  Well, I see a kind of cynicism in it. So there are only two sides in, let’s call it the legacy media, or mainstream media. That’s Republicans and Democrats. So you have a very well paid host posing as a journalist, and he allows a Republican operative to lie for a minute and a half or whatever it is. And then he allows a Democratic operative to lie for a minute and a half. And the person moderating the discussion may be quite aware that both sides are mendacious, but they walk away as if they’ve done their job. Is that correct, Nolan?

Nolan Higdon:  Yeah, that pretty much sums up the average segments. They get two or three people from the two major parties into a five-minute segment where they’re supposed to debate, and debate means yell over each other for five minutes. And that’s what people’s understanding is of news media. So if you have something like a real news network or something, it’s completely different than what a lot of audience members are used to in that sense. And I think breaking that frame is a really important challenge those in alternative media face.

Chris Hedges:  So, Mickey, throughout the book, if I’m going to pull out the two most salient points, one, of course, I think is media literacy. I think understanding how the media works is key, and you do a good job of explaining that. But the other is building a discourse, a national discourse that’s rooted in verifiable fact. Because you can’t really communicate with somebody that believes QAnon or thinks dinosaurs actually lived in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. I mean, I found this with the Christian right. And you raise this as a point in the book as a kind of fundamental by which communication is possible. And yet we live now in a fact-free world. I wonder if you can just… I mean, it’s a verifiable fact, whether it’s Russiagate, which wasn’t verifiable fact, or the election was stolen from Trump, which doesn’t… Both sides are doing it. And I wonder if you can address that, Mickey?

Mickey Huff:  Yeah, Chris. That’s the conundrum of what’s referred to as the post-truth world. And if we go back to the 2016 election, that’s where we have the Oxford Dictionary declaring post-truth as word of the year, hyphenated word or phrase of the year, marking this post-modern shift in the political landscape where there are these competing truths, but they’re actually not meant to compete. The whole edifice of the news media as wrestling ring with the people talking past each other and the moderator pretending that, well now you decide, we report, you decide.

There’s not much to decide because one of the magic words you used a little bit ago was nuance. In other words, devils and details. The corporate news media give no time for nuance. They give no time to dissect fact claims that are stated to be factual. Fact-checking itself has become an extraordinary political and ideologically-driven endeavor, where part of the post-truth conundrum is that the USA TODAY, which is one of the largest circulating newspapers in the United States, is also a certified fact-checker for social media. Yet Nolan just wrote a piece not long ago decrying some of the biases and many significant problems of USA TODAY.

The Atlantic Council, a PR arm of NATO, is a fact-checker for Meta and Facebook. These are extraordinary problems. And so we need to not outsource critical thought, need not outsource critical thinking. We need to reclaim it. And we need to really demand that journalism, when operating in an ethical framework, does seek to be truthful and objective in a way where facts are transparently sourced, biases are clearly labeled or listed or called out. There has to be room for disagreement, not character assassination. And again, I’m going to go back to what you said again with nuance, because that’s something, again, that our culture lacks so extraordinarily.

We are an outrage culture, and there’s no room for nuance in outrage. And if you don’t respond, if you don’t virtue signal to the proper outrage of the left or of the right, then you’re just not included in the voice, and you’re immediately cast aside. If I criticize the US support for Ukraine, I’m suddenly pro-Putin and a Trumper. If I somehow decry foreign influence in elections, I’m somehow something else.

You fill in the blanks. We could talk all day about the examples. But what we do in this text, Chris, is we try to get away from that, and we try to give, sorry for the cliche, but we try to give people tools, if you will, for a critical media literacy toolbox that enables them to understand, deconstruct, dissect media messages, political messages in a way that people can ask the right questions, they can talk to each other, not be atomized just through mediated screens, but we encourage people to actually talk to one another.

That’s not what happens on antisocial media. We need to actually be out in real life and we need to be talking. We need real face time, not Facebook. And this is the kind of thing that we call for at the end. And we do this in ways by also calling out important best practices for critical listening, for hearing views different than our own. We highlight… There’s a lot of people on both ideological sides that talk about, those people can’t be reached. The Trumpers, the neo-Nazis, they can’t be talked to. The woke people over here, the people that are woke indoctrinating, they can’t be reached and talked to. We have to censor these people on the right or the left.

Daryl Davis, an African-American musician, collected over 200 hoods of KKK Klansmen, because he went out and talked to them about the racism they have. And we highlight that model in the book as somebody that puts themselves in extraordinarily uncomfortable positions to confront why people believe such nonsense and believe hateful ideologies. It’s often because they’re not engaged in their critical faculties, and they are fearful. And we need to address that head-on as best as possible. If we want to talk about any kind of allyship, we need to have an allyship with facts, reason, logic, and empathy. And that’s what we really call for in the book. And we really hope people will practice what we’re trying to teach.

Chris Hedges:  Well, just to close, Nolan, the only problem that I see, I mean you’re of course right, and I like the book very much, is that a lot of these non-reality based belief systems serve an emotional purpose. They serve as a vent for alienation, disenfranchisement, rage. I would even argue often a legitimate rage. And I think, Mickey, you raised the thing about professional wrestling. Taibbi raises that too in his book, Hate Inc., which is very good, and you’re right. And I actually open my book, Empire of Illusion, by writing about professional wrestling. And what was interesting is that nobody in the arena, that was in Madison Square Garden actually believed that it was real, but they were so emotionally involved in the storyline that it didn’t matter. And I think that’s what… I guess we’ll close, Nolan, with that, we just have a minute left. How do you overcome that?

Nolan Higdon:  Yeah, that’s a great point. We not only cover ways in which to procure constructive dialogue, we also talk about destructive dialogue. You need a certain sense of reciprocity and respect for each other. You need to recognize that people do have hate, fear, anger, emotional needs. And if you’re really going to try and be constructive, you need to recognize those, and you need to manage those, not lampoon the person, insult them, or name call. So the text is as much about examining and deconstructing other people as it is self-reflection. What can you do as an individual to procure a more constructive environment, one that respects the other person, where you demonstrate things like decency, integrity, and credibility?

Chris Hedges:  Great. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.