The headline said, “News organizations are largely to blame for it all.”
According to a guest column in The Daily News, “it all” is the coronavirus pandemic that has infected millions and as of today has killed well over 40,000 Americans.
The same message could be heard on Fox News and from Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing commentators. The conservative Washington Times said in an editorial on April 5 that “a partisan media has weaponized the virus as a cudgel against the president.”
In order to believe this, one would have to believe nonsense — that the disease is not as bad as everyone claims and the danger is minimal. The families of those 40,000 dead, and the tens of thousands of dead to come, probably would disagree.
But the point I want to make, is this: Believing the anti-media conspiracy theory requires a total misunderstanding of what the media is and how it functions in 2020. Unfortunately, it’s a common misunderstanding, and it’s dangerous.
If one listens to Limbaugh, the picture he draws is of a very powerful mainstream media controlled by a few elite voices, all of them lefties living in New York and Washington, except for a few clinging to the West Coast.
That has never been an accurate picture of the media in America, and over the past 20 years it has become a radically inaccurate picture.
There are about 1,200 daily newspapers left in America, more of them conservative than liberal.
As the number of newspapers has declined, there are literally millions of new media voices on the internet, liberal and conservative, both responsible and highly irresponsible.
That growing cacophony reminds me of the biblical story of Babel (Genesis, Chapter 11) in which God created language diversity to prevent people from assuming God-like powers. Babel comes from a Hebrew word meaning “confusion.”
People on the right see The New York Times as the ultimate “mainstream medium.” It’s the villain in almost every diatribe against the media.
But, truly, where does real media influence lie these days?
Fox News, staunchly rightwing in its commentary, has been the most-watched cable news outlet for the past 18 years running. Second place isn’t even close, and it isn’t even a news network. It’s ESPN.
The most listened-to voice on American radio is not a liberal elitist. It’s Limbaugh.
And none of that even touches on the biggest change in communications over the past 20 years — social media.
By 2011, according to Pew Research data, 80 percent of Americans were online and 60 percent of them got a large portion of their news from social media. Nineteen percent of the country reported getting their news from Facebook, Google or LinkedIn — nearly 60 million people.
By 2016, Pew reports that 57 percent of Americans got most of their news from TV (broadcast and cable) and 38 percent reported getting most of their news from online sources, especially social media.
Just two in 10 Americans got most of their news from those “liberal” newspapers.
The New York Times has roughly 3.5 million digital and print subscribers these days. That’s the most of any newspaper. Its editorials have, in fact, criticized President Trump’s handling of the pandemic. But does it have the power to create a pandemic that does not exist?
If you are looking for the name of the most powerful media voice in the world today, it is a name you heard yesterday and will surely hear sometime today. That name would be none other than Donald J. Trump.
He has 78 million Twitter followers. He receives more free news coverage than any politician in history. Trump is a media colossus unequalled in human history.
Whatever The New York Times might say is a sigh compared to his hurricane.