A warm welcome back: media gatekeepers

In a post-election world, Center director Jeffrey Cole sees reasons for hope that truth may become depoliticized.

By Jeffrey Cole

The year 2020 cannot end soon enough. Putting divisive politics, devastating economic recession, continuing social injustice, and the Coronavirus pandemic in our rear-view mirrors brings hope for a better 2021 and beyond.

It has been a terrible year — one that will join 1918 and 1968 in the unhappy history books. But out of all the chaos and anxiety of the past decade, culminating in 2020, may emerge a hopeful development: the return of the professional media gatekeeper as citizens try to separate truth from disinformation. A lot of money has been made and political ground gained by catering to what former Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway memorably dubbed “alternative facts.”

Now, finally, there are some glimmers of hope that this may be starting to change.

The presidential election and the pandemic have unleashed a tsunami of deeply flawed and distorted information. While that tidal wave caters to those who want biased and provocative conspiracy theories, it leaves everyone else confused and frustrated. We don’t know how to get to the truth.

Until 2000, almost all of our news came from two relatively trustworthy sources: broadcast television and newspapers. Although there were varying degrees of quality and reliability within those two sources, most followed journalism school standards of professionalism. CNN, which emerged in 1980 as the first major cable news source, followed the standards of big city newspapers and broadcast networks. Right-wing talk radio (the left has never quite mastered radio) appeared in the 1980s with Rush Limbaugh syndicating nationally in 1988, but it was viewed for many years as a fringe source of information.

Early in the new millennium, three new sources — mostly lacking the training and professionalism of newspapers and broadcast—began to capture significant audience attention: cable news (Fox News and MSNBC both began in 1996), the world wide web, and the web’s devil spawn: social media.

In our World Internet Project (WIP), we quickly learned that Americans and citizens of most democracies were not skilled at distinguishing good information from bad. We never had to be, because for most of our pre-2000 lives we could trust the quality of information in newspapers and on television. There were outliers, but they fell within a narrow spectrum.

All that changed with the internet and cable news.

We learned the Chinese were quite good at discerning what was real and what was serving someone’s political agenda. They were better at this not because they are smarter but rather because they could never trust their media. They were raised to look at information suspiciously, ask where it came from, and whose agenda it served. They were skeptical consumers of news while we were trusting.

As Americans went online that trust came to a crashing halt. News consumers quickly abandoned traditional sources of news. There was abundant news on the internet that was free. Moreover, both internet news and partisan cable quickly became echo chambers catering to their audiences’ narrow beliefs. They were also simply more entertaining to consume.

As we face the implications of life after the election, we will hear conflicting views of what happened and whether or not we can trust the results. We will turn to gatekeepers and reliable sources of information. A Fox News or an MSNBC will be critical in maintaining order and support for our institutions by whether they fulfill their gatekeeper role or pander to their viewers’ desires to hear what they want to hear regardless of evidence.

Newspapers and television could not compete. They rapidly lost both subscribers and advertising and spent most of our still young 21st century in a critically weakened state.

Then came Trump, and media use soared

The 2016 election of Donald Trump caught everybody by surprise. Surely, most Americans felt, we could never elect a president who lied constantly, touted conspiracy theories, and constructed alternate realities. Doesn’t truth win out?

Weirdly, the election of Trump was the best thing that has happened to news in America. Historians will debate every aspect of Trump’s presidency, but one part of it is clear: he put on a popular show. Whether they loved or (even more so) if they hated him, people could not stop watching.

So many lies came pouring forth (The Washington Post estimates close to 25,000 in four years) people needed a place for fact-checking. Paid digital subscriptions to The New York Times quadrupled between 2016 and 2020. The Post has seen 60% year-over-year growth.

The benefits were widespread. PBS stations saw increases in ratings and viewer financial support, particularly at NPR. Stephen Colbert’s ratings soared past Jimmy Fallon’s (many felt Fallon was too easy on Trump in a pre-election interview when he ran his hands through the candidate’s hair). Likewise, the ratings of John Oliver, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers, and Jimmy Kimmel benefited. Fox News also gained from an energized viewer base and remarkably easy access to the President.

That we live in two distinct media universes became even more glaringly apparent during the 2020 presidential election. Supporters at Trump rallies talking about their candidate and the Coronavirus as if the pandemic was a hoax seemed to come from a different planet than those who supported Joe Biden or marched in the streets for social justice.

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1983 warning that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” could not have been more prescient.

Many of us realize that we no longer speak the same language as the other side. While conflict and even civil war are often discussed as possibilities, a slight opening in the other direction is starting to appear. A peaceful resolution to the 2020 election could extend that opening even further.

Unsure of in what or in whom we can put our trust, many of us are returning to gatekeepers: the professionals whose training and judgment separate truth from falsehoods and put events in perspective.

Two hopeful developments:

1. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was sharing information (some say Russian disinformation) that he claimed came from Hunter Biden’s laptop implicating the former Vice President in influence peddling. Giuliani went to several major news sources; almost none of them would touch it. The Wall Street Journal (owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox News) looked at the information and, using its gatekeeper function, decided it could not be verified. The Journal declined to publish.

Giuliani wanted a traditional news outlet, not an internet or known-to-be biased source, but he couldn’t find one. Finally, Giuliani had to settle for The New York Post (also owned by Murdoch), which published the story. However, the author refused to have the newspaper use his byline. It was attributed to two reporters who later claimed to know little of the story.

The Journal and others understood their roles as gatekeepers involved more than merely distributing the story. Instead, that role required them to vet the story and then pass on it when it didn’t hold up. Despite Giuliani and Trump’s best efforts, the story has gone nowhere.

2. Getting reliable information during a pandemic is literally a matter of life and death. We need to know what is true irrespective of whose political interest it serves. More than two-thirds of Americans quickly learned the President was not a reliable source about the Coronavirus. Dr. Anthony Fauci filled that vacuum. In the Center’s Coronavirus work, we asked who people trusted in the pandemic. Out of six options, Fauci came in a clear first and Trump a distant sixth.

In conversations with the Center’s international partners, I asked: who was the equivalent of Fauci in Chile, Australia, and France. Their answer: Fauci. Many when asked if they would take a vaccine when available said, “If Trump says take, I won’t. If Fauci says take, I will.” Even many who try to discredit Fauci because he harms Trump’s reputation say they will trust his advice on a vaccine.

As we face the implications of life after the election, we will hear conflicting views of what happened and whether or not we can trust the results. We will turn to gatekeepers and reliable sources of information. A Fox News or an MSNBC will be critical in maintaining order and support for our institutions by whether they fulfill their gatekeeper role or pander to their viewers’ desires to hear what they want to hear regardless of evidence.

It is more than wishful thinking to hope that — after all we have been through — we might slowly be heading in the right direction.


Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.



See all columns from the center.

November 4, 2020